I first discovered the Vagus Nerve (VN) when I was researching how Parkinson's Disease begins in the gut: "Braak's Hypothesis" of the disease states that the problem spreads from its origins in the digestive tract to the brain, using the Vagus Nerve as the conduit. My interest was further piqued when I read that people who have had their VN severed via a vagotomy - a surgical "solution" for stomach ulcers - appeared to have significantly less likelyhood of developing PD in later life.
So it was that I began to research the VN, to learn more about its central roles in reducing inflammation and detoxifying the brain and body, and about its function in how the human system deals with stress. It quickly became apparent that the VN, and therapies based on Vagus Nerve Stimulation which can strengthen the functions of this nerve, thus increasing "Vagal "Tone", represent vital new frontiers in a wide range of health and wellness applications. It also became obvious to me that the VN must indeed also have a very primary role in PD.
Since then I have been pursuing Vagus Nerve Stimulation techniques daily in order to strengthen my own VN - to improve my Vagal Tone. I can now report that these quick and simple techniques are slowly, but steadily and definitely helping to improve my condition. I am finding it easier and easier to discharge physical stress and relax my body, in particular - and very importantly for a person with PD - the ability to keep my muscles less tense. For years I've had to sleep with my feet flat on the bed and my knees up, due to the stiffness in my leg muscles. I now sleep with my legs straight and down. I can also adopt more easily, and sit for longer in, yoga position such as the lotus one. My breathing has further notably improved, especially my ability to take slow deep breaths even when my symptoms are pronounced. Again, this is a particularly important outcome for someone with PD for whom breathing tends to be extremely shallow by default. My sleep has also improved dramatically and the ability to keep my mind quiet and serene has improved immensely too. I find it easier to tune in, or lose myself, while listening to relaxational hypnotherapy, meditations and music, for example.
Thus giving due attention to the Vagus Nerve, and its stimulation, is not only becoming a major route back to health and wellness for me, but a way of life.
The VAGUS NERVE, FREEZING AND PAIN
There are actually two major branches of the Vagus Nerve, and this "polyvagal" feature of the nerve in humans is incredibly important for understanding Parkinson's Disease. This is because the more primitive, or "reptilian", branch of the VN governs "playing dead" - the "Freeze" stress response - which is the state in which people with PD (PwP) appear to be stuck, as I explain in
However, the details of this are quite involved, so in this first article on the subject, I shall concentrate on the role of the more evolved, or "mammilian", branch of the VN, but for more information on its Polyvagal nature, please see the pioneering research of Dr Stephen Porges.
The Vagus Nerve is one of the Cranial Nerves, and is by far the largest part of the "parasympathetic" nervous system - see
for background information on the autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic) nervous systems. The VN regulates the relaxed state of the body and brain, promoting rest, digestion, higher emotionality and sociability. It is responsible for discharging the system from excited states caused by automatic "fight or flight" responses to perceived threats, as governed by the sympathetic nervous system, and also, when the system perceives extreme threat, recovery from the "freeze" or "playing dead" response.
The role of the VN in health should not be understated. When our nervous systems are startled into fight-flight-or-freeze responses, the body quickly becomes inflamed and pain signals result. The ability to rapidly discharge from such a state, once the perceived dangers pass, or not to be hypersensitized to the perception of dangers in the first place, is largely determined by the strength of the VN or "Vagal Tone". The VN and its functions therefore have major and primary roles in addressing inflammation and detoxifying the body, and in pain reduction.
Vagal Tone is not just some ephemeral concept, but can be vigorously measured and quantified. Heart Rate Variability tests, which assess how heart rate and breathing rate correlate, can be used for this purpose. Those of us fortunate to have high Vagal Tone handle stress well, don't startle easily and discharge from flight-or-fight quickly. Conversely, it is now apparent that in many chronic and inflammatory diseases, such as PD, the VN has become critically weakened, and Vagal Tone has been become too low. Once the Vagus and the other cranial nerves, responsible for everything from sense of smell, facial expression, shoulder and neck mobility to speech, and much more, have become critically weakened then the system becomes easily stuck in a fight, flight or freeze mode. This rapidly leads to increasing inflammation and pain, and decreasing human emotionality and socialability.
In fact, all the major symptoms of Parkinson's can be mapped easily and directly onto a malfunction of one or more of the cranial nerves. Therefore, I suggest that the disease can now be readily and most succinctly understood through the concept that PwP are stuck in freeze and their cranial nerves are critically weak.
The Vagus Nerve and Disease
My own understanding of just how important the Vagus Nerve is for Parkinson's Disease crystallized when I read a very important three part article, which provides not only the framework of understanding for Autism, but also explains the real life observations of that disorder. I realized that the entirety of this "must read" post would still make absolute sense and explain real life if we simply replace throughout the word "Autism" with "Parkinson's Disease" and the words "fight or flight" with "freeze/play dead" (the difference between these two stress responses is very well explained in part one of the article itself).
Here are just a couple of examples how this new understanding does robustly and clearly explain some of my own observations about, and experiences of, Parkinson's Disease.
In the past, I discovered that spinning around while in a PD "off" state provides temporary symptom relief and can even switch my movement back on. Indeed, I made this short video of the development of a spinning technique for Parkinson's:
In Part 2 of the above trilogy of articles, we find the answer to why this works in Parkinson's is already very succintly explained:
"Why do individuals with autism spin? Because it stimulates the vagus nerve which helps regulate balance. Spinning can actually be therapeutic and help someone with autism to become better oriented. Spinning can help to mature the balance system which is the master integrator for all other senses in the body."
