Welcome to part 4 of a 4 part blog on the Vagus nerve. This blog answers the question – How do I measure the happiness of my Vagus Nerve?more “Part 4 of 4: Monitoring your vagus nerve”
So what does the science say?Indeed vagus nerve stimulation is a thing. It has several decades of (somewhat successful) use in epilepsy to reduce seizure frequency. Also in 2005 the USA FDA approved vagus nerve stimulation for long-term treatment-resistant depression (Daban, Martinez-Aran et al. 2008). It is also breaking ground for use in reducing arthritis symptoms (Koopman, Chavan et al. 2016). The downside – vagus nerve stimulation involves a minor surgical procedure, somewhat comparable to getting a pacemaker put in. A wristwatch-sized device is implanted in the chest wall. Clearly given surgery is needed (even if ‘minor’) it is not without its downsides and risks. The good news is, some headway seems to be being made with a device that stimulates the vagus nerve without surgery via the ear (Frangos, Ellrich et al. 2015). If you google “vagus nerve stimulation” you will see information from chronic illness bodies and association discussing these procedures. If you google-scholar the same phrase, you will find some of the references below. Change your search ever so slightly (oh the joys of Google*) to “How to stimulate your vagus nerve” and you get a host of anecdotal and folklore information about exercises you can do at home. Here are some of the delights you might find:
- Splash water on your face
- Hold your breath
- Try to poop without pooping (called a Valsalva Maneuver)
- Hold your nose and blow like you are landing in an aeroplane (ditto).
So what does the science say about these stimulation ideas?Not a lot. I did find that maybe there is something in splashing really cold water on yourself. A study by Mäkinen, Mäntysaari et al. (2008) indicates that such cold dunking might move you towards parasympathetic dominance. Remember that is the side of the autonomic nervous system that the vagus nerve is a major part of. I don’t see any indication as to whether this short-term shift is going to have any long-term benefits. Maybe have a bucket of ice water on hand for your next terrifying public speaking engagement it just might calm you down while entertaining your audience. Maybe too there is something in fasting (Mager, Wan et al. 2006) however that probably fits more in the lifestyle section of part 2. There is also research to support the use of the Valsalva movement to stop a racing heart (Lim, Anantharaman et al. 1998). I have first-hand experience here as I have a type of congenital heart arrhythmia and have used the Valsalva to stop it. I have also taught myself the best and latest technigues and asked the researchers personally for more details, there wasn’t much. It is important to note this is a narrow and specific use of the technique, one should always extrapolate with caution. When thinking of very specific findings – there appears to be a potential link between the kind of Valsalva one is forced into when pooping on western toilets and heart attacks (Sikirov 1990). Do go carefully, friends.
What’s the heads up?As to whether these ‘exercises’ you can do at home have longer-term health benefits (even if they might temporarily stimulate your vagus nerve). I’d suggest starting with the tried and trued not rocked science approaches discussed in Part Two. Or ask your grandmother for general health tips, she is likely to say the same things. Or perhaps you want to do some experimenting on your own vagus nerve. Great news – Part 4 will show you how. Meanwhile go thoughtfully in the direction of your dreams. Yours as ever, The WelbeingatworkDr.
Links, References and all that Jazz
- Part One: The Wanderer – A Brief Introduction to the Vagus Nerve (our Hero).
- Part Two: How to improve the health of your Vagus Nerve – based on scientific evidence.
- Part Three: Vagus nerve stimulation; can you really ‘gag’ your way to good health?
- Part Four: Monitoring your own vagus nerve health using the variability in your heart rate.
This is the first of a series of blog posts on the new rock star of the holistic health world – the vagus nerve. It just so happens that the vagus nerve (and work performance) was the topic of my Ph.D. hence I would like to equip you with information you can trust before someone suggests you can cure your cancer by gagging or splashing cold water on your face to stimulate your vagus nerve.
This post will provide a brief overview of the physiology. As this is the foundation blog for more practical (and perhaps more interesting) things to come – I will cover just enough to support you on the journey through the coming blogs.
Future blogs will cover:
Here are all the parts in this series:
- Part Two: How to improve the health of your Vagus
Nerve – based on scientific evidence.
- Part Three: Vagus nerve stimulation; can you really
‘gag’ your way to good health?
- Part Four: Monitoring your own vagus nerve health using
the variability in your heart rate.
