Inflammatory responses play a central role in the development and persistence of many diseases and can lead to debilitating chronic pain. In many cases, inflammation is your body's response to stress. Therefore, reducing "fight-or-flight" responses in the nervous system and lowering biological markers for stress can also reduce inflammation.
Typically, doctors prescribe medications to combat inflammation. However, there's growing evidence that another way to combat inflammation is by engaging the vagus nerve and improving “vagal tone.” This can be achieved through daily habits such as yoga and meditation—or in more extreme cases of inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—by using an implanted device for vagus nerve stimulation(VNS).
The vagus nerve is known as the "wandering nerve" because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way. Vagus means "wandering" in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant are all derived from the same Latin root.
In 1921, a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German for "Vagus Substance”). The “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter ever identified by scientists.
Vagusstoff (acetylcholine) is like a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. Consciously tapping into the power of your vagus nerve can create a state of inner-calm while taming your inflammation reflex.
The vagus nerve is the prime component of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates the “rest-and-digest” or “tend-and-befriend” responses. On the flip side, to maintain homeostasis, the sympathetic nervous system drives the “fight-or-flight” response.
Healthy Vagal Tone Is Part of a Feedback Loop Linked to Positive Emotions
Early anatomical drawing of the vagus nerve.Source: Wellcome Library/Public Domain
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing—with a long, slow exhale—is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety.