A new study from Sweden further verifies what researchers have long suspected: vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can help you lose weight.
This most recent study, conducted at the University of Gothenburg, saw patients consume 30 percent less food as well as a 10 percent weight reduction after just one week of electronically stimulating the vagus nerve, the long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibers that links the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and gut.
“This could definitely be an alternative for patients who are (significantly) overweight who perhaps cannot, or do not wish to undergo a gastric bypass or other types of weight reduction surgeries,” says study lead David Fröjd Révész, a postdoctoral researcher in clinical neuroscience and specialist neuroscience doctor.
However, it should be noted, that all weight reduction surgeries come with risks, including infection.
The study was conducted on rats and involved pacemaker-like stimulators to provide electric stimuli to the vagus nerve via electrodes. But there have also been comparable human studies with similar results.
While zapping the vagus nerve for weight loss is new, electronic stimulation of the vagus nerve has been around awhile for treating severe cases of depression and epilepsy. Vagus nerve stimulation for weight loss was discovered accidentally after it was observed that VNS for depression resulted in patients losing weight also.
Besides electronic stimulation, non-invasive natural methods of vagus nerve stimulation are also being explored for those who are not obese but would like to drop a few pounds.
The Awesome, Underappreciated Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of our 12 cranial nerves. Only the spinal column is a larger nerve system. About 80 percent of its nerve fibers — or four of its five “lanes” — drive information from the body to the brain. Its fifth lane runs in the opposite direction, shuttling signals from the brain throughout the body. Anchored in the brain stem, the vagus nerve travels through the neck and into the chest, splitting into the left vagus and the right vagus. Each of these roads is composed of tens of thousands of nerve fibers that branch into the heart, lungs, stomach, pancreas and nearly every other organ in the abdomen.
The vagus nerve is responsible for speech, swallowing, keeping the larynx open for breathing, slowing heart rate, monitoring and initiating digestive processes, and modulating inflammation, among other actions. It arises from the medulla in the brain and passes through the skull down within the chest cavity where it branches off in multiple directions to innervate organs and muscles. The vagus nerve is the main line of communication between the brain and the energy-producing digestive tract. It also relays information to the brain from what is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). This is called the gut-brain axis.
The ENS is sometimes thought of as our “second brain” for the way it controls the digestive process. Just like the brain, the ENS is made up of over 500 million neurons that surround the digestive tract. When people say they feel it in their gut, that’s not just imagination, according to Dr. Mark Sircus, acupuncturist, and doctor of Oriental and pastoral medicine.
“Our gut instincts are not fantasies but real nervous signals that guide much of our lives,” Sircus says.
Why Vagus Nerve Stimulation Works For Losing Weight
The Vagus nerve is an activator of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is responsible for relaxation, slowed heart rate, sleep and general well-being by the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that acts as a messenger.
The PNS also controls digestion. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been found to activate healthful anti-inflammatory pathways that work in the digestive tract. This is important because, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), people who suffer from obesity have abnormally low vagus nerve stimulation, therefore experience increased “obesity-associated inflammation.”
“Inflammatory cytokines (small proteins secreted by cells) can cause weight gain, obesity, and poor cognitive function,” says certified integrative nutritional health coach Connie Rogers. “Non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve has been proven to decrease cytokines and is touted as an effective anti-inflammatory treatment.”
Additionally, VNS helps to lessen intense food cravings, especially for sweets. In one study, participants using VNS therapy for treatment-resistant depression were shown pictures of different types of foods twice: once when their VNS device was on and the other when it was turned off. Participants with less stimulation were more likely to exhibit increased food cravings.
So besides combating inflammation, a secondary effect of VNS is weight loss due to the “feeling of fullness” caused by activation of the vagus nerve, the same that is felt after consuming a large meal.
Dr. Robin Berzin is a functional medicine physician and founder of a New York integrative health practice called Parsley Health. According to Berzin:
“The vagus nerve is responsible for triggering your sensation of fullness, or satiety via a hormone called leptin which is released in the gut as part of digestion and stimulates the vagus. The opposite of leptin, a hormone called ghrelin, stimulates appetite by turning off the vagus nerve.”
Also, if the vagus nerve is not properly working it can cause digestive issues. According to Berzin, if your belly is a wreck, your brain may be to blame. The vagus nerve is responsible for moving food through the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine, as well as the production of essential acids from the stomach and digestive juices from the pancreas. The poor vagal tone has been associated with problems with motility, and the digestion and absorption of food, leading to the overgrowth of bacteria in the digestive tract, and thereby increasing bloating and constipation.