Another highly relevant excerpt from the article is:
"Why do individuals with autism flap their hands? This activity also stimulates and regulate the vagus nerve. The sensory feedback we receive from our extremities helps to orient us in space and tells us where our body ends and the rest of the world begins. In autism, individuals who do not receive enough sensory feedback from their extremities (proprioceptive feedback) have difficulty with their sense of identity and how they are oriented in space."
This simple answer also now gives us the clear explanations behind my own discoveries about just how very important hand exercises have been in my own movement recovery. In particular, the benefits PwP are finding through the use of "Smovey Rings" (seen in the video above), as these provide additional vibrational, sound and visual sensory feedback at the same time. See
for a fuller report on my own experiences with Smovey's.
An article in Psychology Today
explains more about how inflammation in the body can be significantly reduced by activating the VN and promoting relaxation via improvement of Vagal Tone. This ties in well known psychological aspects such as positive mindset and meditation practices to health and wellness via the VN.
"These findings suggest a new approach to fighting diseases that are currently treated with relatively expensive drugs that have a host of side effects. VNS gives healthcare providers a potentially more effective way to improve the lives of people suffering from chronic inflammatory diseases."
I found this extremely relevant to my thinking about PD, because as we now know, Parkinson's, at its most fundamental level, is an inflammatory disease, as I explored in depth in
and, furthermore, PD involves a super-strong vicious circle of physical pain and mental anguish. Thus breaking the negative feedback loop between mind and body is vital in the treatment of the condition, and Vagus Nerve Stimulation techniques serve this purpose, too.
I then read a couple of very interesting and informative articles which postulate that chronic fatigue syndromes arise when the Vagus Nerve is weakened because it has become infected itself.
"The vagus nerve is really a fascinating organ. It’s one of the cranial nerves and it’s a unique cranial nerve in that it innervates the trunk, the torso, the organs. It actually innervates all of the major trunk organs and it’s a bi-directional nerve. We call it a mixed nerve. It’s got fibers going from the brain to the organs, controlling them, and then it’s got fibers going from the organs to the brain, which is a way of letting the brain know what’s happening in the torso, in the body."
"Receptors on the vagus nerve that sniff out these alarm signals tell the brain an infection is present, which then shuts the body down by sending out signals (fatigue, flu-like symptoms, pain, etc.) that slow the body down, tell it to stop moving, stop eating, stop thinking."
Since Chronic Fatigue is a major symptom of Parkinson's Disease too, what this line of research is revealing should therefore be of significance relevance to PwP. Indeed, viral vectors have also been increasingly implicated in the onset of PD over recent years.
Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome & Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
Dr Driscoll appears to have been on a similar, parallel journey to myself through her own set of symptoms.
"When I had POTS, I assumed all of these symptoms would be viewed as part of my autonomic dysfunction... I came to realize that my specialist viewed these additional symptoms as basically being unrelated. That was my first hint that we were dealing with an illness that had no answers at the time."
She also firmly concluded that the Vagus Nerve has an absolutely central role in these types of syndromes. Indeed, she has gone so far as to develop a line of isupplements for directly supporting and maintaining VN health.
Given that syndromes like POTS and EDS are often complicating [or perhaps causal?] factors in Parkinson's Disease, the new understandings which Dr Driscoll has provided are also extremely relevant for PwP . Indeed, I'm sure PwP everywhere will recognize they have a lot of symptoms in common with those of POTS:
"Symptoms include lightheadedness, dizziness, weakness, shaking and trembling, nausea, tunnel vision, difficulty speaking, et cetera. Secondly, I view this as a syndrome. It’s a cluster of symptoms, if you will, that reaches far beyond orthostatic intolerance and includes such things as headaches, gastroparesis, constipation and IBS, extreme and chronic fatigue, difficulty breathing, hyperadrenergic tendencies, depression, sensitivities to sounds, stress, light, and movement, among other symptoms."
Vagus nerve stimulation TECHNIQUES
Given all of the above, how do these new understandings help us? Well, the good news is the research tells us we can, after all, do something to help ourselves and to improve our condition/minimize our symptoms. This is because, like muscles, an atrophied Vagus Nerve can be strengthened once more through appropriately exercising and stimulating it. In short, we can improve our Vagal Tone to help us begin to escape from being stuck in the "freeze" stress response. In other words, we can (re)learn how to relax our way out of the symptoms of PD.
I first learned about this when I found Cheryl Townsley's video on "Sparking" the Vagus Nerve:
I do this exercise daily, using a standard "Pain Gone" pen. This "re-setting" technique demonstrated by Cheryl, shows just how quick and easy VN stimulation techniques can be - I spend just 30 seconds a day on this method.
I also quickly learned that deep breathing exercises are integral to VN stimulation, and practising diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes a day can end up making a large cumulative difference. I particular recommend the method demonstrated by Ellie Drake:
The next video gives a more in depth explanation about the therapeutic values of VN stimulation in tackling illnesses, and suggests coffee enemas as a method for this (I haven't tried this suggestion, personally!)
Part 3 or the above article on Autism also provides a number of important ways to relieve symptoms through VN stimulation. In fact, one can quickly discover very many fast and effective ways to improve Vagal Tone through daily practice, such as those listed in
Indeed, it is worth noting that virtually every one of the above suggestions for improving Vagal Tone are therapies which many PwP have already independently discovered for ourselves, which we've empirically found to be effective for improving our condition. The Vagus Nerve connection now gives us the explanation as to why these work - and why we should continue to engage in them long term.
I also highly recommend the nine part series
by Christopher Bergland, which covers:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises;
- Tonic Levels of Daily Physical Activity;
- Face-to-Face Social Connectedness;
- Narrative Expressive Journaling;
- Gutsy Third Person Self-Talk;
- Sense of Awe to Promote Small Self;
- Upward Spiral via Loving-Kindness Meditation;
- Superfluidity and Secular Transcendent Ecstasy;
- Volunteering and Altruistic Generativity.