Of these 12 cranial nerves, however, our vagus nerve, which starts in our medulla oblongata and stretches all the way down to our abdomen as well, is the main contributor to our parasympathetic nervous system (or PNS) which alone stimulates many autonomic processes that are important for our everyday life.
This includes processes such as digestion, dilation of blood vessels, and a reduction in heart rate to name a few which alone are important for our general health and well-being. However, further enhancing these effects through vagus nerve stimulation has been researched and shown to be beneficial for all types of people whether you’re a professional athlete, weekend warrior, or clinical patient undergoing supervised treatment.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation for Depression – How it Works
Typically, vagus nerve stimulation works by sending pulses of electrical signals to the brain via a stimulatory device that’s inserted in the chest (similar to how a pacemaker works in conjunction with the heart). However, in vagus nerve stimulation specifically, the stimulator connects to the vagus nerve in the neck where it will relay those electrical signals to the brain once received.
Being commonly used as a means to treat epilepsy, this device has also been approved by the FDA to help treat symptoms of depression—a result of the sections of the brain being stimulated (areas known as the locus coeruleus and dorsal raphe nucleus specifically). And although more research is needed on how this depression relief actually works, vagal nerve stimulation for depression appears to be both safe and potentially effective for individuals looking for an alternative treatment method as well.
Stimulating the Vagus Nerve for Depression – Alternative Methods
Now, although having a stimulator put in place is definitely an option for the minority of people, the majority of us can still stimulate our vagus nerve without the need for a stimulatory device. For example, breathing practices, meditation, cold temperature exposure, and yoga are all effective ways to stimulate the vagus nerve in order for us to potentially improve our health.
Here are some examples of a few alternative methods:
Exposure to Cold Temperatures
Firstly, let’s talk about exposing ourselves to colder temperatures such as in the case of cold water. Because learning how we can better adapt to this stressor in the short term can better help us to stimulate our vagus nerve in future stressful events as well.
For example, when we first step into an ice bath (or barrel), the initial jolt we get from the water is anything but calming. Our heart may increase, our breathing may become quick and shallow, and our overall sympathetic response is higher than before we entered.
However, taking the time to be mindful, to breathe, and to calm our aroused state during this uncomfortable period is what will ultimately stimulate our vagus nerve to overcome that initial response. Put simply, a heightened state means that our vagus nerve is being depressed while a relaxed state means our nerve is being stimulated.
This, as a result, trains us to cope with any uncomfortable situation about to unfold whether that be in an ice bath we’re about to enter, or in any stressful event about to take place. The more relaxed, calmer, and more at ease we can become, the easier it may be for our vagus nerve to be stimulated.
Secondly, as hinted in the cold temperature exposure explained above, practicing our breath and regulating its rhythm is also beneficial for stimulating our vagus nerve. This is because our respiratory rate, specifically a reduced respiratory rate, is a sign that our PNS is starting to take effect (which is why it’s important to slow things down).
For example, research has shown that extending, slowing, and even holding our breath has all been considered to be what is known as a “vagal maneuver”. This means that the more we can practice these phases of breathing, the easier it can be to stimulate our vagus nerve.
Exercises such as yoga, meditation, and other mind-body practices like tai-chi are all good examples of how we can better practice these breathing techniques in order to enhance our parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve as well.
The Vagus Nerve – Improving Depression and Beyond
To stimulate the vagus nerve effectively, practicing various breathing techniques and controlling our response to various stressful situations seems to be a good way to go about stimulating this cranial nerve. And although vagus nerve stimulation traditionally requires an implanted device to relay electrical signals to the brain specifically, the alternative methods mentioned here can also be beneficial according to the literature.
When interventions for depression are also in question, the effectiveness of vagus nerve stimulation is still being researched in terms of its use. However, the evidence of its effectiveness still seems to be promising, and using the techniques mentioned above may also be a helpful tool.
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Jun 15, 2021
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