Those of us of a certain age know the topic of conversation with friends often turns to the state of our health. But next time you’re comparing anxiety levels, digestive issues, aches and pains, or brain fog and forgetfulness, mention the vagus nerve and see what happens. You might be met with blank stares, but this little-known nerve — and how use a "TENS" machine for vagus nerve stimulation (more about that to come) — is just beginning to get its due as the medical and research communities gain more understanding about how it works and contributes to overall health.
Traveling from the gut to the brain stem, the vagus nerve is the body’s longest nerve and a main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls breathing, digestion and other body functions that run on auto-pilot. When vagal nerve function is optimized, signals from the nerve reach all parts of the body, allowing it to maintain proper heart rate and digestion, better regulate emotions and pain, plus keep inflammation under control, explains Scott Noorda, DO, a longevity physician in St. George, Utah.
The problem? Stress and trauma can wear out and weaken the nerve — especially when that stress or trauma is severe or chronic, as it is for so many people. And when vagus nerve function is dialed down, a whole host of ill effects can follow, including exhaustion, brain fog, GI issues, and blue moods. (Click through for the big picture on nervous system regulation: Top Doc: The Secret to A Happier Mood + Better Sleep Is a Regulated Nervous System.)
While stress is to blame for vagus nerve malfunction in 90 percent of women, explains vagus nerve researcher Paul Spector, MD, other factors, like a sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep and a poor diet also come into play. Dr. Spector says most women who have vagus nerve fatigue (or "poor vagal tone") go undiagnosed because the vague symptoms are considered “normal” in our high-stress culture.
The good news is that scientists are finding easy ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to restore optimal function of this internal communication network and, in turn, improve physical and mental health. (Click to learn more about one of the most promising boosters for the vagus nerve: cold water.)
How to use a TENS machine for vagus nerve stimulation
One of the newest and most exciting vagus nerve stimulation strategies is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS. This is often done using small hand-held devices at home. Because a branch of the vagus nerve runs close to the skin near the ear, researchers have found that releasing a gentle electrical current from a small electrode placed just inside the ear or on the neck directly stimulates the vagus nerve.
“Frequent stimulation using a TENS device improves the tone of the nerve,” says Dr. Noorda. “This decreases the amount of stress hormones the body releases, which helps to decrease inflammation and its harmful effects, like damage to nerve cells. It also increases blood flow and this improves circulation to the brain, so it boosts its supply of oxygen and nutrients, enhancing neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells.”
(Click through to learn more on how Toning Your Vagus Nerve Undoes the Toll Chronic Stress Has Taken on Your Body.)
How vagus nerve stimulation helps PTSD
One of the most interesting benefits of vagus nerve stimulation has been on patients with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recent studies have shown stimulating the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system in ways that curb fight-or-flight stress responses, which has a calming effect on the body and mind. A recent study of a non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation device found that three months treatment "resulted in a 31% greater reduction in PTSD symptoms."
Case in point: After surviving the Boston Marathon bombing, Lynn Julian, 50, was left with crippling trauma — until she discovered a small in-ear TENS machine that stimulated her vagus nerve. The 20-minute daily treatment she did at home put her on the path to healing. Here, Lynn's amazing story.
Lynn Julian's story of survival
Lynn Julian was excitedly cheering on the runners at the Boston Marathon in April of 2013 when, suddenly, less than 50 feet from where she sat, the first of two bombs went off. Lynn was left with a frontal-lobe brain injury, hearing loss, a lower-back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Weeks became months, and while Lynn’s body healed, the slightest sound sent her into a jump scare. She was unable to eat or sleep normally, and this left her too exhausted and stressed to enjoy activities she loved, like running and singing.
For years, Lynn tried all kinds of therapies and prescription medications, but nothing worked. Desperate, she kept scouring the internet for help and came across something called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). She learned that the vagus nerve runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, helping maintain heart rate and digestion and regulating emotions and pain.
Lynn felt a flutter of hope when she read that stimulating the vagus nerve can decrease the fight-or-flight response. When she discovered a VNS clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital coming up in summer of 2022, she eagerly signed up.
How a TENS machine worked for Lynn
The trial would consist of four days of at home treatment. Lynn was given a small device, called a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit, with a clip that attached to her ear that would send mild pulses of electrical energy to her brain via the vagus nerve. There were levels of stimulation, from 1 through 10, that Lynn could control.
To start, Lynn set the level midway. To her amazement, after just 20 minutes, during which she experienced just a light scratching sensation, her mood felt brighter and she felt a surge of energy. Lynn repeated the treatment for the next three days and marveled at the results. She felt calmer, more balanced and her memory was sharper. Thrilled, she purchased her own ear clip and TENS unit.
“Vagus nerve stimulation was key to my recovery and using a TENS machine was so easy,” says Lynn. “I’m back to living my best life without the horrible panic, anxiety and exhaustion. I feel like me again!”
The best TENS machine and doctor-directed how-to
Although Dr. Noorda doesn’t recommend a particular TENS unit, there are multiple varieties are available on Amazon for under $40. Three of the top reviewed include: TechCare Tens Unit Plus 24, $38.99 on Amazon, NueMedics Tens Unit Machine, $37.99 on Amazon and Belifu Dual Channel TENS EMS Unit, $32.39 on Amazon.
Dr. Noorda notes that the electrical pulse should never be uncomfortable or painful, so starting at low settings is advised. “Sometimes patients can’t even feel it,” he says of the electrical current, and suggests working with your doctor to determine the best parameters for your specific needs and the amount of time you should use it daily (often between two and 20 minutes).
“The response and success rate is unique and there is a lot of room for variability,” Dr. Noorda says. “So while one person may find a specific setting to be effective, another may require different settings to get results, so it can require a degree of experimentation at the beginning.”
Note: Dr. Noorda adds people who are pregnant, have heart conditions, epilepsy or cancer, or who have implanted electrical devices, like a pacemaker, should consult with their doctor before using a TENS machine.
Three other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve
"Vagus nerve stimulation also helps regulate heart rate and blood pressure and because of that it can reduce long-term risk for heart disease and stroke,” Dr. Noorda says. “The nerve is also involved in stimulation of the gut, so keeping the nerve toned improves digestion and keeps the bowels moving to lower risk of constipation and plays a role in regulating the lymphatic system, helping the immune system combat infections — the benefits are vast."
But you don't have to buy a TENS machine to get the healthy boost. Dr. Noorda says singing, humming and deep breathing are also terrific ways to stimulate the vagus nerve. Here he breaks down how:
Breathe like this: Belly breathing helps optimize vagus nerve function, says Dr. Noorda. His advice: Sit or lie comfortably; breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. Do this daily for 3 minutes. Or try a new practice called cyclic sighing.
Sing in the car: The vagus nerve is adjacent to vocal cords at the back of the throat, so it’s activated when you sing or hum, says Dr. Noorda. The Utah physician says regular activation clears thinking and lowers heart disease/stroke risk.
Cool off: Activating cold receptors in the nose and forehead stimulates and resets the vagus nerve, says Dr. Noorda. To get the perk, splash cold water on your face or place a cold, wet washcloth over your forehead and the bridge of your nose. Click through for more ways to use cold water to tone your vagus nerve.
Learn more about the amazing benefits of vagus nerve stimulation:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.