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When Something "Getting On Your Nerves" Becomes Helpful

Updated: Nov 10, 2022

In an effort to lead more productive, healthier, longer and peaceful lives, we are willing to do anything to deal with our daily stressors whether they be our chronic health issues, wavering relationships, struggle to keep up with the economy, lack of purpose or emotional unrest, etc.

Stressed and Overwhemed
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

As someone who’s very interested in learning about alternative and innovative therapeutic approaches, I was very excited to come across new research pertaining to a particular physiological function that can potentially mitigate a number of ailments including depression and anxiety among other things like PTSD, epilepsy, arthritis, asthma, migraines, fibromyalgia, IBS, and the list goes on. A nerve called the Vagus Nerve and is apparently the best kept secret in the medical world today.

So, what is this special nerve that’s apparently also called the X cranial nerve all about? The name "vagus" comes from the Latin term for "wandering” because this nerve wanders from the brain into the organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen. It stretches from the base of the brain down to the gut, communicating information between the brain and the gut. But it also sends information from the gut to the brain, which is linked to dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear - hence the saying, "gut feeling." This is in response to our biological need to know when to run, flee or battle in dangerous situations. Of course a wild animal or attack from foreign enemies thousands, or even just hundreds of years ago is quite different from that of a terrible driver on the road, a nasty relationship or the threat of job loss today. Unconscious of the actual physiological differences, the body reacts to the stresses in the same way. One real difference is that we weren’t fleeing and fighting daily back then, but we are now. Everyday we face traffic or the underlying worry of losing our livelihood or relationship keeping us in a constant state of stress response. This stress builds up, and just like a pressure cooker, without proper and healthy ways of relief, can cause cracks and breaking points in our health.

The Human Body as a Signal Receiver

Unmanaged and chronic stress is primarily linked to poor health. When stressors are so linked into our daily lives, it’s impossible to simply avoid triggers. If we did in fact just attempt to flee or avoid triggers all together, that could lead to an entirely different version of stress related to agoraphobia, stagnation, poverty and isolation.

The term “stress management” is used most often when approaching various forms of alternative and preventative healthcare options. Managing stress however still indicates a level of concurrent reactionary stressors that are merely being responded to instead of approaching the basic stress function itself, deterring an emotional upcharge. Is it even possible to lessen the impact that stress has on our lives and health? That is the million dollar, ahem i mean trillion dollar question. In an effort to lead more productive, healthier, longer and peaceful lives, we are willing to do anything to deal with our daily stressors whether they be our chronic health issues, wavering relationships, struggle to keep up with the economy, lack of purpose or emotional unrest, etc.

The nervous system plays a huge role in stress and stress response. Ever hear the phrase “That gets on my nerves” or “they get on my nerves”? Yes, words have a profound impact on our well being, but for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the actual nerves in this phrase. Why the nerves? Well, the spine, which acts as the central control for the nervous system, is known to act as an antenna for electromagnetic wave frequencies (EMFs). This means it receives information via the air, yes, waves from the air. The same waves in the air that gives your phone a signal or that sends sound to you through the speakers in your car. The topic of heavy EMF exposures in today’s world which includes everything from microwaves, bluetooth, 5G, etc is currently being studied for its hard effects on the body. As we can gather, the nervous system plays a huge role in this. Our nervous system is primarily responsible for receiving information, and then distributes that information to the rest of the body which takes it from there. This information begins with the brain, moves down to the heart, then to the gut, and back up again. This information superhighway is the mother of all nerves called the Vagus Nerve.

"This information superhighway is the mother of all nerves called the Vagus Nerve."
Information Superhighway X Nerve

