Its name means “wandering,” but it is far from aimless. It travels from the brain down each side of the neck, through the chest and deep into the gut. It helps regulate an astounding number of the body’s essential functions—including breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and digestion.
It’s the vagus nerve, and it’s turning out to be a key to wellness—and to fighting disease. Yogis call it the “Buddha Nerve” because the core benefits of meditation—calm and a sense of balance—stem from activating it. But it’s also now the object of cutting-edge medicine.
To understand the “vagus revolution,” Bottom Line Personal reached out to James Giordano, PhD, a world-renowned neuroscientist at Georgetown University.
Why the Vagus Nerve Matters
The vagus nerve plays a key role in stimulating your body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This is the body’s “rest-and-digest” response—a counterbalance to the “fight-or-flight” mechanisms of the sympathetic nervous system. An activated parasympathetic system means that we’re calmer, have lower blood pressure, digest food better and produce less inflammation.
We need both systems, but good health depends on how well we balance them. That’s known as “vagal tone.” If you have high vagal tone, after a stressful moment you relax quickly. In that state, your body is better at regulating blood glucose levels and cholesterol so that, over time, you’re at less risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. You’re also less anxious and better able to manage your emotions. Conversely, low vagal tone is associated with increased risk for depression, gastrointestinal disorders and heart disease.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is fast becoming a new form of medical treatment. According to Dr. Giordano, it can be done in two ways—invasively, in which a device that is surgically implanted in the chest (with electrodes in the neck) sends very mild electrical pulses at regular intervals to the vagus nerve—or noninvasively, through the use of a handheld device that a patient applies to the neck. Exciting research finding…
Epilepsy. VNS originally was developed to treat epilepsy patients who did not respond well to seizure medication. It gets more effective the longer it’s used—in one study conducted at New York University Langone Medical Center, the frequency of seizures decreased by 36% in six months, 58% in four years and 75.5% in 10 years.
Parkinson’s disease. VNS allows some patients to get longer-lasting effects with lower doses of drugs. This is important because drugs used to treat Parkinson’s tend to become less effective as the disease progresses, and increasing the doses can have debilitating side effects.
Migraines: These headaches often begin in the back of the head where there’s a branch of the vagus nerve. Several recent studies have found that by using a handheld stimulator over the nerve in the neck when symptoms begin, sufferers can decrease pain—and, in some cases, nip a migraine in the bud. In early 2018 the Food and Drug Administration cleared one such device, gammaCore, for home treatment of migraines. It’s not cheap—$600 a month ($500 with an automatic discount) and may not be covered by insurance, although the company is working to expand coverage. It requires a prescription.
Depression: A landmark study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry followed 795 treatment-resistant depression patients for five years. Nearly half (43%) of those who used medication and therapy plus an implanted VNS device experienced remission of their depression—compared with only 26% of those who had only medication/therapy.
Anxiety, stroke and cognitive health: VNS also is proving to be helpful in reducing anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some stroke patients benefit from VNS, as do some head injury patients, and early research suggests that improving vagal tone (see below to learn how) may help people with cognitive issues improve alertness, focus, decision making, and memory.