What is the vagus nerve? Research shows stimulation could treat a range of conditions

Interest in the vagus nerve is growing.  (Shutterstock / SciePro)
Interest in the vagus nerve is growing. (Shutterstock / SciePro)

Research into the vagus nerve has revealed how it relates to various physical processes and how stimulating it could be used to treat a wide range of health issues from anxiety to obesity.

Interest in the nerve is growing: the hashtag #vagusnerve has more than 138 million views on TikTok and thousands of videos offer viewers advice on stimulating it.

All the attention is making many people wonder – what is the vagus nerve?

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is a pair of nerves that go from the brain through the face and neck, rejoin at the heart and then enter the abdomen. The word vagus comes from the Latin for “wandering” and reflects its nearly 160,000 fibres, which run through the body.

It is responsible for several internal organ functions such as digestion, heart rate and breathing, according to Healthline, and may form a link between the gut and the brain.

Scientists in New York are working on mapping the vagus nerve to study its function, and hope one day to be able to produce drugs that can control certain vagal cells, as reported by New Scientist.

What is the effect of stimulating the vagus nerve?

Stimulating the vagus nerve can be used to treat a number of conditions, including epilepsy, depression and heart disease, according to the The Atlas of Shared Learning, published by the NHS.

For example, a stimulator can help people who are obese by telling the brain when the stomach is full. A recent study suggested that overweight people have different brain appetite control centres from other people.

It is also thought that vagus nerve stimulation can help reduce stress and heal digestive issues, the Guardian reported. And research shows it could help regulate blood pressure and lower blood sugar.

Scientists are researching the link between the vagus nerve and inflammation, which could one day help doctors treat a number of conditions including Parkinson’s, as reported by New Scientist.

How to stimulate the vagus nerve

When used to treat medical conditions, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) involves a device that produces electrical impulses to stimulate the nerves.

However, people can also stimulate the vagus nerve by immersing themselves in cold water, using diaphragmatic breathing techniques and by practising yoga.

There are a number of exercises being shared that purport to stimulate the vagus nerve but people should be cautious when following online advice. Be sure to discuss any treatments with your doctor before beginning them.