Introduction to The Vagus Nerve
In people with fatigue, food sensitivities, anxiety and gut problems, brain fog and depersonalization, the vagus nerve is almost always at play. These people have lower vagal tone, which means a lower ability of the vagus nerve to activate.
The only question is what aspect of the vagus nerve is malfunctioning and how much the vagus nerve is a problem vs. other aspects of your biology.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, referred to as the rest and digest system. It’s not the only nerve in the parasympathetic system, but it’s by far the most important one in that it has the most far reaching effects.
The word vagus means “wanderer,” because it wanders all over the body to various important organs.
The vagus nerve connects to the brain, gut (intestines, stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (females), neck (including pharynx, larynx, esophagus), ears and tongue.
In the brain, it helps control anxiety and depression.
In the gut, it helps control stomach acidity, digestive juices and gut flow. Since the vagus nerve is very important for increasing gut flow/motility, having less vagus activation will increase your IBS-C risk, which is a result of a slower flow (R).
Stimulating the vagus nerve increases the release of histamine in stomach cells, which helps with the release in stomach acid (R). So low stomach acidity is usually, in part, a vagus nerve problem. By releasing intrinsic factor, the vagus nerve is important help you absorb B12 (R).
In the heart, it controls heart rate variability, heart rate and blood pressure. Vagus activation will lower the risk for heart disease and other major killers (R).
In the liver and pancreas, it helps controls glucose balance (R).
In the gallbladder, it helps release bile, which can help you get rid of toxins and break down fat.
In the kidney, the vagus nerve promotes general kidney function. It helps with glucose control and increases blood flow (R), which helps filtrate your blood better. Vagus activation also releases dopamine in the kidneys, which helps excrete sodium (R) – and thereby lower blood pressure.
The vagus nerve goes to the bladder. (R) A side effect of vagus nerve stimulation is urinary retention (R), which may mean that less vagus stimulation can cause you to urinate frequently. Indeed, I see frequent urination among many of my clients (also due to low vasopressin, aldosterone and high cortisol).
In the spleen, it can reduce inflammation (R). But vagus activation will reduce inflammation in all target organs (by releasing acetylcholine) (R).
It helps control fertility and orgasms in women by connecting to the cervix, uterus and vagina. Women can actually experience orgasms simply from the vagus nerve (R).
In the tongue it controls taste and saliva and in the eyes it controls the tear producing glands (R).
A friend asked me what connection between having to go to the bathroom and congestion. It’s the vagus nerve because it controls mucous production and also your colon flow.
Satiety and relaxation following a meal is in part caused by an activation of vagus nerve transmission to the brain in response to food intake (R).
The vagus nerve explains why a person may cough when tickled on the ear, such as when trying to remove ear wax with a cotton swab (R).
Vagus nerve stimulation helps people with tinnitus because of its connection to the ear.
It matters in conditions like GERD not only because it controls stomach acidity, but also because it it controls the esophagus.
The vagus nerve is largely responsible for the mind-body connection, since the vagus nerve goes to all your major organs (except your adrenals and thyroid).
It’s intimately tied to how we connect with one another — it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding (R).
Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior (R).
Vagal activity has also been notably elevated during mother-infant interactions. Infants had lower vagus activity with mothers who were depressed/angry/anxious during pregnancy (R).
These studies emphasize the impact in being a good, positive and happy person. So many studies show that optimistic and happy people are much healthier. Your health and the health of your kids will pay a big price if you’re an anal curmudgeon. Also, don’t surround yourself with moody and high strung people.
“Type A” personalities (of which I’m one) need to learn how to chill the fuck out. There’s no where to go and nothing to accomplish, when it comes down it. Your happiness is the only goal and we are the only ones putting extra stress on ourselves, creating inner and interpersonal conflicts when they aren’t needed. If you’re too focused on money and “accomplishing” and less on being a good and loving person, you will pay for it.
The Vagus Nerve and Hormones
Vagus Nerve Stimulation normalizes an elevated HPA axis (CRH, ACTH and Cortisol) (R).
