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Why Is the Vagus Nerve So Important to Health?

Read Time: 5 minutes

The human body is an amazing thing. With all its parts and functions, researchers and doctors are still figuring out more and more ways to study it. The vagus nerve is one of those parts that serve several different functions, leading to improved health. There are 12 cranial nerves in the body. These nerves help with sensory or motor functions, or both. They originate in the brain and have different responsibilities and purposes.

The vagus nerve is one of the more complex of the 12. It helps with both sensory and motor functions but goes above and beyond to do so much more. For good reason, this nerve has been the central focus of studies, research and tests all across the globe. With vagus nerve stimulation and processes, the body runs efficiently and healthily. But what exactly are its functions?

Functions of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve can help reduce pain and stress and improve overall health. With its sensory and motor functions, this nerve is a fundamental part of the body.

Sensory

Its sensory functions affect the senses in different parts of the body. The throat, heart, ears, lungs and abdomen are all within the vagus nerve’s reach.

First, it sends information underneath the skin, behind the ears and throat. It transmits sensational information, too, for parts of the throat, lungs, heart and most of the digestive tract. The nerve also has a role in the sense of taste around the root of the tongue.

With these sensory functions, the vagus nerve helps with most senses, from hearing to taste, as well as lung functions.

Motor

With sensory purposes as a foundation, the motor skills help with internal functions in the body.

Just as the nerve has sensory functions in the throat, it has motor ones too that help with stimulating muscles and aiding those processes. It also stimulates digestive tract functions that cause involuntary spasms or contractions.

Last, the vagus nerve has a special relationship with the heart. It starts with stimulating the muscles inside it, which helps with resting heart rate. From there, the heart and the nerve have other unique interactions.

Other Functions

One of the coolest functions of the vagus nerve is its ability to connect the brain and the gut. The nerve acts as a means of communication between the two, sending messages and information back and forth. So a “gut feeling” isn’t just a myth or idea — it’s a real thing!

And there are even more connections with vagus nerve stimulation and the heart. Through its electrical impulses to muscle tissue in the heart, the nerve can control heart rate. But it also affects blood pressure, too.

The vagus nerve can help keep blood pressure and heart rate at healthy levels depending on activity.

And with its communication with the diaphragm, it can aid in calming down. With deep breathing, the nerve works with the lungs and gut to help relax.

But the nerve doesn’t stop there. Though all of these additional functions can fall into the sensory or motor categories, they stand out among the nerve’s functions. Moreover, the vagus nerve goes beyond standard bodily procedures.

With more and more research, data suggests that the nerve can help with various illnesses, disorders and abnormal bodily functions.

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How Vagus Nerve Stimulation Can Help Disorders or Diseases

Since the vagus nerve has so many beneficial abilities, it’s not a stretch to say that it can help with disorders or diseases. It does this through nerve stimulation.

A doctor or surgeon may try the procedure of vagus nerve stimulation, which entails sending electrical pulses to or through the nerve. This stimulation can aid in healing any issues that stem from or involve the nerve.

For instance, with a condition like epilepsy, research found that stimulating the vagus nerve can help. So, how would that work? Well, a small device placed in the chest can run a wire, or lead, that sends electrical impulses through the vagus nerve to the brain.

This can help decrease the severity of, or even stop, seizures.

A few years after this development, a similar treatment for mental illness that involves vagus nerve stimulation came into play. This treatment centers on depression, but it can also help bipolar or anxiety disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Though it has such influence on so many parts of the body, it also comes with risks, too.

Problems the Vagus Nerve May Face

The human anatomy is truly amazing and serves too many functions to count. But they also come with potential problems. And just like with any body part, the vagus nerve can take on damage or face issues.

Since it has such a range of effects on the body, any damage or illnesses can have a variety of symptoms. And depending on where the damage to the nerve is, the body will react accordingly.

These issues can stem from regular illnesses or more chronic conditions, too.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Change in stomach acid production
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Decrease in gag reflex
  • Difficulty drinking liquids
  • Trouble speaking

These are only some of the symptoms, and others can come in different forms. Fainting, for instance, is commonly a result of overstimulation of the vagus nerve.

Since the nerve has such a strong connection to the heart, any serious overstimulation can cause the heart rate to drop. In instances of overheating, standing too long or any strain, fainting can occur.

The vagus nerve is critical. So it’s important to stay alert!

Future of the Vagus Nerve in Medicine

The future of the vagus nerve’s involvement in medicine looks promising. There are many cool developments emerging in research.

One study suggests that the nerve may help improve memory with stimulation, on top of its other benefits.

Other researchers are investigating its relationship with the heart. The nerve can decrease inflammation by sending anti-inflammatory pulses or signals throughout the body to the source of the issue. So, because of these anti-inflammatory properties and its involvement with the heart, experts hope it can help treat and resolve heart diseases or failure.

Last, the developments in vagus nerve stimulation are helping a new field of medicine and study emerge. Bioelectronics, which combines biology with electronics, may be the future of medicine. Though it’s still in the early stages, it shows significant promise and will no doubt involve the vagus nerve.

These developments are just the beginning, too. With the vagus nerve as a foundation, what comes next will surely be groundbreaking.

Featured Image Source: Vicky Earle / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

 

Why Is the Vagus Nerve So Important to Health?
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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.