The idea of any nerve achieving sudden stardom—let alone one that’s been known to anatomy students for around 2,000 years— is admittedly improbable. But there’s no denying that the vagus nerve is having a moment. From holistic practitioners to mainstream medical researchers, experts are increasingly excited about the possibilities of the body’s “information superhighway,” as this nerve has come to be known. Stimulating it may help alleviate pain, manage stress, reduce inflammation—and that’s just the short list.
Of course, when a term starts trending, its definition doesn’t always keep pace. So while even the casual observer of the wellness world has likely seen the words “vagus nerve,” not everyone knows what they mean. And though the answer is the kind of thing some researchers explore over an entire academic lifetime, here’s the quick version: The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve—also known as CN X—the longest of the 12 paired nerves that link your brain to various parts of your head, neck and torso. In fact, that lengthy meander is the nerve’s literal defining feature. “Vagus” comes from the Latin for “wandering,” and when you consider that this system of sensory and motor neurons extends all the way to your gut, among other regions, the name makes perfect sense.
The vagus nerve is also a key player in your parasympathetic nervous system: the part of your autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for the “rest and digest” response, as opposed to the more famous “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. And sure, “rest and digest” sounds considerably less exciting, but recent findings tell a different story.
Pain and headache management:
For anyone who suffers from migraines or cluster headaches, few things are more potentially life-altering than a promising new therapy. And over the last few years, one has emerged. After doctors observed that vagus nerve stimulation helped combat not only epileptic seizures, but also headaches, the medical community
“It’s not uncommon for an individual with epilepsy to also have headaches,” explains Andreas Alexopoulos, MD, MPH, a staff gammaCore, a noninvasive, hand-held vagus nerve stimulator physician in the Epilepsy Center of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. “And this device has shown some benefit beyond the seizures. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it provides what we call a non-pharmacological approach.”
With that in mind, researchers began to adapt the concept, originally an implanted device that administered periodic pulses of electricity. By early 2018, a new, noninvasive, hand-held vagus nerve stimulator—gammaCore nVNS—was FDA-cleared for the acute treatment of migraines. Later that year, the same device was FDA-cleared for the treatment of cluster headaches. By early 2021, vagus nerve stimulation was FDA-cleared for the acute and preventive treatment of migraines and cluster headaches in adolescents and adults. And the fall of 2021 saw two more kinds of headaches—paroxysmal hemicrania and hemicrania continua— added to the list. Meanwhile, doctors began considering the promise of vagal nerve stimulation for Covid-related headaches, among other manifestations of the virus.
Not that headaches are the only kind of pain your vagus nerve may help manage. After suffering for years from what turned out to be mold disease—with nothing easing the related stomach pain she was experiencing—the Chicago-based author and lifestyle reporter Jennifer Litwin turned to Dr. Sean Mulvaney. An Annapolis-based former Navy Seal and Army physician whose use of stellate ganglion block (a nerve injection) for post-traumatic stress disorder had earned him a national reputation, he’d been recommended to her because of his success in treating some of the associated pain as well. “It was serendipitous,” he explains. “We treated people with PTSD and anxiety, who then also reported relief in gut symptoms.”
Given his renown—and her dire situation—Litwin was willing to make the trip. “I was so sick for so long that I wasn’t getting better,” she says. “I couldn’t eat food, I couldn’t absorb food, and one of my biggest symptoms was pain.” Ultimately, what provided relief was a five-minute treatment: an injection into her vagus nerve, “a conduit between the gut and brain,” as Dr. Mulvaney explains.
While there were potential side effects to be aware of (temporary eye droop, for one), Litwin experienced no downside. She did, however, experience a bonus upside: “Arguably, I have some PTSD from the mold disease—I was not only sick, but I was having bad dreams and I wasn’t sleeping well. And this treatment helped reset my body from that really panicky state.”
Clearly, the vagus-psyche connection is major—so much so, in fact, that vagus nerve stimulation has long been FDA-approved for the treatment of chronic or recurrent depression that has failed to respond to other interventions. But even if all you’re looking for is a little relaxation, minus electrodes or needles, your vagus nerve could still prove useful. And that utility might come from the simplest of breathing exercises.
According to the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Blog, “belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve” in turn “reducing your heart rate and blood pressure and lowering stress levels.” And though you may well know how to belly breathe already, here’s a trick shared in the same post: Sit in a chair and—leaning forward—place your elbows on your knees. “This position forces you to breathe from the belly,” explains Katherine Rosa, PhD, an instructor at the Harvard- affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
If you want to add a little something to your relaxation ritual, consider the Vagus Nerve Collection—an oil, a pillow mist, and, soon, a bath product—from clean beauty icon Osea. Though admittedly unorthodox territory for a skincare brand, the vagus nerve has long called to Jenefer Palmer, Osea’s founder. “My background was studying the healing arts,” she explains. It was during an influential Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy course that she really came to know and love the vagus. Though she relates to the nerve on every conceivable level, right down to the name (“I’m a wanderer myself!”), she also likes to call out a particularly endearing attribute: “When you activate the vagus nerve, you start to improve kind and loving thoughts.”
Researchers back her up. One of the main proponents of the vagus nerve’s connection to, well, human connection is Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her TED Talk on the topic, she notes that “when you’re really connecting with somebody else...even your neural firings come into sync.”
Little wonder that the idea for Osea’s Vagus Nerve collection was born of human connection, albeit the kind between aesthetician and client. “Everyone was coming out of the facial [which includes the professional precursor to Vagus Nerve Oil] asking, ‘where do I get that stuff?’” Palmer explains. Launching a collection seemed the obvious answer.
But even if there’s not another human around to ply you with Vagus Nerve Oil, you’ll be doing yourself a kindness by working this blend of lavender, juniper, chamomile, lime and rosemary (among others) into your own neck, particularly if you’re feeling stressed out or ready for bed. For an easy vagus nerve massage, says Palmer: Place two pumps of oil in your hands and inhale the scent deeply. Then, starting at your clavicle, gently massage in an upward motion along the left side of your neck and repeat on the right. Continuing upward and using two fingers, gently rub behind your earlobes. Now bring your hands to your chest, interlace your fingers and move your hands behind your head. Keeping your head straight, bring your gaze all the way to the right until you experience the sensation of swallowing, sighing or yawning. Repeat on the left.
A range of additional benefits:
There’s so much research in progress that experts won’t be surprised if the vagus nerve proves helpful in all kinds of additional health contexts. “There are many areas of study related to the vagus nerve, beyond the mood, beyond the headache pain and beyond the seizures,” says Dr. Alexopoulos. “There is work done in inflammation. There is work done in obesity. There is work done in rehabilitation.” And that’s just the beginning. “The autonomic nervous system is ripe for further study,” adds Dr. Mulvaney. “By manipulating it, we’re not affecting just the brain; we’re affecting other parts of the body in ways we haven’t yet studied.”
Wherever the findings lead, one truism is likely to stand. As many an expert loves to note, considering the nerve’s far-ranging implications: What happens in vagus doesn’t stay in vagus.