The vagus nerve is important for releasing testosterone. If it’s not working well, it could be a reason for low testosterone (R).
Testosterone can make people more aggressive, but this is not the case when the vagus nerve is functioning right (R).
Estradiol can reduce pain in some circumstances and this is mediated by the vagus nerve (R).
Insulin activates the vagus nerve in some ways through a domino of steps and leads to decreased glucose production by the liver (activates K-ATP channels in the arcuate nucleus, decreases AgRP release, and through the vagus nerve decreases enzymes that increase blood glucose -G6P, PEPCK) (R).
In rats, the thyroid hormones (T3) increase appetite through activating the vagus nerve, which also increases ghrelin (R).
Ghrelin increases growth hormone and hunger by stimulating the vagus nerve signal from the brain to the gut, and this is abolished by capsaicin (in chili) (R).
Proper functioning of the vagus nerve is important for production of GHRH (growth hormone releasing-hormone), and IGF-1 (R).
The vagus nerve can stimulate other hormones such as your Parathyroid hormone (R), which is important for conversion of vitamin D3 to active D (1,25).
Stimulating the vagus nerve causes it to release vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) (R), which is often low in people with mold conditions.
NPY, an anti-anxiety and hunger increasing hormone, prevents the decrease in heart rate from vagal stimulation (R), so it’s antagonistic to its effects.
The Vagus Nerve and the Circadian Rhythm
Signals from the circadian control center (SCN) are often transmitted by the vagus nerve.
For example, mucin production by your gut and lungs has a rhythm that’s controlled from your SCN (R).
The point is if your circadian rhythm is broken, your vagus nerve will be broken to some degree.
Conditions Which Vagal Nerve Activation Can Help
Because the vagus nerve is associated with many different functions and brain regions, research shows positive effects of vagal stimulation for a variety of conditions, including but not limited to (R):
Various Anxiety Disorders,
Memory and Mood disorders,
Severe mental diseases,
Chronic heart failure
Acetylcholine is the principle vagal neurotransmitter. This means that it will have many of the same effects as vagal stimulation because this is how the vagus nerve stimulates various organs.
Acetylcholine significantly lessens the release of cytokines such as TNF, IL-1beta, IL-6 and IL-18 in LPS-stimulated human immune cultures (R).
Alpha GPC is the best way to increase acetylcholine. However, I don’t know if it will get to where it needs to go and in the proper dosage, so I doubt it’s as good as vagus stimulation.
Some Basics on How the Vagus Nerve Works (Technical)
Take a deep breath (or skip)….
You can stimulate or inhibit the vagus nerve in two ways. First, the vagus nerve impulse (activation) can flow from the brain to the rest of the body or from the body to the brain.
When it flows from the brain it’s called a “vagal efferent.” When it flows from a place like the gut or some other part of the body, it’s called a “vagal afferent.” I don’t use these terms for simplicity.
When the signal goes to the brain, it goes to a place called the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS). Information from various places converges at the NTS and are assimilated. So in computer terms, the NTS is the processor when it comes to the vagus nerve. Information comes in form of neurotransmitters, peptides and hormonal signals to shape the resulting output response (R).
From the NTS, there are nerve fibers that connect to another area called the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (DMV). Hormones or neurotransmitters can activate the vagus nerve from the DMV. For example, GABA in the DMV slows gut flow, but interestingly, other neurotransmitters don’t have an effect by themselves (they need other inputs) (R).
From the DMV, the electrical or nerve signal gets transmitted to a place like the gut, via the vagus nerve (R).
This happens via vagal “pre-ganglionic” parasympathetic neurons. These pre-ganglionic neurons connect to other “post-ganglionic” neurons and these use acetylcholine to stimulate organs that they connect to, like the gut. These neurons can also inhibit gut function by releasing nitric oxide (NO) or vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) (R).
When you stimulate pre-ganglionic neurons in the DMV (animals), it excites the neurons that connect to the gut and increases gut flow (R).