What is it and how does it work? The Technical Stuff

The brain control function begins in the head, but the lesser known secondary nervous system control is actually in the heart, as well as a third brain in the stomach or gut called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS consists of a network of some 100 million neurons that run from the stomach to anus. That’s more neurons than located in the spinal cord or peripheral nervous system alone. The ENS can then function independently without input from the central nervous system and will transmit information back to it. This Gut-Brain Axis includes the brain, the spinal cord, the autonomic nervous system; which includes the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and ENS, and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. The vagus nerve sends the signals “down” from brain to gut through efferent fibers and then vagal afferents travel back up from the intestinal wall to the brain. This vagal pathway is what has been most recently studied and identified as playing a large role in the association of the mediating effects on behavior and mental health. Gut microorganisms can actually activate the vagus nerve, playing a critical role in moderating the brain and behavior patterns. The vagus nerve also appears to differentiate between non-pathogenic and potentially pathogenic bacteria, even in the absence of overt inflammation. The vagal pathways actually navigate signals that can induce both anxiogenic (substances that can cause anxiety) and anxiolytic (substances that can inhibit anxiety) effects depending on the stimulus. (see diagram below)

The vagus nerve functions contribute to the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system consists of the parasympathetic and sympathetic parts. The sympathetic side increases alertness, energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate. The parasympathetic side, which the vagus nerve is heavily involved with, decreases alertness, blood pressure, heart rate, and helps with calmness, relaxation, and digestion. It’s basically the fight or flight vs. rest & digest phenomenon. This fundamental drive that humans have to navigate and further understand our responses to life’s circumstances and factors that impact our survival is one of the driving forces behind the innovative therapy mode of Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Since research has identified our nervous system is so responsive to electricity, why not use electricity to begin to heal it? Interesting concept.

Stimulating the Nerve Can be the Ticket to Longevity

In 1921, a German Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, coined a dreamer Otto Loewi, discovered that electrically stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff, or what we know today as acetylcholine, that became the first neurotransmitter ever identified by scientists. World War II cut Loewi's distinguished career in the sciences short. In 1938, the Germans invaded Austria, and Loewi and his two sons were arrested losing all of his work. He later immigrated and became a naturalized US citizen in 1946, but the Vagus Nerve Stimulation treatments did not resurface until much later in the 1990s, when Cyberonics, of Houston, developed an implanted stimulator to treat particularly tough cases of epilepsy. Some of the trials included implanting a pocket-watch-sized pulse generator in a patient’s chest, wired to a pair of electrodes encircling the vagus nerve in the neck. ElectroCore was one of the first to come out with a handheld device you simply press against your neck. Germany-based Cerbomed has developed a less invasive stimulator that hangs on a part of the ear where a minor branch of the vagus nerve lies close to the skin.

A Vagus Nerve Stimulator used to treat Epilepsy
A Vagus Nerve Stimulator used to treat Epilepsy - alamy photos

These new devices and treatments have come into competition with pharmaceuticals treating a laundry list of inflammatory ailments such as fibromyalgia, mental illness, anxiety, depression, PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, migraines, IBS, Crohn’s Disease, heart disease and most recently late stage cancer. British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has been the most public with its support, coining these treatments as “electroceuticals”, which is actually called bioelectronics; aka: shock therapy. In 2013 GSK created US $50 million venture capital arm, Action Potential Venture Capital, to fund electroceutical startups. It’s first pick was the vagus nerve implant company SetPoint Medical. The growing Vagus Nerve Stimulator Market is expected to surpass $800 Million by 2026.

How well and effective it actually communicates the correct information is dependent on the body’s vagal tone. Just like a muscle, this nerve is either strong and active or weak and dormant depending on its use and strength.

So, how does Vagal Nerve function, and why are we stimulating it anyway? This nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves. Scientifically speaking it has the most extensive distribution of the cranial nerves. It transmits motor impulses to the pharynx and larynx; its cardiac branches act to slow the rate of heartbeat; its bronchial branch acts to constrict the bronchi; and its esophageal branches control involuntary muscles in the esophagus, stomach, gallbladder, pancreas, and small intestine, stimulating peristalsis and gastrointestinal secretions. A recent study demonstrated vagal nerve modulation of inflammation may be the critical link between vagal activity and possible slowing down of carcinogenesis: cancer! When inflammation is triggered in the body, the presence of cytokines or a substance called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) activate. A higher vagal tone will alert the brain and draw out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that will regulate the body’s immune response. Studies demonstrated that when the vagus nerve gets a signal that your body is developing inflammation, it alerts the brain and activates anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that regulate the body’s immune response. How well and effective it actually communicates the correct information is dependent on the body’s vagal tone. Just like a muscle, this nerve is either strong and active or weak and dormant depending on its use and strength.

