You have trillions of nerves all over your body, but one has the potential to affect both minor and serious health conditions and is so fascinating (in part because you can manipulate it yourself to some extent!) That it is the spotlight earned: the vagus nerve.
Also known as the 10th cranial nerve, the vagus nerve is the longest in the body, originating in the brain. Its name derives from the Latin word for “to wander,” and for good reason: it snakes down your neck from the base of your brain and through your diaphragm, heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Your vagus nerve plays an essential role in wellbeing by controlling your heart rate, reducing inflammation, and helping digestion. In addition, there is growing evidence to suggest that harnessing its power can improve your health.
What can the vagus nerve do?
One of the most well-known functions of the vagus is the parasympathetic nervous system, through which it influences attention and relaxation. For example, if you feel stressed, the vagus nerve may become overstimulated. As a result, your blood pressure and heart rate will drop and you may be drowsy or even passed out.
Your vagus nerve can also have the opposite effect. After a stress response, it can trigger the release of chemicals that help you feel calm and relaxed, and keep your nervous system in balance. Research also shows that people can manipulate the nerve to improve certain health problems. Read on to learn about the health conditions your vagus nerve plays in and how you can activate the vagus nerve to make it work for you.
In 2018, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved a portable vagus nerve stimulator for the prevention of cluster headaches and migraines in adults. Placed over the nerve in the neck, it provides mild electrical stimulation. The device can be used daily, either during a cluster headache phase, or throughout the year, depending on the doctor’s recommendation.
Vagus stimulation has been an option for some people with epilepsy since 1997, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a pacemaker-like device that sends electrical impulses to the nerve to help prevent seizures in people whose epilepsy is not on it addresses other treatments. The highlight of electrical stimulation: It has to be set carefully so that you can walk a fine line between enough and too much.
Treat mental health conditions
Vagus nerve stimulation is also approved by the FDA for the treatment of depression and has also been proven effective in some people with bipolar disorder and anxiety.
Help recover from a stroke
Some research suggests that vagus nerve stimulation, when combined with rehabilitation, can help treat people with moderate to severe arm impairment after a stroke over the long term.
How can you activate the vagus nerve?
Perhaps the easiest way to manipulate your vagus nerve is through regular exercise deep breathing. The trick to activating the body’s relaxation response is to make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. Try my “4-7-8 breath”: breathe in through your nose, count to four, hold your breath, count to seven, and exhale through your mouth until you count to eight. Do eight cycles of this at least twice a day, especially when you’re stressed.
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