So your vagus nerve system can be messed up in 3 main ways: Communication to the brain (from an organ…via glutamate), communication within the brain (such as from the NTS or to the DMV) or communication from the brain to other areas in the body like the heart, liver, gut, etc…(R).
Given the importance of the vagus nerve in the gut (and other organs), when it’s not working right, it will cause digestive disorders including dyspepsia, gastroparesis, esophageal reflux, colitis, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, to name a few (R).
The higher the high-frequency heart rate variability is associated with more vagus nerve/parasympathetic activity (R, R2).
The higher the low-frequency HRV, the more sympathetic and parasympathetic activation (both of them) (R, R2).
Magnetic fields are capable of stimulating the vagus nerve (R).
Studies have found that PEMF can increase heart rate variability and increase vagus stimulation (R).
I use a pulsed magnetic stimulator called ICES/PEMF on my gut and brain, which increases my appetite and stimulates me. This accords with the idea that it’s stimulating my vagus nerve.
I recommend using this on your gut, brain, side of your neck, etc….
I notice my gut flow increases and inflammation is reduced everywhere when I put this on my gut.
At first I didn’t understand how it can have systemic effects if I placed it on my gut, but the vagus nerve is probably why, given that the vagus nerve is stimulated by magnets.
Buy: ICES® DigiCeutical® A9a Model System. Use the code SHCOIL to get a free coil or equivalent money off. International shipping is available.
The batteries run out really quickly and many rechargeable batteries do not fit in. I use these rechargeable batteries. They fit and work well.
I use these two Bandages for ICES: Bandage (3 Inch) or Bandage 6 Inch.
I also use this tape to reach spots that aren’t suitable for the bandages, including my shoulder, where I got an injury. It doesn’t really hurt when you rip the tape off.
Read more about ICES.
There are two types of meditation that can stimulate the vagus nerve.
Loving-kindness meditation increases vagal tone, as measured by heart rate variability (R) (found via a link from low histamine chef).
Jon Kabat-Zinn has a Guided Mindfulness Meditation that includes loving-kindness meditation.
Also “Om” chanting stimulates the vagus nerve (R, R2).
3) Have Positive Social Relationships
You can do this as a meditation or you can actually find someone truly special who is worth your love and kindness. The latter is better, but not easy to get.
I truly believe that to live an optimally happy life you need to be a good and giving person, especially to the people you love and those close to you.
In a study, participants were instructed to sit and think compassionately about others by silently repeating phrases like “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease,” and keep returning to these thoughts when their minds wandered (R).
Compared to the controls, the meditators showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart-rate variability (R).
Simply meditating, however, didn’t always result in a more toned vagus nerve. The change only occurred in meditators who became happier and felt more socially connected; for those who meditated just as much but didn’t report feeling any closer to others, there was no change in the tone of the vagal nerve (R).
I also get immense pleasure when I’m kind to a someone I like. I want my loved ones to be safe, comfortable, at ease, happy and live a good life….. And it gives me tremendous joy if I can help someone I care about get to that state.
I guess because I feel happier, I can be considered selfish. So be it.
If you’re interested, you can read my rant on relationships.
4) Breath Deeply and Slowly
Your heart and neck contain neurons that have receptors called “baroreceptors.”
These specialized neurons detect your blood pressure and transmit the neuronal signal to your brain (NTS), which goes on to activate your vagus nerve that connects to your heart to lower blood pressure and heart rate. The result is a lower fight or flight activation (sympathetic) and more rest and digest (parasympathetic).
The baroreceptors can be more or less sensitive. The more sensitive they are, the more likely they are going to fire and tell your brain that the blood pressure is too high and it’s time to activate the vagus nerve to lower it.
Slow breathing, with a roughly equal amount of time breathing in and out increases the sensitivity of baroreceptors and vagal activation, which lowers blood pressure and reduces anxiety by reducing your sympathetic nervous system and increasing your parasympathetic system (R).
Breathing around 5-6 breaths per minute in the average adult can be very helpful (R).
