The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and stretches from the brain-stem to the digestive tract, giving it the widest distribution of any other cranial nerve. It is responsible for several important functions throughout the body including: modulating heart rate, increasing stomach acid and digestive enzymes and activating peristalsis (the movement of food through the stomach and intestine).
Through research, we now know that the vagus nerve is involved in much more than just the above functions. It has been found that, when stimulated in people with conditions such as depression and anxiety, allergies, migraines, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis, the vagus nerve has positive effects on chemicals within the brain, the gut, the immune system and pain and inflammation (just to name a few!).
So how can we stimulate the vagus nerve?
The non-invasive form of treatment is known as transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS). This treatment involves low level electrical stimulation of the branches of the vagus nerve found on the surface of the outer ear. It is a relatively painless treatment that simply involves attaching plastic clips to specific points on the ear, which are then connected to a machine (similar to a tens machine). This may be coupled with some gentle manual therapy to the upper cervical spine, depending on individual assessment findings, as well as direct manipulation of the vagus nerve at specific points along its pathway.
How many treatments are required?
The number of treatments required varies depending on the individual, the chronicity of the condition requiring treatment, and how factors such as diet, lifestyle and mental state are affecting an individual’s condition. However, great results have been shown from 4, 6 and 12 weeks of treatment. The longer the treatment is continued, the better the results.
The good newsis, if you have a chronic condition that needs continual treatment, you can talk to your therapist about getting a machine to use yourself in your own home. They are inexpensive and when you are taught how to use them properly, are very safe to use.
So what conditions can vagus nerve stimulation help with?
- Gut health and digestive problems
- Concentration and memory retention
- Depression and anxiety
- Autoimmune diseases
- Arthritis and other inflammatory conditions
These advances in research make it a very exciting time for all of us involved in functional medicine, as conditions that we once thought were resistant to manual, functional therapy treatment, are now being successfully managed and in some cases, reversed, using treatments other than drugs and invasive surgery, such as vagus nerve stimulation.
As always, it’s important to remember that these treatments are not ‘one size fits all’ and may not be right for you. There is lots of research out there so do some of your own reading and talk to your functional medicine practitioner to find out more about this and other treatments that are available to find the right one for you.