Your Vagus Nerve: What Is It, and Why Should You Care?

Article written by: Stefan Chmelik

As we come to understand ever more about mental health, it is becoming clearer that vast numbers of people in the modern world are affected by stress-related anxiety of one kind or another. Over time, this can hugely impact our mental and physical health, especially during the fearful times many of us are experiencing during this global pandemic. Primal fear is natural but being able to override it, and the anxiety that goes with it, can give you some control over body and mind, instead of being driven by evolutionary survival responses that are out of date in the modern world. So, how can we develop this ability? The answer lies in your own body – to be precise, in the vagus nerve.

The Vagus Nerve and Stress Responses

You may not know it, but the activity of your vagus nerve can have a bigger effect on how you feel than the total reasoning powers of your frontal brain.”

Many of you may already know about the vagus nerve, but there’s never any harm in a recap. Your vagus nerve runs from the base of your brain down through your torso, interfacing with heart, lungs and digestive system along the way. It plays a crucial role in your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates your body’s unconscious processes. You may not know it, but the activity of your vagus nerve can have a bigger effect on how you feel than the total reasoning powers of your frontal brain.

Human beings, like most animals, have evolved to react reflexively to the perception of threat. These reflexes are automatic responses that occur in the lower brain and ANS (Autonomic Nervous System – your Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nerves), flooding your body with the inflammatory hormones and chemicals it needs to fight the threat, flee from it, or even freeze (something we see a lot with shock and trauma). Reflexes do not require the involvement of your higher brain – in fact, they often inhibit those functions. This inflammation and inhibition is one of the primary biological processes that cause the feelings we experience as stress.

Unfortunately, this primitive response has become more of a hindrance than a help. In simpler times, when existential threats tended to mean you were about to actually die, mobilizing your resources to find safety made a lot of sense. In the modern world, however, pausing to evaluate risk and threat is a much more effective option in the vast majority of circumstances. Our physical responses to stressful circumstances not only limit our ability to make the best decisions, but are also harmful in the long run. Constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time elevates stress hormone levels and blood pressure, increasing the risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke [1].

Vagal Tone And Why It Matters

Not all vagus nerves are created equal – some people have stronger vagal activity than others. One of the primary functions of the vagus nerve is to calm the body after other parts of the ANS have hyper stimulated it in response to perceived threat – and repeated stimulation leads to chronic inflammation. Someone with stronger vagus activity is usually able to relax faster after experiencing stress than other people might. The strength of your vagus response is known as your ‘vagal tone’, and it can be determined by measuring heart rate, specifically your HRV (Heart Rate Variability).

Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. When you breathe out, your heart rate slows back down. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in. The bigger your difference in heart rate variability when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone. It’s pretty difficult to exert conscious control over your heart rate, which is why breathing is the gateway to HRV and, in turn, vagal tone.

It is possible to control your own vagal tone and build personal resiliency, either through extended periods of hard work or the use of clever technology. Personal vagal tone improvement is a recommended treatment for some heart rate related conditions, such as supraventricular tachycardia [2]. Work with patients suffering these conditions has discovered a number of ‘vagal maneuvers’, which anyone can use to reliably increase their vagal tone for short periods. Holding the breath for 20-60 seconds, dipping the face in cold water, coughing, and tensing the stomach muscles are the most commonly recommended vagal maneuvers. Fans of the Wim Hof Method will recognize some of this.

It has also been shown that the vagus nerve can be stimulated by the vibrations of sound. Humming can be a particularly convenient way of increasing vagal tone, as you can easily hum a tune while performing other tasks. More focused humming, such as chanting ‘OM’ – with its long, sonorous vibrations – has been shown to correlate with a significant deactivation in areas of the brain associated with depression [3]. Researchers found that the vibrations from ‘OM’ chanting stimulate the vagus nerve, which then sends out neurotransmitters and electrical signals that reduce activity to key areas of the brain like the amygdala, associated with our fight/flight/freeze response. In addition, the increased oxygenation of the blood from this vibration facilitates feelings of relaxation and release in the muscles and structure of the body. The more accurately you are able to reproduce specific frequencies, the great and quicker the positive outcomes.

Managing Stress Through The Ages

In the past, humans across the world developed a variety of ways to reliably reproduce feelings of awe, wonder and peacefulness. From music to meditation, ritualized exercise to the use of mind-altering substances, a number of activities practiced in many different spiritual contexts can be understood in part as mechanisms for stress management. The broad trend of the past few hundred years has been towards the erosion of community and the fading of many of these traditions. Although there has been some movement against this trend in recent times with the growth of interest in practices such as mindfulness and yoga, in the 21st century we are living through a stress epidemic [4]. And at the current moment of enforced isolation we are more disconnected than ever from our social safeguards against stress.

