The Vagus Nerve and the Immune System

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Is the Vagus Nerve essential for physical and mental wellness? Discover all that PLUS how to stimulate your vagus nerve for healthier immunity and less inflammation!

What affects your heart rate, your mental health, and even your digestion? You might be thinking of nerve-wracking things like first dates or public speaking, but today we’re talking about the Vagus Nerve. Also known as Cranial Nerve X (and the pneumogastric nerve), it’s essential for your overall health and wellness.

So, what exactly does that mean for you? Well, let’s put it this way—a damaged vagus nerve can lead to difficulties in speaking and swallowing, low blood pressure, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and more! Luckily, while there are medical devices for severe nerve damage, most people can easily stimulate their vagus nerves with a bit of practice and patience.

Discover what your vagus nerve is, how to tone your vagus nerve, plus the important role it plays in immunity!

What is the Vagus Nerve?

Your body has twelve cranial nerves that connect your brain with other parts of your body. These nerves come in pairs and are essential for…well, pretty much everything. Some of them communicate sensory details (sight, smell, taste, etc.) while others help you move muscles and influence certain glands. The former has what’s called sensory functions, while the latter has motor functions. 

The tenth cranial nerve, and the longest, is your vagus nerve. Its Latin roots mean “wandering nerve,” which refers to the wide areas it covers throughout the body. While it’s not the only cranial nerve with this special feature, it’s essential for both sensory and motor function. Overall, it plays several important roles within the parasympathetic nervous system (the nervous system that controls bodily functions while you’re at rest). 

It helps to think of it this way. While your sympathetic nervous system controls things like fight-or-flight responses during stressful situations, your parasympathetic nervous system controls things like “resting and digesting” and returning your body to homeostasis. 

So, if the vagus nerve is involved in parasympathetic nervous system functions, what sorts of things does it influence? Well, that’s kind of a long list:

  • Regulation of Internal Organ Function

The vagus nerve helps regulate things like digestion, heart rate, respiration rate, and even blood pressure.

  • Certain Reflex Actions

Unconscious actions like coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting are influenced by the vagus nerve.

  • Reducing stress and anxiety

Its ability to regulate internal organ function also means it can help regulate fight-or-flight responses. The cascading physiological responses that occur when you’re afraid or stressed can be “calmed” by a healthy vagus nerve. 

  • Communicates Sensory Information 

Specifically, the vagus nerve talks to your brain about sensory information from your throat, inner and outer ears, and areas near the back of your head. This information could be about pain, touch, or temperature. 

  • Receives Sensory Information From Internal Organs

Specifically, it receives information from organs in your neck, chest, and abdomen (esophagus, heart, digestive tract, etc.).

  • Communicates Sensory Information From Aorta Receptors

Specifically, the vagus nerve communicates sensory information from the baroreceptor and chemoreceptor in the aorta. The former responds to changes in blood pressure and the latter helps sense oxygen levels in the blood. 

  • Controls the Movement of Several Throat Muscles

These include the pharynx, soft palate, and larynx. These play an essential role when it comes to actions like speaking and swallowing.

Clearly, the vagus nerve is responsible for quite a large number of bodily functions. Within each of the above items, there are even longer lists of ways it influences your overall health and wellness (we just didn’t think you wanted to be here all day). We do, however, want to explain how the vagus nerve influences immunity in a bit more detail.

The Vagus Nerve and the Immune System

The simplest place to start is with your digestion. That may seem like a strange place to start for a nerve that originates in your brain, but stick with us. It will all make sense in a minute. 

First, a large portion of your vagus nerve extends into the digestive system. This is important because the interaction between your immune system and gut bacteria is a pivotal factor in overall immune health. In fact, a more diverse microbiome encourages your immune system to prepare for a variety of “threats.” 

However, lots of things can impact your microbiome—sugar intake, fiber intake, sleep habits, physical activity, stress, and more. If you’ve ever felt like crap after eating processed foods for a few days, you already know what we mean. 

It’s important to remember though, that your brain and gut have a bi-directional relationship known as the gut-brain axis. That means your gut influences your brain and vice versa (that’s why your digestion can impact your mood and your mood can influence your digestion). 

Well, your vagus nerve is the same way! Your vagus nerve influences the rest of your body, but your body also affects the overall “tone” of your vagus nerve. There have even been studies that looked at whether or not the vagus nerve plays a pivotal role in your gut-brain connection specifically for those with inflammatory disorders (Psst! It does!).

The Vagus Nerve, Immunity, and Inflammation

Speaking of inflammation, that’s an important task your immune system takes care of. Inflammation might sound like a bad thing, but it’s important when it comes to healing and protecting your body. It turns out that your vagus nerve plays a key role in balancing inflammation. One review even says, 

The sympathetic nervous system and the [vagus nerve] act in synergy, through the splenic nerve, to inhibit the release of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFα) by macrophages of the peripheral tissues and the spleen. Because of its anti-inflammatory effect, the [vagus nerve] is a therapeutic target in the treatment of chronic inflammatory disorders where TNFα is a key component.

