Nov 25, 2022
VNS is a medical procedure that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve.
I can't tell you how many YouTube and TikTok videos I've seen promoting how to stimulate the vagus nerve. I watched one video that had some good information about the vagus nerve, but when she went to "activate" the vagus nerve, it was nothing different than what you'd find in a stretching or yoga class. Here you'll find out what the vagus nerve is and the science behind vagus nerve stimulation.
What Is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that starts in the brain and travels down to the abdomen, controlling all kinds of involuntary functions along the way. These include your heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. It's not one nerve but a set of branching nerve fibers.
The parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body recover and mend from stress, includes the vagus nerve (via Cleveland Clinic). If you're under stress, your vagus nerve may be the cause of your digestion problems, acid reflux, swallowing troubles, voice loss, or weight loss.
How the Vagus Nerve Affects Hunger
The vagus nerve connects your brain to your stomach, therefore the food you consume can mess with your vagus nerve. According to a Scientific Reports paper, both high-fat and high-carb diets interfere with vagus function, which results in weight gain. The Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2021 found that electrical pulses sent to your vagus nerve can help you lose weight by lowering your appetite. The hormones in the stomach that react to our blood sugar and how much food we consume are influenced by the vagus nerve.
Research in the British Journal of Pharmacology says that after you eat, your body releases the hormone glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) into your gut as part of the "rest and digest" parasympathetic nerve system. This neuromodulator controls your blood sugar levels and aids in controlling your eating. GLP-1 levels are decreased in obese individuals and during fasting. The vagus nerve may be stimulated to produce GLP-1, which makes you feel full after eating.
The vagus nerve's function can be affected by high-fat and high-carb diets. People are more prone to put on weight if the vagus nerve is damaged because vagal tone is necessary to feel satisfied after eating.
If you have ongoing stress in your life, your vagus nerve may get disturbed. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress, which pauses digestion so you can react to the stresses in your life. This might increase the amount of bacteria in your intestines and cause digestive problems. The parasympathetic nervous system may be triggered and reactivate the vagus nerve through belly breathing, yoga, and meditation. The Cleveland Clinic advises regular exercise and a balanced diet to maintain the vagus nerve's health.
What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?
According to Mayo Clinic, a surgically implanted device that emits electric pulses can be used to artificially activate the vagus nerve. These devices have received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to treat epilepsy, depression, and cluster headaches.
How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Promote Weight Loss?
The use of these vagus nerve stimulation devices to stop weight gain from a high-fat diet has potential, according to research in the Journal of Physiology. According to the BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies journal, mice's adipose tissue altered when the vagus nerve was stimulated through the ears.
Blocking the vagus nerve impulses, however, can also aid in weight reduction. A vBloc device, which blocks the vagus nerve's impulses about hunger, can be surgically implanted to help control eating (via MedStar Health). Research in Obesity Surgery found that the vBloc device promoted more weight reduction than the control group. This is an alternative to bariatric surgery.
Can You Stimulate the Vagus Nerve at Home?
Although vagus nerve stimulation is usually a surgical process, you can engage the parasympathetic nervous system and reactivate the vagus nerve through belly breathing, yoga, and meditation. The Cleveland Clinic advises regular exercise and a balanced diet to maintain the vagus nerve's health.
Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve is by humming. This may seem strange, but it actually works! When you hum, the vibrations travel through your neck and stimulate the vagus nerve. Think about it, humming encourages a longer exhale, which is soothing for the mind. The vibrations from humming also can be helpful for the vagus nerve and your nervous system (via Cleveland Clinic).
All in all, it's still too early to say for certain whether or not vagus nerve stimulation is an effective weight loss treatment. However, the science so far has shown that it is a safe and potentially effective treatment for obesity and other related health conditions. If you are struggling to lose weight, speak to your doctor about whether vagus nerve stimulation might be right for you.
However, following a YouTube or TikTok video to stimulate the vagus nerve for weight loss (or anything else) might not be effective. That's just a marketing gimmick to get clicks. Instead, try a more holistic approach by balancing the stressors in your life with healthy food, moderate exercise, and mindfulness practices.
The above image is courtesy of Scientific Animations--I couldn't add the caption in the photo.