Tip: You need to breath from your belly and slowly. That means when you breath in, your belly should expand or go out. When you breath out it your belly should cave in. The more your belly expands and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing.
5) The Breathing Exerciser, and Exercises
Breathing in and out with resistance will likely stimulate your vagus nerve better-kind of like jogging with a backback.
I use this Breathing Exerciser, which I am happy with. I bought a different one that I didn’t like.
You can use the Emwave2 to increase Heart Rate Variability, which will increase your vagal tone. This device will give you feedback and it will allow you to pace your breathing better.
Another breathing exercise it to breathe out as hard as you can until it’s really uncomfortable and until you notice how awake you are. I haven’t seen studies on this, but I suspect it will help with your vagus nerve by transiently increasing your sympathetic system, which will react with a parasympathetic response.
Diaphragmatic breathing: http://www.clevelandclinicw...
The gut nervous system connects to the brain through the vagus. There is increasing evidence pointing to an effect of the gut microbiota on the brain.
Animals given L. rhamnosus caused various positive changes in GABA receptors that were mediated by the vagus nerve (R).
((((GABA(B1b) receptors increased in cortical regions (cingulate and prelimbic) and decreased in the hippocampus, amygdala, and locus coeruleus. It reduced GABA(Aα2) expression in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, but increased GABA(Aα2) in the hippocampus.))))
These are my recommended products. All of them work:
Probiotic (Garden of Life)
Probiotics (prescript assist)
Mild exercise stimulates gut flow. This is mediated by the vagus nerve, which means that exercise stimulates the vagus nerve (R).
I have unreleased interviews with Todd Becker and Ben Greenfield (will release them), who have been measuring their HRV and found cold showers to improve their HRV the most.
Studies show that when your body adjusts to cold, your fight or flight (sympathetic) system declines and your rest and digest (parasympathetic) system increases – and this is mediated by the vagus nerve (R).
Any kind of acute cold exposure will increase vagus nerve activation (R).
You can dip your face in cold water to start (R).
I graduated and now take fully cold showers, expose myself to cold, and drink cold water.
I use an Ice Cube Tray and Ice Cube Maker to make ice cubes to put in my smoothie.
I wear a Ice Helmet/Cryohelmet – (I use the adult regular size). A cheaper Cold Hat is also good, but the cryohelmet is better. I use both. I actually have 2 Cryohelmets.
I also use a Cold Vest.
If you’re obese, you need to expose your whole body to cold. If you’re thin and have cognitive issues, it’s most important that your head be exposed to cold.
Massaging certain areas like your carotid sinus, which is located on your neck can stimulate the vagus nerve. This helps reduce seizures (R).
Pressure massages are used to help infants gain weight by stimulating gut function and this is largely mediated by activating vagus nerve (R, R2).
Foot massages can also increase vagal activity, heart rate variability and lower your heart rate and blood pressure (R). All of these decrease heart disease risk.
My preferred approach is to have a loved one or friend massage you or pay for a massage if you’ve got a lot of money (they’re extremely pricey). I love getting and giving massages, especially to a partner.
Intermittent fasting or reducing calories increases the high frequency heart rate variability (animals) (R), which is a marker of vagal tone.
Indeed, many anecdotal reports show that intermittent fasting benefits heart rate variability.
When you fast, part of the decrease in metabolism is mediated by the vagus nerve.
Specifically, the vagus detects a decline in blood glucose and a decrease of mechanical and chemical stimuli from the gut. This increases the vagus impulses to the brain (NTS) from the liver vagus nerve, which slows the metabolic rate and raises our body temperature (i.e. we feel hotter) (R).
Hormones such as NPY increase and CCK and CRH decrease when this happens (R).
When we eat, the opposite happens. Satiety-related stimulatory signals from the gut contribute to increased sympathetic activity and stress-responsiveness (higher CRH, CCK and lower NPY) (R).
Fasting can increase activity in the subdiaphragmatic vagus, which can increase the sensitivity to pain (not good) (animals) (R).
