Have you worked out your vagus nerve lately?
If you’re feeling anxious, keyed up, or dealing with GI issues, these are all signs you may benefit from the practice.
Brooke Butler joined me for an amazing discussion on the GrassRoots podcast this week about polyvagal theory and how this important nerve affects your mental wellbeing. Today we’re taking a broader look at how the vagus nerve affects your health and sharing the best strategies to improve vagal nerve function.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in your body. It extends from your brain stem all the way into your abdomen and attaches to your heart, lungs, vocal cords, stomach, and other organs along the way.
You can think of it as a highway carrying information about the state of your body back to your brain and then regulating functions like digestion and heart rate based on that information.
It specializes in calming your body down and digesting food to store energy as part of its role in the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” component of your nervous system and its counterpart is the sympathetic nervous system, which activates “fight or flight” mode.
How Poor Vagal Nerve Function Impacts Your Health
When your vagus nerve becomes weakened or dysregulated, you have a hard time tapping into your “rest and digest” mode.
This can leave you feeling anxious or agitated. Research published in 2013 revealed that individuals with lower vagal nerve tone experienced fewer positive emotions, while the reverse was true for people with higher vagal nerve tone.
However, it’s not just your mental state that is impacted. Because your vagus nerve helps regulate blood sugar, hunger, kidney function, digestion, hormone balance, and fertility, there can be many downstream impacts as well.
Signs & symptoms of poor vagal nerve function include:
- Autoimmune disease
- Brain fog
- Chronic inflammation
- Constipation and delayed stomach emptying
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dizziness or fainting
- Headaches and migraines
- Heart rate changes (low or high)
- Weight gain
Vagal Nerve Dysfunction and Long Haul Covid
New research suggests that some long-haul Covid symptoms may be attributed to damage to the vagus nerve caused by Covid-19 infections.
A study found that 66% of patients with long Covid had symptoms that suggested vagus nerve dysfunction. This included dizziness, difficulty swallowing and talking, elevated heart rates, and low blood pressure. Many also had signs of vagal nerve damage, including thickening and inflammation of the nerve.
What Causes Poor Vagal Nerve Tone?
Low vagal tone can be caused by chronic stress and unresolved trauma. As Brooke Butler explained in this week’s podcast episode, the unresolved trauma isn’t always a major event. Your brain processes any situation that exceeds your ability to cope as trauma. Events from your childhood that you would be able to handle without issue now may have been perceived as trauma at the time and impacted your vagus nerve and other aspects of your health.
As shown in its link to long-haul Covid, your vagus nerve function can also be damaged by infections, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Exposure to toxins and mold can also lead to vagal nerve dysfunction.
Strategies to Improve Vagal Nerve Tone
When it comes to improving vagus nerve function, it’s helpful to think of it as a muscle that you’re working out. You can strengthen and improve its function by stimulating it, but it needs to be done repeatedly over time (not one gym session every 3 weeks).
Here are a few of the strategies we use with our patients.
gammaCore Non-Invasive Stimulator
I recently attended a conference where I learned about this device and the research behind it and I was honestly really impressed! It activates the vagus nerve with gentle electrical stimulation through the skin.
Unlike other devices that are surgically implanted into your chest, this is a non-invasive stimulator that is handheld and portable for convenient treatments as often as needed.
It is FDA cleared for cluster headaches and migraines but is being studied and utilized around the world for PTSD, addiction, brain injuries, constipation, and so much more.
Previously, we relied only on the lifestyle strategies below when working with patients, but it was difficult to know the impact they had. I love that this device provides direct, targeted stimulation that is shown to have therapeutic effects. If you are interested in trying gammaCore, contact us for rental information.
These practices can be implemented daily or a few times a week to support vagal nerve tone and your overall health.
- Eating a nutrient-rich diet (emphasize vitamins, healthy fats, and fiber)
- Using a tongue depressor to stimulate your gag reflex
- Cold showers or even splashing cold water on your face
- Coffee enemas
If you think about the influence the vagus nerve has on your body, improving vagal nerve tone has enormous potential to improve your mental and physical health.
About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.