“Stimulation improves digestion,” says Rogers.
Stimulate Your Way To A Thinner You
For severe life-threatening weight issues, a vBloc (vagal blocking therapy) implant may be the best way to go. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a pacemaker-like device intended for patients over 18 who have unsuccessfully tried a weight loss program, have a body mass index of 35 to 45 and have an additional obesity-related illness like Type 2 diabetes. Called the Maestro system, it consists of three implanted devices. There’s a pulse generator that sends electrical impulses, placed in the upper left chest, and two lead wires that are placed on the vagus nerve in the abdomen. Outside the body, the signals can be modified by a controller that attaches to a battery charger and a transmitter coil.
“The device basically tricks the patient into feeling full (early satiety), hence the patient eats less and loses weight,” says Trowers who sat in on the FDA panel that approved the device.
Studies indicate that there’s a 50 percent chance that a patient could lose 20 percent of their excess weight. Other studies show that VNS produces a large decrease in high blood pressure, from 185/109 to 155/95 mmHg over a period of three months.
5 Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation Techniques You Can Do At Home
Most of us just want to lose a few pounds here and there and stay fit. This may be accomplished by doing very simple VNS exercises, including:
1. Meditation/Sleep/Deep Breaths – As part of the parasympathetic side of your nervous system, the vagus nerve controls your relaxation response. This is the counterpart of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the harried fight or flight side of the autonomic nervous system.
“From what I see every day, most people are living their lives in a state of permanent fight or flight due to chronic stress,” says Berzin. “Their sympathetic nervous system – fight or flight – is in overdrive and their vagus nerves are basically asleep.”
Berzin believes a stressful lifestyle could be “sabotaging your digestion and your weight loss goals” at the same time.
“The key to getting past these two connected hurdles – it isn’t just about food and exercise,” says Berzin.
It’s about learning how to relax and allowing your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. Meditation increases vagal activity while sleep increases vagal tone, according to Berzin.
“A simple breathing exercise in which the exhale is longer than the inhale has been shown to also stimulate the vagus nerve,” says Berzin.
Berzin recommends breathing in for a count of four, and out for a count of six. Repeat for at least three minutes.
Taking deep, long breaths using your diaphragm to expand your belly is one of the best ways to achieve VNS while simultaneously oxygenating your blood. When hungry, performing these maneuvers may help you resist those high-calorie holiday snacks in the break room.
2. Probiotics — These are supplements that introduce live beneficial microbes into your digestive tract and help improve your gut health. Certain strains of probiotic bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (as found in E3Live) have been proven to stimulate the vagus nerve, which in turn releases GABA, the relaxation neurotransmitter in the brain.
3. Drinking Water Quickly – Dr. Donald Strong is the owner of a weight loss clinic in Brookfield, Wisconsin. He says one study showed drinking 16 oz. of water (fairly quickly) one hour before meals three times a day had been associated with increased weight loss in a group following a nutrition and exercise plan for weight loss.
“This may be due to stretch on the stomach causing vagal stimulation and/or release of Cholecystokinin (CCK) which increases fullness,” says Strong.
“You can also achieve the nervous system cooling effects by placing ice cubes in a Ziploc and holding the ice against your face and a brief hold of your breath,” says Schwartz. vagus nerve stimulation
According to Schwartz, a related technique that stimulates the vagus nerve is to submerge your tongue in liquid. Drink and hold lukewarm water in your mouth while sensing the water with your tongue.
5. Valsalva Maneuver – Sounds complicated, but it’s just a process of attempting to exhale against a closed airway – kind of like the type of breath-holding weightlifters do to stabilize their spine during heavy squats and deadlifts. You can do this by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. A variation is trying to blow through a straw with a closed end.
“This increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity, which increases vagal tone,” says Schwartz.
Strong sees the maneuver more in terms of “bearing down like you’re going to have a bowel movement.” He recommends doing the maneuver once a day during your “morning constitutional.”
6. Nervana — This wearable product sends a gentle electrical wave through the left ear canal to stimulate the body’s vagus nerve, while syncing with music, which in turn stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that generate a calming sensation throughout the body.
The vagus nerve is the most important nerve you probably didn’t know you had. While much is still being learned, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the vagus nerve is extremely critical to our overall health, and without it key functions that keep us alive and fit would not be maintained.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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