Murkiness and wishful thinking about an emerging scientific subject can be spun into certainty. Where researchers are exploring the tenebrous depths of our nervous system with the equivalent of a very narrow headlamp, wellness influencers claim 20/20 vision, bordering on clairvoyance. An unearthed bone is spun into a mythical beast, doubt into do-it-yourself instructional videos.
The vagus nerve is a darling of the all-natural healing crowd. Its complex arborescence makes it the ideal nerve on which wellness teachers can hang a multitude of claims. Online, it is feted as “the key to well-being,” “your superhighway to health,” and even “the physical manifestation of the soul.” Resetting this nerve through a series of routine interventions is professed to overcome anxiety and depression, improve your memory, and increase your altruism and success in life. And if you are short on time to do the prescribed exercises to stimulate your vagus nerve, you can spend CAD 65 on goop’s vagus massage oil, mixing jojoba with notes of lime, bergamot, and other olfactory pleasures.
The vagus nerve is real, and there are genuine ways to treat medical conditions by tapping into our body’s information superhighway. But those all-natural interventions hyped up online? A closer look unravels them back into murkiness and wishful thinking.
Our nervous system is made up of transmission lines called nerves, sending information back and forth throughout our body. Nerves that connect directly to the brain are known as cranial nerves, and the longest cranial nerve we have is the vagus. (The longest nerve in the body might actually be the sciatic nerve, which goes down each leg. It certainly is the largest, according to Gray’s Anatomy for Students, but I could not find an authoritative source showing it was the longest.) You might imagine the vagus nerve as a simple piece of rope, but it is actually more like a tree, branching out over and over into tinier fingers. Its mapping has been done mostly in rats and scientists assume that these anatomical details, still incompletely known, are similar enough in humans.
We call it a nerve, singular, but in actuality, it is a pair of nerves, one on the left side and one on the right. They descend from the brain and, through a series of splits, tap into our heart, lungs, spleen, liver, diaphragm, and intestines. The word vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and this meandering arborescence has been called our “unconscious inner brain.” It helps our brain feel pressure inside our body, and pain, and temperature, and inflammation, and it can regulate some of these inner states. Basically, when the brain asks the heart, lungs, and viscera if everything is all right down there, the answers typically come through the vagus nerve.
On its way down to our trunk, this nerve passes through the neck in a spot that is easy to access. At this point, it is travelling inside a sheath that also includes the common carotid artery and the internal jugular vein. If you touch the bottom part of your ear (the lobule) and walk your fingers down your neck, you are tracing the path of the vagus nerve.
Because of its ease of access, physicians were intrigued by what they could do if they stimulated this nerve. In the late 1800s, when epilepsy was thought to be caused by too much blood circulating in the brain, neurologist James Corning attempted to treat the disease by electrically stimulating the vagus nerve. He used a Y-shaped fork that would press against the vagus nerve on either side of the neck and which would conduct electricity emanating from a battery. The idea was to reduce blood flow in the brain and slow down the heart. The results were underwhelming, but they were only the beginning of vagus nerve experimentations.
A century later, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States would approve a device that stimulates the vagus nerve to manage treatment-refractory epilepsy and treatment-resistant depression (though not without pushback). The device looks very different from Corning’s carotid fork; it is a disk that is surgically implanted in the chest and whose cable reaches to the left vagus nerve and coils itself around it. More recent vagus nerve stimulators don’t require surgery. They look like tasers or like smartphones, and they work through the skin to stimulate the vagus nerve. They have received clearance in certain countries to help with, among other things, headaches, gastric mobility disorders, and the symptoms of PTSD, although evidence for how they should be used is not always optimal. Studies are underway to see if vagus nerve stimulation might help against a wider array of conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and fibromyalgia.
Even without a device that electrically stimulates the vagus nerve, a physician can use the vagus nerve in interesting ways. I spoke to Dr. Christopher Labos, a cardiologist and associate of our Office, about what he calls a very “Jedi” technique. Sometimes, when the heart is beating irregularly, a doctor can massage the side of the neck, which will send a message to the brain that then passes through the vagus nerve, slows the heart down, and can break this irregular rhythm. The power of the vagus nerve can also be seen in infants: when this nerve detects that the infant is being submerged in water, it tells the heart to slow down and the blood vessels to constrict in order to, we believe, help in survival. It is known as the diving reflex.
All of these medical applications may seem a little too artificial to some, however. Is there a natural, self-empowering way to stimulate your vagus nerve as an adult?
The videos are tempting. They speak of simple exercises to reset our vagus nerve. You see, the parasympathetic nervous system is involved in “rest and digest.” It calms us down, and the vagus nerve is the gateway to the parasympathetic nervous system. By looking sideways and turning our head one way, and repeating the exercise in reverse, we are told we can “rewire our brain from anxiety.” Given that chronic anxiety affects nearly 1 in 11 Canadians over their lifetime, simple eye movements would be a healthcare revolution if they worked.
When Simon Cork, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in physiology, was shown one of the most popular exercise videos on vagus nerve stimulation, he told Inverse that the recommendations the video made were not based on science. Our understanding of anxiety is still muddy. The invocation of the vagus nerve and of neuroplasticity—reshaping our malleable brain—may sound scientific and thus reliable, but it is pseudoscience in this context.
There is much to unpack from these how-to guides on tapping into the power of your vagus nerve, and all of these concepts will be known to the wellness hooey aficionado. When faced with promising fundamental research and a few technological applications, wellness influencers wonder, “But couldn’t we do this naturally?” A thing’s natural or synthetic origin has no bearing on its usefulness or safety. The eye movement exercises need to show their worth before they can be proclaimed to be effective.
While science constantly tortures the brain with nuance, the gurus of natural health aim for black-and-white simplicity. The vagus nerve is a great example of what I would call the boogeyman/panacea myth: everything wrong with you, they claim, is due to the vagus nerve, and every cure passes through the vagus nerve as well. In an ever-complex world, believing a simple story of good and evil can bring clarity, but this lucidity is a mirage.
What the wellness community recommends for stimulating the vagus nerve—eye movements, meditation, massage, cold-water immersion, and singing and humming—, if it works, is likely to be beneficial through a very simple concept: relaxation. Taking a moment to yourself to pause a stressful situation and focus on your breathing can, indeed, temporarily help with feeling unwell. The vagus nerve trappings are just scientific dressing, meant to transform common sense into a cutting-edge, all-natural body hack.
Faced with so much vagal hype, the best response is to rouse ourselves from our parasympathetic state and fight the temptation of easy answers with a healthy dose of skepticism.
- The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve we have, and it carries information from the brain to many organs in our chest and abdomen, and back to the brain.
- Stimulating the vagus nerve can be done in a medical context to help break an irregular heart rhythm or to treat certain conditions with the help of a device that uses electricity.
- Many wellness influencers make a variety of unsubstantiated claims about stimulating or resetting your vagus nerve by doing simple things like eye movements and humming.