What Does the Vagus Nerve Do
Learn about what the vagus nerve does and diseases that can affect its function

The vagus nerve controls reflex actions (such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting) and internal organ functions (such as digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate).

Learn about the functions of the vagus nerve and diseases that can affect it.

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 cranial nerves. Also called cranial nerve X or the 10th cranial nerve, it connects the brainstem to the body and transfers data between the surface of the brain and other body tissues and organs.

The vagus nerve supports the parasympathetic and sympathetic portions of the autonomic nervous system. The nerve transmits motor information for movement throughout the body and some sensory processes.

In essence, it is a component of a circuit that connects the brain to the neck, heart, lungs, and abdomen.

What is the function of the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is part of the neurological system and has critical functions in involuntary sensory and motor (movement) processes, such as:

What is the vagus nerve located?

The vagus nerve travels from the brain toward the neck, chest, and abdomen. The name “vagus” is derived from the Latin word for “wandering.”

The vagal nerves emerge from the medulla oblongata of the lower brainstem and then travel through the:

  • Neck (between the carotid artery and jugular vein)
  • Chest (thorax)
  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Digestive tract and abdomen

What are the different branches of the vagus nerve?

The vagal nerve branches include the following:

  • Inferior ganglion branch that supplies the larynx and pharynx with nerves and muscles
  • Superior ganglion branch that supplies the spine and ear with nerves
  • A branch that supplies the heart, lungs, and esophagus with nerves

Which diseases and disorders affect the vagus nerve?

The following conditions can affect the  vagus nerve:

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What symptoms indicate vagus nerve issues?

Depending on the damaged area of the nerve, vagus nerve disorders may result in a variety of symptoms:

How are vagus nerve conditions diagnosed?

To diagnose a vagal nerve disorder, your doctor might recommend one of the following tests:

  • CT or MRI scans to check for intestinal obstructions
  • Echocardiogram to evaluate heart health
  • Gastric emptying solid study or smart pill (an electronic substance you ingest) to determine how long it takes for food to pass through your stomach into your intestines
  • Upper endoscopy, which examines the upper digestive tract

What are treatments for common vagus nerve problems?

Treatment for vagus nerve symptoms may include:

  • Dietary adjustments for gastroparesis
  • Drugs to reduce nausea and abdominal pain, control blood sugar levels, and enhance stomach emptying
  • Feeding tubes to supply nutrients
  • Gastrostomy to enlarge the stomach to release pressure
  • Gastric electrical stimulation to activate the stomach's muscles and nerves and drive food through the intestines

Vasovagal syncope may be treated by:

  • Eating a diet heavy in salt
  • Stopping blood pressure-lowering medications, such as diuretics
  • Taking medications to increase blood pressure, salt levels, and fluid balance or calm nervous system reactions
  • Compression stockings that prevent blood collection in the legs

How can I maintain healthy vagus nerve function?

You can keep your nervous system healthy by making the following lifestyle changes:

  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Engage in regular exercise
  • Control blood pressure levels and diseases such as diabetes
  • Practice yoga or meditation

What is vagus nerve stimulation?

Breathing deeply and slowly from the abdomen is one of the key ways to encourage the proper function of the vagus nerve. You can learn to employ breathing techniques to divert your attention from tension or discomfort. 

Most people tend to stop breathing and hold their breath when there is anticipated stress. However, holding your breath triggers the fight or flight response and exacerbates feelings of discomfort, stiffness, or anxiety.

Vagus nerve stimulation involves taking deep breaths through your nose and mouth:

  • Take slower breaths (aim for 6 breaths per minute).
  • Use your abdominal muscles to breathe (as you inhale, visualize enlarging your rib cage and abdomen)
  • Exhale longer than inhaling (the relaxing effect is brought on by exhaling)

The following other methods can activate the vagus nerve:

  • Vocal cords: Loud singing or water gargling may stimulate the vagus nerve.
  • Foot massage: Firm or mild pressure may help stimulate the vagus nerve.
  • Cold water face immersion: Submerging at least two-thirds of your cheeks, eyes, and forehead in cold water can stimulate the vagus nerve, which lowers the heart rate, stimulates the intestines, and activates the immune system.
  • Vagus impulses: Fiber slows down gastrointestinal movements and increases the feeling of fullness after meals.
  • Laughter: Laughter activates the vagus nerve, improves mood, and strengthens the immune system.

Stressful situations do not always negatively affect the body and thoughts. Activate the vagus nerve to inform the body that it is time to unwind and decompress, which has a long-term positive effect on the mood, ability to handle pain, well-being, and resilience.

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How is vagus nerve stimulation used as treatment?

Through a device that resembles a pacemaker, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) sends regular, gentle electrical pulses to the brain through the vagus nerve. People typically cannot feel the pulses (vibration) during surgery because the brain is not physically involved. 

VNS has been authorized by the FDA to treat epilepsy and depression that do not respond to conventional therapy. It is crucial to remember that VNS is only a treatment choice for a select group of people with epilepsy (seizure disorder) or treatment-resistant depression:

  • Electrical impulses stimulate the left vagus nerve. The device and nerve are connected by a wire that goes beneath your skin.
  • The device communicates painless electrical signals through your left vagus nerve to the brain. These impulses minimize irregular brain electrical activity.

Furthermore, researchers have investigated its potential for the treatment of the following conditions:

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Medically Reviewed on 10/19/2022
References
Image Source: iStock image

The vagus nerve: your secret weapon in fighting stress https://www.allied-services.org/news/2020/june/the-vagus-nerve-your-secret-weapon-in-fighting-s/

Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044/full

Vagus Nerve https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22279-vagus-nerve