Let us Meet the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, is the longest of the cranial nerves. It connects your brain-stem to many of your major bits i.e. heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas, small intestines, gallbladder. It also connects to the muscles in your throat and neck.
The word vagus means ‘wandering’ in Latin: an appropriate name, as the vagus nerve, literally wanders throughout your body. This super nerve relays important messages between your brain and organs and influences everything from your blood pressure, digestion and heart rate to aspects of your speech, head movement and breathing. No wonder it’s a bit of a rock star.
WARNING ACRONYMS UP AHEAD
The vagus nerve is the major part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The PNS makes up one part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the other side being the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The ANS manages your subconscious bodily functions (those you don’t need to think about).
You might think of the ANS as a brake and an accelerator … with the SNS speeding you up, increasing blood pressure, raising heart rate, slowing digestion and the PNS slowing you down by doing the opposite. Hence them being talked abut in terms of ‘fight and flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ (or feed and breed) respectively.
Just as with a car, the accelerator and brake need to be well balanced, used appropriately for optimal driving – not to mention survival! As the driver changes from fast to slow to meet the road conditions so should your body to respond to the ever-changing demands of your day to day life.
Modern Stresses and the Vagus Nerve
In our modern stressful lives the ‘fight and flight’ has become the bad guy. However accelerators in cars are not bad, are they? They are just bad when the driver forgets about or can’t use the brake. The problem is not that we have a ‘fight and flight’ it is that it gets stuck on for too long with detrimental (and potentially fatal) effects to our health and wellbeing.
Where the SNS has become the accidental villain, the opposite is true for the vagus nerve which has become the hero, the saviour, for those of us stressed out, run down and sick. But as we see, even in this quick overview, none of these guys act alone. None of them are all good or all bad.
Perhaps the vagus nerve has become so fashionable (first in research and now on the web) because it is pretty neat and huge and crucial to your health and wellbeing, but so is our heart ….right?
The Heart of the Matter
Interestingly the vagus nerve has a fascinating and complex relationship with our heart. A well balanced ANS (one with what is called good ‘vagal tone’) with the ‘fight and flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ playing nicely together – should result in our heart rate increasing ever-so-slightly as we breathe in and slowing ever-so-slightly as we breathe out.
Good heart rate variability (or vagal tone) has been linked to a host of mental and physical benefits. There will be more on heart rate variability in upcoming posts. For now, I want to talk a little about the vagus nerves impact on our social and emotional lives.
Social Support Matters
It is argued the reach of the vagus nerve up into our throat and face has profound effects on our relationships and sense of social connection. Even freakier; it may influence micro or subconscious expressions, within our face and voice. These send powerful messages to others; if the PNS (supported by the vagus nerve) is dominant (when it should be) you are more likely to send positive messages to others.
If the vagus is not working well and you are stuck unnecessarily in the freeze or fight and flight, you may miss such opportunities. I mention freeze as it is another of those stress responses that hark back to being chased by a sabre tooth tiger …. “maybe he won’t see me if I stand very still… please God”.
So those lucky enough (or motivated enough through hard work and lifestyle) to have stronger activity in their vagus nerve are going to have more ‘in tune’ type experiences with others. This is supported in research showing young people with high vagal tone are more valued as friends (Young, 2013). Conversely Pittig, Arch, Lam, and Craske (2013) showed a diminished vagal response in those with social anxiety.
Tune in, to following epispodes for an overview of vagal nerve stimulation, measuring at home and more.
Meanwhile go well in the direction of your dreams.
Yours, as ever,
Grossmann, I., Sahdra, B. K., & Ciarrochi, J. (2016). A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability, and Wise Reasoning. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10.
Heathers, J. A., Brown, N. J., Coyne, J. C., & Friedman, H. L. (2015). The Elusory Upward Spiral A Reanalysis of Kok et al.(2013). Psychological Science, 0956797615572908.
Pittig, A., Arch, J. J., Lam, C. W., & Craske, M. G. (2013). Heart rate and heart rate variability in panic, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and generalized anxiety disorders at baseline and in response to relaxation and hyperventilation. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 87(1), 19-27.
Young, E. (2013). Wishful Thinking. New Scientist, 13 July.
Cover photo source: www.pexels.com/photo/love-heart-romantic-romance-37410/
This blog originally appeared on the University of Western Australia’s Business School Blog and is a laypersons overview of what my PhD was about.