In female rats, fasting increases the number of estrogen receptors in certain parts of the brain (NTS and PVN) and this requires the vagus nerve (R). So the vagus nerve can make you more sensitive to estrogen.
11) Sleep or Lay on Your Right Side
Studies have found that laying on your right side increases heart rate variability/vagal activation more than being on other sides. Laying on your back leads to the lowest vagus activation (R).
Yoga increases vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic system in general (R, R2).
A 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a control group who just did walking exercises. The study found increased thalamic GABA levels, which were associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety (R).
Watch and perform this Yoga video, which I find very helpful to do at night.
13) Tai Chi
Tai chi increases heart rate variability, and very likely vagus activation (R).
14) Tongue Depressors
Tongue Depressors stimulate the gag reflex….
Gag reflexes are like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling and singing loudly are like doing sprints.
You need to perform them for several weeks to produce change.
Before you swallow water, gargle it first.
The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract.
16) Singing Loudly
I do Om meditations in my Infrared Sauna. I also sing loudly.
Sing at the top of your lungs while at home or in your car. This works the muscles in the back of the throat to activate the vagus. Just make sure I’m not around you when you do sing 😉
Traditional acupuncture points may offer vagus nerve stimulation (R).
In particular, acupuncture to the ear stimulates the vagus nerve (R).
Acupuncture is powerful enough that it stimulated someone’s vagus nerve enough that they died from too low of a heart rate (R).
Brain and oral intake of oxytocin increases vagal nerve activity from the brain to the gut (R), which induces relaxation and decreases appetite.
Mice who had their vagus taken out didn’t have the appetite reducing effects of oxytocin (R).
I use an Oxytocin spray once in a blue moon, but an Oxytocin sublingual should also work.
Serotonin is capable of activating the vagus nerve through various receptors.
The effects are mediated in part by activation of 5HT1A (R), 5-HT2 (R), 5-HT3 (R), 5-HT4 (R) and perhaps 5-HT6 (R) receptors.
On the other hand, 5-HT7 receptors reduce vagus activation (R, R2).
So serotonin will have some mixed effects, but overall it should stimulate the vagus nerve. You can take 5-htp to increase serotonin.
20) Chew Gum: CCK
CCK directly activates vagal impulses to the brain (R).
CCK’s ability to reduce food intake and appetite is dependent on the vagus nerve impulse to and from the brain (R).
Chewing Gum should help increase CCK release.
21) Resistant Starch/GLP-1
GLP-1 is a satiating hormone that stimulates vagus impulses to the brain, which acts to slow the emptying of your stomach and make you feel fuller (R). (It also works by increasing CRH (R)).
Hi-maize Resistant Starch is the best way to increase GLP-1. Use 40g a day to start.
As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine. Many studies show health benefits from laughing (R).
Laughter is good for cognitive function (R) and protects against heart disease (R).
Laughter increases beta endorphins, nitric oxide and benefits the vascular system (R, R2).
A study looked at 20 healthy older adults in their 60s and 70s, measuring their stress levels and short-term memory. One group was asked to sit silently, not talking, reading, or using their cellphones, while the other group watched funny videos.
After 20 minutes, the participants took a short memory test. Participants who viewed the funny videos had much higher improvement in recall abilities, 43.6 percent, compared with 20.3 percent in the non-humor group. The humor group showed lower levels of cortisol (R).
It seems like laughter is capable of stimulating the vagus nerve.
A study done on yoga laughter found increased HRV in the laughter group. (R)
There are various case reports of people fainting from laughter and this may be from the vagus nerve/parasympathetic system being stimulated too much.
For example, fainting can come after laughter, urination, coughing, swallowing or shitting -all of which are helped along by vagus activation (R).
There are case reports of people passing out from laughter who have a rare syndrome (Angelman’s) that’s associated with increased vagus stimulation (R, R2).
Laughter is also sometimes a side effect of vagus nerve stimulation (R).
23) Coffee Enemas
Enemas are like sprints for your vagus nerve. Expanding the bowel increases vagus nerve activation and caffeine increases bowel flow.