So what is the actual indicator of vagal tone? Scientists are still trying to identify the best way to measure Vagal Tone (the Vagus Nerve function). Currently, the most utilized method is the measurement of Heart Rate Variability HRV: the amount that the heart rate fluctuates between a breath in (when it naturally speeds up) and a breath out (when it naturally slows down). Heart rate naturally rises on the inhale and falls on the exhale, and the average difference between those two rates essentially measures vagal tone. Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. The lower the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), the higher the vagal tone, the more likely a person is to “stay calm and carry on” experiencing overall physical and psychological well-being. Conversely, a low vagal tone index is associated with inflammation, depression, negative moods, loneliness, heart attacks, and stroke. This method is currently being used to measure more abstract and challenging quantitative results of treatments for depression as well as a plethora of autoimmune and mental disorders that utilize Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) treatments.

Since these treatments are fairly new and a bit controversial, it can may be challenging to find a reputable facility to administer the procedure. Many medical doctors, more specifically neurologists are qualified to provide VNS Therapy implants and as of 2017, the FDA has approved implant devices like Sentiva for treatment of drug resistant epilepsy, depression, migraines, and the list is growing. But this fairly new and invasive therapy can cost around $20,000. Another option is to use a non-invasive device that can either be applied to the ear or neck like GammaCore. Although this method may be cheaper at around $600/month, some insurances actually agree to cover some of the cost. Of course there are other devices out there claiming to do the same thing that can be purchased on Amazon, such as this one, and many others when searching the term “vagus nerve stimulator device”. Of course you are taking a bit of a chance on these devices as some of the one star reviews mention issues like potential fire hazards or mild electrocution. Since this form of therapy is very new to the market, long term side effects have not yet been studied. The concern is that unmonitored nerve stimulation can actually have an adverse effect, so it’s advised that anyone who sets out to try this form of therapy should most likely be under the care of a professional.

A more natural approach to stimulating the nerve
A more natural approach to stimulating the nerve - Photo by Thiébaud Faix on Unsplash

Training the Nervous System to stay put instead of go into Fight or Flight

A recent study demonstrated physical and mental benefits of “contemplative activities” through changes in autonomic balance. They studied the vagal nerve, as a proponent of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and concluded it is the prime candidate in explaining the effects of contemplative practices on health, mental health and cognition.

In this study, both direct and indirect breathing exercises were both shown to naturally stimulate the Vagus Nerve. Direct breath is more relaxed, longer, slower, deeper, with extended exhalation, and diaphragmatic in nature, like that used in meditation or yoga. Indirect breath is more concentrated, usually triggered response from biofeedback, calming, and more involving thoracic and abdominal expansion. Indirect breath can be the breath in response to a cold shower, cryotherapy, or a similar form of trigger. Significant results of improved physical health, cognitive performance and even enhanced creativity through meditation was shown to occur when compared to a control group that did not engage in these activities. What that highlights is maybe your very calm yoga teacher had a good point when mentioning the importance of "focusing on your breath".

If you’re one of the millions out there who have decided to try your hand at any number of modern stress management or alternative fitness modalities like yoga, meditation, tai chi, etc., chances are you understand the numerous health benefits of such practices of focusing primarily on two things: the spine and the breath. This trains the body to transmute the stress or strain of contorting the body in a challenging pose or position for a prolonged period of time and to breath through it. This is where the signature is changed in the stress response from the old story of fight or flight to self soothing and tension release. Just as in physical training of any sort, repetition and consistency are key to the effectiveness of Natural VNS Response. Overtime the automatic response of the nervous system becomes much more calmly able to handle the constant stressors that modern life conveys. The time we may think we don't have to attribute to these activities could alternately be thought of as the time we invest to prolong our health and vitality.

*** This by no means is a holistic perspective on Natural VNS Therapy. This is only one perspective out of many other very successful ways of stimulating the Vagus Nerve and the nervous system as a whole including acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, etc. The research is out there to validate them, so we can now start seeing these healing modalities as effective and sustaining to our overall health, well being and vitality when used as preventative measures.


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