If you don’t have a medical degree, that means that your vagus nerve influences the way certain immune cells are released. Macrophages, for example, help create TNFα which normally destroy cells, including cancer cells. However, this particular type of cytokine is also prevalent in acute and chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, sepsis, etc. Several studies have determined that chronic inflammatory conditions may benefit from anti-TNFα therapies. Luckily, a well-toned vagus nerve may already accomplish this.

Bottom line? Your vagus nerve helps mediate innate immune responses, specifically when it comes to inflammation. One review even says, “The vagus nerve has an important role in regulation of metabolic homeostasis, and efferent vagus nerve-mediated cholinergic signaling controls immune function and proinflammatory responses via the inflammatory reflex.” 

Essentially, the more toned your vagus nerve, the healthier your inflammatory responses will be. That leads to a more balanced immune response as well!

So, how exactly does the vagus nerve DO all these things? Plus, how does it help with mental health?

How Does the Vagus Nerve Work?

The vagus nerve begins in your brain at the medulla oblongata. From there, it travels down the neck through the carotid sheath. We really weren’t kidding when we said it was the longest nerve though. Its path continues down the body and actually ends at the colon (which is why it has such a big influence on various digestive functions). 

One of the reasons why it influences so many different aspects of your body is because it’s bi-directional. So, the tricky part about answering the question “how does the vagus nerve work?” is that it has so many different mechanisms. Let’s look at various functions one at a time.

How Does the Vagus Nerve Reduce Stress?

In one interview, Lucy Norcliffe-Kaufmann, associate professor of neurology at NYU-Langone said, “Stimulating the vagus nerve to the heart has a really powerful effect on slowing the heart rate.” This, in turn, relaxes us.  Essentially, the vagus nerve pays attention to how we’re breathing, and then it communicates that information to the brain and the heart. 

For example, when we practice deep breathing exercises, your vagus nerve tells your heart that it’s time to slow down and chill out. That’s why things like meditation and yoga have a positive impact on respiration and heart rate! The more often you engage in activities like these, the easier it is for your vagus nerve to offset the effects of any adrenaline and cortisol released during fight-or-flight responses.

Poor vagus nerve function can mean that your brain doesn’t always know when to slow your heart rate down even after stress/danger has passed. This is common in those with chronic stress and/or anxiety. 

How Does the Vagus Nerve Affect Digestion?

Your gastrointestinal tract is connected to your brain via the vagus nerve. So, when you eat food and your body attempts to digest it, the vagus nerve picks up on any changes in your gut microbiota. It then communicates this info to your brain, and your brain responds accordingly. 

If you’ve eaten a meal that causes intestinal inflammation, for example, the vagus nerve will quickly tell your brain all about it. While that might sound like tattling, it’s actually necessary so your brain knows to start the physiological processes for reducing that inflammation. If your vagus nerve isn’t healthy, then this communication may be weak and the inflammation may still occur.

Overstimulated or Understimulated Vagus Nerve

When your vagus nerve is functioning properly, it’s considered “toned.” That means it sends and receives information efficiently and promptly. If it’s not toned, or if it’s understimulated, information may move slowly or not at all (like the intestinal inflammation example above). It can also lead to other digestive issues along with heart, liver, kidneys, throat, and mental health issues.

An overstimulated, or highly toned, vagus nerve can lead to low heart rate and low blood pressure. If it’s severe enough, this can even lead to vasovagal syncope (fainting). You could also experience nausea, ringing in your ears, sweating, and tunnel vision.

Certain diseases (diabetes, alcoholism, etc.), physical trauma, or tumors can actually damage your vagus nerve. That’s why it’s so important to practice vagus toning techniques.

How Do You Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve?

While there are medical devices or prescriptions a doctor may recommend, the simplest methods for improving vagus nerve tone involve deep breathing. That’s right. That thing you’re doing right now without even thinking about it is the key to healing your vagus nerve. Let us explain…

When we exhale, vagus nerve activity is at its highest and your heart rate is at its lowest. This naturally triggers a relaxation response. Norcliffe-Kaufmann says that the most ideal breathing technique for this is to inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds. “She also noted that in the study that determined this rate, researchers found that this style of slow breathing is also what practitioners naturally lapse into during meditation with mantras, and during the Ave Maria prayer with rosaries.”

While you’re more than welcome to practice that precise method of breathing, any activity that helps you reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm will help tone your vagus nerve. Other methods include:

Depending on the severity of your vagus nerve damage, healing it may take longer. However, the benefits of deep, meditative breathing can be felt very quickly (sometimes within minutes!).

Final Thoughts

If you want to jump-start the healing process of your vagus nerve, consider trying a high-quality Beta-Glucan supplement for immune and gut health. Our Glucan85Plus uses the optimal molecular chain of beta-glucan for maximum results. In addition, we guarantee 85%+ pure Beta-Glucan in our supplements. You won’t find any unnecessary additives or fillers, just wholesome ingredients designed with your health in mind.

If you’re interested in learning more about health and wellness, be sure to join the Haka Life Tribe down below by subscribing to our weekly digest. 

Every body may be different, but everybody deserves health and wellness.

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