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Can Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Actually Transform Your Health?

Vagus nerve.

Verywell / Lara Antal

Key Takeaways

  • The vagus nerve is important in managing heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
  • Damage to the vagus nerve can lead to a wide range of health conditions, including fainting and digestive issues.
  • Electrical impulses and other natural methods (like breathing and meditating) can help stimulate the vagus nerve.

Lately, thousands of people on social media have been claiming one nerve in your body, called the vagus nerve, is connected to a slew of health conditions like anxiety, depression, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders. The hashtag #vagusnerve has been viewed more than 47 million times on TikTok alone.

If you search “vagus nerve” on Instagram and Google, you’ll find even more people asserting how you can live a better life by “releasing or resetting” this part of your body. 

What Is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve—also known as the “wandering nerve”—carries signals between your brain, heart, lungs, and digestive system. The nerve plays a role in several body functions that control heart rate, speech, sweating, digestion, and the gag reflex.

New studies also suggest that some long COVID-19 symptoms, including persistent voice problems, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, low blood pressure, and high heart rates may be linked to the effect of the virus on the vagus nerve. 

But how true are these social media claims? Is this one nerve truly linked to all these health conditions? Here’s what you need to know.

Why Is the Vagus Nerve Important? 

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. It originates in the brain stem and runs down both sides of the neck into the chest and abdomen. The nerve carries both motor and sensory information and supplies reinforcement to the heart, major blood vessels, lungs, stomach, esophagus, and intestines.

The vagus nerve plays an important role in:

  • Digestion
  • Breathing
  • Mood
  • Immune system response
  • Speech
  • Taste
  • Mucus and saliva production
  • Urine output

However, the greatest significance of the vagus nerve is that it is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s rest and digestion functions.

“The vagus nerve is the biggest component of our parasympathetic nervous system, which balances our fright, flight, and fight responses,” Melanie Weller, MPT, a physical therapist, told Verywell in an email. “The 73% of people with a fear of public speaking are very familiar with what happens when their vagus nerve gets dialed down: The lump in the throat, sweaty palms, racing heart, shallow breathing, and churning stomach are all the result of reduced vagus nerve function.”

Conditions Associated With the Vagus Nerve 

Since the vagus nerve is so long, any damage to it can affect many areas. Possible symptoms of damage to the nerve can include:

  • Loss or change of voice
  • Loss of the gag reflex
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • Slow heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain 

Weller says symptoms and specific conditions can depend on what part of the nerve is damaged; however, the vagus nerve is linked to a wide range of conditions.

“The vagus nerve is also linked to seizures, heart arrhythmias, vocal cord health, anxiety, depression and more,” Weller said. “Neurosurgeons will sometimes implant a vagus nerve stimulator for treating epileptic seizures. This is also done for some chronic pain conditions and depression.”

Gastroparesis 

Damage to the vagus nerve may cause a condition called gastroparesis. This occurs when the stomach cannot empty itself of food in a normal fashion. In cases of gastroparesis, the vagus nerve is damaged by diabetes, which prevents the muscles of the stomach and intestine from working properly. Symptoms can include heartburn, vomiting, nausea and feeling full when eating.

Vasovagal Syncope 

The vagus nerve stimulates certain muscles in the heart to help slow heart rate, but when it overreacts, it can cause a drop in heart rate and blood pressure, leading to fainting or passing out. Vasovagal syncope occurs when a nerve to your heart overreacts to certain situations like anxiety, hunger, pain, stress, and extreme heat.

But Are the Social Media Claims True?

According to Weller, evidence is growing that the vagus nerve is linked to other health conditions such as depression and heart disease as claimed by people on social media. She adds heart diseases, strokes, and other gastrointestinal conditions are rooted in inflammation and the vagus nerve is well understood to reduce inflammation. Still, more research is needed.

Charles Conway, MD, a psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Verywell in an email what people are claiming online is in line with depression treatment. He said there are now five relatively large trials of vagus nerve stimulation that have all demonstrated a subset of patients with treatment-resistant depression respond to sustained vagus nerve stimulation.

“Some of the studies suggest that sustained vagus nerve stimulation also results in reductions in anxiety,” Conway said. “As it turns out, the afferent (toward the brain) projections of the vagus do synapse in multiple regions of the brain known to be critical in mood regulation.”

Connection to COVID-19 

Recent research shows that long COVID symptoms are reflective of poor vagus nerve function. Long COVID can affect up to 15% of those who survive their infections and some may experience fatigue, muscle pain, and cognitive problems months or even years later.

Researchers recently performed a study to look at vagus nerve functioning in long COVID patients. They found most long COVID subjects with vagus nerve dysfunction symptoms had a range of significantly, clinically relevant, structural and/or functional alterations in their vagus nerve, including nerve thickening, trouble swallowing, and symptoms of impaired breathing.

What This Means For You

Being physically active, eating a healthy diet, and managing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure can help protect your vagus nerve. If you experience abdominal pain, acid reflux, fainting, and other symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider.

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve 

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) uses electrical impulses to stimulate the left vagus nerve. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat some forms of epilepsy, as well as depression.

For VNS treatment, healthcare providers implant a small device in the chest, under the skin. The device can send mild, painless electrical signals through the left vagus nerve to the brain. These impulses can calm down irregular electrical activity in the brain.

Conway said electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has been effective in reducing seizures in refractory epilepsy, as well as reducing depressive symptoms in patients with refractory depressive disorders. He adds stimulation of the vagus nerve may be helpful in obesity and chronic inflammatory diseases, too.

Weller says other ways you can stimulate the vagus nerve include:

  • Cold immersion/exposure (cold showers, go outside in cold temperatures with minimal clothing)
  • Humming and singing 
  • Meditation/mindfulness 
  • Deep and slow breathing
  • Exercise
  • Foot massage (gentle or firm touch can assign in the stimulation of the nerve) 

“Breathing exercises can help too if breathing is done correctly, and this is the big problem as many people do not have breathing mechanics that support healthy vagus nerve function,” Weller said. “More often, people are breathing in a way that supports a chronic state of fight and flight.”

Ongoing studies are examining the link between the vagus nerve and depression, metabolic disease, and heart disease. If proven with more evidence, experts say VNS can help treat and address a variety of health issues and conditions in the future. 

“Clearly, the vagus plays a critical role in the mind-body connection and we likely are only scratching the surface of how critical this nerve is with regards to emotional well-being and other health conditions,” Conway said.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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