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  • Writer's pictureJo Soria

Understanding the Vagus Nerve

As mind-body connection and gut health have gained more interest in health and wellness circles over the years, the spotlight now shines on the vagus nerve and its role in our nervous systems. If you're new to the topic, here's your #TRN crash course on the vagus nerve, what it does, and how to have the best relationship possible with this in-house wellness workhorse.

Understanding the Vagus Nerve; TRN; Woman holding jaw in pain

Parasympathetic Nervous System 101

The vagal nerves are the main powerhouse of the parasympathetic nervous system. So, what does the parasympathetic nervous system do? To understand the importance of the vagal nerves, let's first look at the system in which they operate.

Your "Rest and Digest" System

We've all heard of "fight or flight," the clever catchphrase used to describe the sympathetic nervous system, which is built to respond to stress or danger. But it also has a lesser-known partner, the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores the body to a state of stability or calm.

These two complementary systems—the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems—make up the autonomic nervous system, which controls all of the body's involuntary functions.

And where the sympathetic nervous system represents "fight or flight," the parasympathetic nervous system can be described as the orchestrator of the body's "rest and digest" functions, including:

  • Respiration (breathing)

  • Motor functions (movement)

  • Sensory functions and skin/muscle sensations

  • Immune system function and response

  • Heart rate

  • Blood pressure

  • Mucus and saliva production

  • Mood

  • Taste

  • Speech

  • Digestion and urine production

Basically, all those automatic, involuntary things we do in our resting state? You can thank your parasympathetic nervous system for making it possible. Now, getting back to that vagus nerve…

The Role of the Vagus Nerve

Vagal nerves are the parasympathetic superhighways that carry signals and information back and forth between the brain, internal organs, and other nerves. These cranial nerves—one on the left side of the body and one on the right—travel a long, winding pathway from the base of the brainstem and pass through the neck, chest, heart, lungs, and abdomen.

And all along the route, they're firing off the signals that keep your body functioning without you even having to consciously think about or control it.

Understanding the Vagus Nerve; TRN; Woman sitting on floor stretching

What Happens When the Vagus Nerve Malfunctions?

When the vagus nerve is functioning at its best, it's counteracting the body's stress response and returning it to a state of rest. But if you suffer from depression, anxiety, or extended periods of high stress or cortisol production, the health of the vagus nerve can be compromised.

  • Acid reflux

  • Abdominal pain, bloating, or loss of appetite

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Hoarseness or loss of voice

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Dizziness or fainting (vasovagal syncope)

  • Fluctuations in heart rate, blood pressure, or blood sugar

If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your healthcare provider. They can run various tests to assess for intestinal blockages, heart function, and other conditions related to vagal nerve dysfunction.

How to Protect Your Vagal Nerves

The good news is that once we understand the role and importance of the vagus nerve, there are some straightforward ways to protect and promote proper functioning.

Your best bet for everyday care of the vagus nerves includes:

  • Eating a balanced and nutritious diet centered around whole foods

  • Maintaining a physically active lifestyle centered around consistent, low-impact activities

  • Practicing meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises

  • Managing stress as much as possible and getting enough sleep

  • Working with your healthcare provider to manage other conditions you may have, like diabetes or blood pressure issues

Health Benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) is a medical treatment that harnesses the power of the parasympathetic nervous system to change lives.

Today, VNS is used to tackle various medical conditions, with more research and FDA approvals on the way. Currently, VNS therapy is used to help treat depression and epilepsy, particularly in cases where medication alone isn't effective. It's also FDA-approved to assist with stroke recovery.

VNS therapy uses a device to create electrical impulses that stimulate the vagal nerves. These electrical impulses can then be directed to the areas of the brain that cause seizures or affect mood.

More Treatments on the Horizon

While VNS is most commonly used as surgically implanted devices beneath the skin, a newer crop of non-invasive VNS devices have been approved to help treat migraines and cluster headaches. These new devices still create electrical impulses to block pain signals from the brain but can be held against the skin as needed instead of being implanted.

As medical research continues, we can expect to see new treatments approved for conditions like bipolar disorder, obesity, Alzheimer's, and more.


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