First you need to purchase an Enema Bag, which includes the corresponding tubing. If you can spend a little more cash, go with the more pure, Stainless Steel Enema Buckets, especially if you have multiple chemical sensitivities. These are also easier to clean. I recommend watching some youtube videos so that you feel comfortable with the procedure before attempting it yourself.
Make your organic coffee on the stove (best), or in your coffee pot with non-chlorinated filters to save time. For an example of how much coffee to use, if you use a drip coffee pot, use 2 tablespoons of coffee, and 4 cups of purified water. Then fill the enema bucket with the 4 cups of coffee (make sure the clamp on the silicon tubing attached to your enema bucket is closed before you do this, or you will spill coffee everywhere). Fill the rest of the bucket with 6 cups of purified water (or just leave an inch of space at the top of the enema bucket). The coffee mixture should be at room temperature/slightly warm.
You will then need to lie on your right side. It is best to do this in the bathtub in case you spill anything. Place the bucket no more than 18 inches above your head, otherwise the coffee will flow too fast and you will not be able to retain it. Lubricate the anal tip of the tube with coconut oil, then insert the tube into your anus. Allow the coffee to slowly make its way in. If necessary, hold the clamp down on the silicone tube periodically to allow your body to adjust and absorb the coffee slowly.
Once the coffee has drained from the bucket into your intestines, try to hold the contents in your bowel for 5 to 15 minutes. Over time you should be able to hold it the full 15 minutes. You will have urges to have a bowel movement, but hold the contents as long as you can. Some people do two coffee enemas back-to-back for the best effect. Be sure to replace your electrolytes and minerals shortly after.
24) Coughing or Tensing the Stomach Muscles
When you bear down to eject your shit, you stimulate your vagus nerve. That’s why you might feel relaxed after taking a crap.
So if you use your craping muscles, it will stimulate your vagus nerve (R).
Just don’t shit your pants please. And don’t shart either.
25) Fish Oil – EPA and DHA
EPA and DHA are capable of increasing heart rate variability and lowering heart rate (R).
Fish oil/DHA (AMZN) or Fish Oil/DHA (IHERB)-LEF…IFOS certified…
Fish Oil (AMZN) or Fish Oil (IHERB)-Nordic Naturals – High DHA…Triglyceride form..
26) Make Sure Your Thyroid Hormones/T3 Are Normal
In rats, the thyroid hormones (T3) increase appetite through activating the vagus nerve, which also increases ghrelin. (R)
Put LLLT on your thyroid if it’s low.
Alpha-MSH injection in the DMV moderately excites the vagus nerve to a degree in some conditions (R).
Alpha-MSH is capable of preventing damage from a stroke via activating the vagus nerve, which suppresses inflammation (R, R2).
I’ve tried MSH on myself. It has positive effects on the gut and libido as well, and is commonly low in people with mold sensitivities.
Ghrelin increases growth hormone and hunger by stimulating the vagus nerve signal from the brain to the gut, and this is abolished by capsaicin (in chili) (R).
Ghrelin stimulates the pancreas from the brain via the vagus (R).
I’ve taken GHRP2, which is a ghrelin acts on ghrelin receptors and has a similar effect.
Insulin activates the vagus nerve in some ways through intermediaries (activates KATP channels in the arcuate nucleus, decreases AgRP release, and through the vagus nerve, leads to decreased glucose production by the liver by decreasing enzymes that increase blood glucose (G6P, PEPCK)) (R).
Having some carbs here and there might not be the worst idea.
Orexin neurons are found in NTS, DMV, and the area postrema – centers which control vagus nerve activation from the brain (R).
Orexin stimulates the vagus nerve from the brain, which promotes gut flow (R).
Orexin A can stimulate the pancreas from the brain (R).
Orexin is capable of increasing glucose tolerance or insulin sensitivity via the liver vagus nerve (R).
On the other hand, Orexin is capable of inhibiting the activation of the vagus nerve signals to the brain by competing with CCK (A) (R).
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