In the early 80’s, when Dr. Mark George was studying at the Medical University of South Carolina, he was told to stay away from the vagus nerve. “I learned to avoid the nerve—that anything associated with it was dangerous,” says Dr. George, now a distinguished professor of psychiatry, radiology, and neuroscience at that same school. That's changed in the last decade or so: The understanding of the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to a bunch of internal organs fundamental bodily functions, has evolved dramatically. So too have the directions about not going near it. In fact, vagal nerve stimulation has proven successful in treating everything from epilepsy to obesity.
But as with anything that shows promising therapeutic benefits, it can sometimes feel hard to wade through the hype—headlines like "I Now Suspect the Vagus Nerve Is the Key to Well-being" are a dime a dozen; Goop sells a $48 “vagus massage oil.” So GQ called up Dr. George and asked if he might shed some light on the vagus nerve: what it is, what it does, and how it might help us feel a little better—here are four key things to know about the vagus nerve
It's your body’s “information superhighway.”
The vagus nerve is a long, wandering system (think “vagabond”) that exits from the base of the brain, travels down the neck, and sends information to and from all of the visceral organs of the body—the heart, lungs, gut, all that good stuff. Dr. George calls it an “information superhighway," just like someone explaining the internet in 1999. He says it's what allows your brain to “see” what's going on: Just as your eyes let you know what’s going on out in the world, the vagus lets the brain know what’s happening inside your own body. If you notice that you’re hungry, that you’re short of breath, or that your heart is beating fast, that's because of information that traveled up the vagus.
It also plays a central role in your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is the half of your autonomic nervous system responsible for calming your nerves. (Hence the “rest and digest” nickname; its counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system, is the famous “fight-or-flight” response.) But beyond giving us sensory information about how our bodies are doing and controlling its parasympathetic response, what’s really cool, Dr. George adds, is the role that the vagus plays in our emotional feelings.
“When we break up a love affair, or someone dies, we have a broken heart, and we actually feel the pain in our heart,” explains Dr. George. “The reason is because the vagus nerve fibers coming up from the heart are right there in the brain next to the emotional grieving center. So our language actually reflects the vagus nerve. I have a ‘gut reaction’—that’s the vagus!”
After all, it does make sense that a visceral reaction would come from your viscera.
Vagal nerve stimulation is kind of wild and medically promising.
The nifty thing about a highway is that it goes both ways. Meaning that just as the vagus nerve conveys information to the brain from the organs, it can also deliver information back to the organs, and change how they behave. Dr. George says this is where the promising therapeutic benefits of vagal stimulation come in.
“Building on top of this new understanding about the two-way information superhighway is this delightful idea, ‘Well, can you stimulate the vagus and change what your heart does, or change what your gut does?’ And the answer is yes, you absolutely can. So there's an explosion of new forms of research where you stimulate the vagus for some therapeutic goal.”
One company, vBloc (for “vagal nerve blocking”) got FDA approval for a pacemaker-like device that can be implanted in patients with high body mass index. Using electrical pulses, it interrupts the signals between the brain and stomach and allows those who struggle with obesity to eat less by creating a sense of satiety. Another company, Cyberonics, created a wire you could wrap around the vagus nerve in the neck, helping to reduce the frequency of seizures in patients with epilepsy.
Of course, those procedures are invasive, expensive, and not all that helpful for the rest of us. But there is a device that allows for noninvasive stimulation of a part of the vagus nerve that branches out into the middle of the ear. Because of its central role in the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating the vagus in this way—with an earbud-looking thing that sends electrical signals—can reduce anxiety.
“In healthy people, if I put one of these ear devices in your ear and turn it on, boom, you’re calming down, your heart’s going down, you’re relaxing,” says Dr. George. Though they’re not yet approved for treatment of anxiety, or readily available, he anticipates that in the very near future these will be a common way for anyone to get a little bit of relaxation.
It might help you get smarter, too.
Some of the vagus fibers go into a place in the brain called the locus coeruleus, which contains all the brain cells that secrete norepinephrine, a compound that helps wake the brain up to pay attention. In the last 10 years, work has been done that shows that if you pair vagal nerve stimulation—which, Dr. George says, is almost like “squirting the whole brain with norepinephrine”—with a behavior, the brain learns it “so much faster, better, and quicker.” You’re inducing “plasticity,” he says.
Dr. George is involved in some work that uses these learnings to help babies who were born a little bit too early or have head damage. “The first thing that we learn how to do—it’s not breathing, that’s a reflex—is to swallow milk, to breastfeed,” he says. “And a lot of babies who’ve had a rough time in the womb don’t learn how to do that. And you can’t send the baby home if it can’t breastfeed.” They’ve been pairing vagal stimulation through the ear with teaching babies how to breastfeed. “So far, it seems to be helping,” says Dr. George.
That work has potentially profound implications for everyone, from stroke patients who are trying to gain mobility in parts of their bodies to anyone who wants to acquire a new skill or learn a new language.
That's great, but I want to use my vagus nerve to feel calmer right now.
Take a deep breath, dude.
No, seriously: Dr. George says deep breathing is the best way to self-stimulate your vagus. When you take a deep inhalation, you stretch the fibers around your lungs. That sensory input travels up the vagus to your brain, triggers a deep exhalation out, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms you down. Simple as that—at least until the new AirPods come with a vagus-stimulating “calm mode” built in.
A few minutes of deep breathing may be just the thing for what ails you.
Originally Appeared on GQ