It has been well established that regular relaxation and meditation are the most effective ways to self-manage stress. Meditation of many kinds have become very widely adopted, as many as 40% of adults in the US meditate regularly [5], and this has been linked to reduction in depression and anxiety, improvement in attention and also in sleep [6]. However, meditation practice is not the right solution for everyone. For some people, developing their practice to the point where they can enjoy tangible health benefits would mean a time commitment that they are simply unable to make. The always-on culture of the digitally enhanced workplace makes it difficult to leave stress behind at the office door, and it eats around the edges of the downtime of an already time-poor generation. Some employers have started running meditation programs for their people, but those who don’t benefit from such a luxury, or who find it difficult regardless of time, need a different solution.

Modern Problems, Modern Solutions

 In 1997, researchers developed a Vagal Nerve Stimulation (VNS) therapy to treat epileptic seizures by implanting a neurostimulator in the patient’s chest. Over the years, many of these patients reported other benefits, including mood. In 2005, the FDA approved the use of VNS implants as a treatment for depression as well as epilepsy.

Following the success of this technique, there have been a number of attempts made to develop less non-invasive VNS medical devices. Some follow the epilepsy treatments by using electrical stimulation. GammaCoreTM, a small device designed for personal use in the treatment of migraine and available by prescription in a number of countries, has been the most successful of these [7]. Devices like these are extremely valuable therapeutic innovations, and the discomfort of using electrical stimulation can outweigh the pain caused by the condition itself.

Other approaches have drawn on pioneering research into the effects of sound on the vagus nerve. A number of studies have shown that binaural sound played through headphones can affect brain activity, positively altering mood and improving performance at some tasks [8][9]. These discoveries, in combination with the research that confirms the beneficial effects on vagal tone of centuries-old humming and chanting practices, have revealed some exciting new possibilities for VNS.

I’ve spent most of my career in medicine obsessed with the idea of finding ‘the single thing’ that will work equally for all people, that has the potential to target the inflammation and stress-based issues most people are made ill by today. From this research and my own extensive clinical experience with thousands of patients, it’s clear that your level of personal resiliency is the key to staying well and leading a long and happy life and that the best way to measure and increase resilience is through Vagal Nerve Tone.

But it became more and more apparent to me over the last decade that the traditional methods, such as breathing exercises, meditation and being in nature, were becoming less effective or unavailable to most people. As I am also a huge technology fan, I realized my mission was to create a technology that made vagal training available for anyone. So, in 2015 I created and Patented the Sensate technology.

Sensate is a world-first wearable device from BioSelf Technology, which uses the potential of sub-audible sound to stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce the physical symptoms of stress [10]. Sensate uses novel infrasonic technology which I have used in my Harley Street clinic for the past seven years, with extraordinary results. Placed on the chest, the portable Sensate device produces engineered tones that are felt rather than heard, enabling users to experience digital music as whole-body 3D vibrotactile sound. As well as being deeply relaxing in itself, this conditions the vagus nerve, increasing vagal tone and providing many of the same benefits as extended meditation practice bypassing the need for endless practice while also enabling people that find meditation impossible to experience the benefits.

Your Vagus, Your Health

VNS therapies of various kinds have been shown to have beneficial effects for patients suffering from a wide variety of problems and symptoms, including:

  • Adrenal or chronic fatigue
  • Anxiety/panic disorder and OCD
  • Asthma and Breathing Pattern Disorder (BPD)
  • Chronic Prostatitis and Pelvic Pain Syndrome (CP/CPPS)
  • Depression
  • Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS)
  • Epileptic seizures
  • Fibromyalgia (unexplained body pain)
  • Food intolerances/allergies and chemical sensitivities
  • Irregular heartbeat conditions
  • Irritable Bowel/Bladder Syndrome (IBS)
  • Migraines and tension headaches
  • Insomnia, sleep disturbance and sleep apnea

Whether you suffer from any of these conditions or just feel overwhelmed by the stress of modern life, learning to increase vagal nerve tone could be the solution. If implants or prescription devices are not appropriate or available, try practicing some simple vagal maneuvers, like those described above. If these have positive results, then Sensate should offer deeper and longer-lasting treatment. In a time when so many of us are living through stressful uncertainty, looking after your vagus nerve has never been a more important part of effective self-care.

Stefan Chmelik is the founder of The New Medicine Group, the UK’s leading integrated healthcare clinic in Harley Street, London. Identifying that more people than ever are suffering from stress-related health issues, as a medical practitioner of 30 years, Stefan founded BioSelf Technology to develop pioneering, clinically validated, wearable technology, that offers a solution to the growing stress pandemic.

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