What Is the Vagus Nerve? Where Is It Located, and What Is Its Function?
And is it possible to live without a vagus nerve?
Until I started researching these articles I have to admit I had never heard of the vagus nerve. Never even heard it mentioned. When I began to read, it had me at brain-body medicine. So let’s dive in.
The vagus nerve, sometimes referred to as the vagal nerves, are the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system. Self explanatory, right? Not! This system controls specific body functions such as digestion, heart rate, and immune system. You don’t even know this is merrily going along in your body as it is involuntary. Because it is associated with:
- blood vessels
- the lungs
- the heart
- the stomach
- the esophagus
- the intestine
…The vagus nerve also regulates circulation, breathing, and other important functions of your body such as:
- mucus and saliva function
- skin and muscle sensations
- urine output.
Whew! Who knew?
What Would Happen If the Vagus Nerve Was Severed?
Is there any chance of survival if the vagus nerve is severed? Can we still function?
The vagus nerve, as it is commonly called, is actually more a network of nerves, all connected. So it is essentially one nerve, branching off to reach different places, and allow for different functions to function.
But what would happen if we cut the vagus nerve, at some point?
What would happen to the heart, if the vagus nerve was severed? And how would our digestion and brains be affected?
These wondrous nerve branches are the longest cranial nerve branches, which start at your brain and wander on down to your large intestine, connecting to your carotid artery and jugular, thorax, heart, lungs, esophagus, and abdomen along the way.
At this point I think a more detailed explanation is needed as to just how the vagus nerve does its miraculous job throughout the body:
Here is what a physician says in response to a Reddit reader inquiring about what happens to the heart, if the vagus nerve is severed:
“It depends on where the Vagus nerve was severed. The Vagus (wanderer) carries parasympathetic innervation through the thorax and abdomen. One branch, the recurrent laryngeal, innervates the vocal cords. Parasympathetic stimulation of the heart causes slowing of the heart rate, so eliminating it will generally cause a moderate increase in heart rate.”
The vagus nerve assists the pancreas in releasing digestive enzymes, helps the gallbladder send out the correct amount of bile, and controls the valves at the base
of the stomach and between the large and small intestines.
Brain and Behavior
Tapping into the vagus nerve can send messages of safety, tolerance, and confidence to the brain. An article in Epoch Bright, written by Amy Denney states:
“Someone who has a dysregulated nervous system often feels victimized by the overly exaggerated states that either put them in perpetual hyperarousal or leave them completely numb – or stuck on a pendulum swinging between the two. Called parasympathetic activity, not only can this undermine relationships, but it can reek havoc on the immune system and contribute to developing diabetes, heart disease, gut issues, and more.”
What Is Vagal Tone?
Vagal Tone refers to how well your body regulates. High vagal tone occurs when you can regulate the beats of your heart so that, even during stress, you can respond
in a calm manner. On the other hand low vagal tone presents as prolonged stress, anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation and can occur when the original trigger is not present.
It is a known fact that vagal tone can be passed on from mother to child. Mothers who are depressed, anxious, and angry during pregnancy have lower vagal tone and the newborn baby has it as well.
All of this new knowledge has produced a new comprehension of the body/brain connection and how this affects healing. In this regard studies have shown a connection between vagal tone and food intake, weight gain, and inflammation.
Here is a sampling of conditions and disorders that affect the vagus nerve:
1. Gastroparesis – this occurs when a damaged vagus nerve interferes with food being moved to your stomach from your intestines. In turn this can cause diabetes, viral infections, and scleroderma. The vagus nerve stimulates the muscles of the digestive tract.
2. Vasovagal syncope – for those like me who had never heard of syncope, it is another word for fainting. This particular type occurs when a vagus nerve to your
heart overreacts to extreme heat, anxiety, hunger, pain, or stress, causing the blood pressure to drop quickly and making you feel dizzy or causing you to faint.
Signs to Look for When There Are Problems with the Vagus Nerve.
- difficulty swallowing or lack of gag reflex
- dizziness or fainting
- hoarseness, wheezing, or loss of voice
- loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
- nausea and vomiting with no other cause
- abdominal pain
- recurring acid reflux
- rapid or slow heart rate
How Can You Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve?
Thankfully there are many options available to stimulate your vagal nerves and keep them healthy. One is referred to as VNS, or vagus nerve stimulation.
VNS uses electrical impulses to stimulate your left vagus nerve after a small device is implanted in your chest under the skin. The wire which connects the nerve to the device sends mild painless electrical signals through the vagus nerve to the brain.
This has the effect of calming down irregular electrical brain activity.
In addition, there are other ways of determining if you have damage to your vagus nerve, such as CT scan or MRI, to check for intestinal blockages, echocardiogram to assess heart function, gastric emptying to determine how long it takes food to move through your stomach, and upper endoscopy to examine your digestive system.
There are many ways that you can protect your vagal nerves, and lifestyle changes are at the top of the list. They include physical activity, healthy diet, and techniques such as meditation and hypnotherapy.
However, if or when one of the vagus nerves begins to give you grief here are some suggestions to provide relief:
Suggestions for Dealing with a Damaged Vagal Nerve
1. Treatments for gastroparesis (remember, we discussed this above) include dietary changes, regulating blood sugar, feeding tubes to deliver nutrition to your blood stream, gastrostomy to create an opening in your stomach to relieve pressure, and VSN (not the Varsity Sports Network, but Vagal Nerve Stimulation).
2. Treatments for vasovagal syncope include avoiding standing for long periods, discontinuing the use of diuretics, eating a higher salt content diet, in order to keep your blood volume up, and drinking plenty of fluids.
3. Exposing yourself to acute cold on a regular basis activates the vagus nerve and can increase your parasympathetic activity. Going outside in severely cold
weather or taking cold showers are common ways of achieving this.
4. Deep, slow breathing through your diaphragm reduces anxiety and also increases parasympathetic activity.
5. Singing, humming, chanting, and gargling can all activate your vagus nerve as it is connected to your vocal cords.
6. Pro-biotics work on the vagus nerve to improve brain function and reduce stress hormones.
7. Omega-3 fatty acids increase vagal tone and vagal activity.
8. Massage can stimulate the vagus nerve in many ways. Foot massages increase vagal modulation and heart rate and decrease the fight or flight sympathetic response. Carotid sinus massage can reduce seizures by stimulating the vagus nerve.
New Technologies for Treatment
The role that the vagus nerve plays in physical healing is being understood more and more, and as a result, researchers are on the job. They are developing technologies to help them create effective treatments. These include light waves, electrodes, ultrasound, biosensors, and electrical currents.
The Meat and Bones of It
In essence, you have the power to control your vagal nerves and vagal tone with preventative measures and stimulation. This sends a message to your body to nix the
stress, anxiety, and depression as well as the physical manifestations in order to help you to live a happier and healthier life.
Is it possible to live without a vagus nerve?
Our vagus nerve is crucial to the proper functioning of our brains and bodies. Without the vagus nerve, our bodies are prevented from performing essential, everyday tasks.
If your vagal nerve has been damaged (this would most commonly be the result of a surgery), how the damage will affect you will depend on the degree of damage, as well as where along the line the damage occurs.
We can receive powerful health benefits via stimulating the vagus nerve, through proper breathing, and the other methods mentioned.