Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) is a way of stimulating the vagus nerve that involves targeting the vagus nerve through your ear, instead of with the surgical transplantation of a stimulation device. Today, we’ll explore the basics of tVNS and take a more in-depth look at how using a vagus nerve stimulation device can even help boost your mood (among many other benefits).
We’ll start with a quick overview of tVNS.
As the longest cranial nerve in the body, the vagus nerve plays a vital role in many important functions.
To name a few:
- Regulating the heart rate
- Controlling the digestive system
- Transmitting signals from the gut to the brain and vice versa
- Facilitating communication between the brain and other organs
Because of its involvement in so many different functions, vagus nerve stimulation has been studied as a potential treatment for a variety of conditions, including:
- Chronic pain
- Alzheimer’s disease
How it Works
tVNS helps tone, stimulate, and regulate the vagus nerve, which is involved in controlling many essential body functions. The vagus nerve is the lengthiest and most elaborate cranial nerve in the body and extends from the brainstem all the way down to the abdomen. Vagus nerve stimulation can help to improve communication between the brain and other organs, as well as helping to regulate the body’s stress response.
tVNS is a non-invasive way to target the vagus nerve, and it’s been shown to be safe and well-tolerated in clinical studies. In addition, the vagus nerve is easily accessible through the ear, which makes tVNS a convenient and minimally invasive way to stimulate it.
Benefits of Trying a Vagus Nerve Stimulation Device
Stimulating the vagus nerve has proven to have a wide range of benefits in addition to its mood-boosting effects, including reducing inflammation, stress management, reducing pain, and promoting better sleep.
The inflammatory response is a normal, natural process that occurs in the body in response to injury or infection. That said, chronic and excessive inflammation can contribute to a variety of diseases and health conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.
Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to reduce inflammation by regulating the activity of cytokines, which are proteins that play a role in the inflammatory response. In one study, vagus nerve stimulation was found to reduce levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
In another study, vagus nerve stimulation was found to reduce levels of inflammation in patients with Crohn’s disease (CD), an inflammatory bowel disease. The vagus nerve is thought to play a role in regulating the immune system, and vagus nerve stimulation may help reduce inflammation by balancing the vagus nerve activity.
Stress is a normal response to stressful situations, but chronic stress can have a negative impact on your health. Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of health conditions, including heart disease, anxiety, and depression.
When it comes to stress and the vagus nerve, it’s important to talk about the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is a critical component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” functions in the body.
In contrast, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear when we’re faced with a stressful situation, and it helps to prepare our bodies for action.
By stimulating the vagus nerve, the body can shift from the sympathetic “fight or flight” response to the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response. This shift can help reduce stress’s negative impact on the body.
Vagus nerve stimulation has also been found to be an effective treatment for chronic pain. In a 2022 study, vagus nerve stimulation was found to reduce pain and improve quality of life in patients with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by chronic pain.
This 2013 study found vagus nerve stimulation to be an effective treatment for migraine headaches. Vagus nerve stimulation for pain relief involves tempering the activity of pain-related chemicals in the brain, such as neurotransmitters and hormones.
Promoting better sleep
Good sleep is essential for good health, and vagus nerve stimulation can help to promote better sleep. Studies have found vagus nerve stimulation to be effective at improving sleep quality in patients with insomnia as well as other sleep disorders in some cases.
Now, let’s focus specifically on the potential mood-boosting benefits of tVNS.
tVNS and Mood
An exciting and growing body of evidence suggests tVNS can be an effective treatment for mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Consider the results of this 2021 study:
“We found that 90 min of either left-sided or right-sided taVNS improved positive mood [b = 5.11, 95% credible interval, CI (1.39-9.01), 9.6% improvement relative to the mood intercept, BF10 = 7.69, pLME = 0.017], yet only during the post-stimulation phase.”
In terms of how the vagus nerve and mood relate, vagus nerve stimulation can help regulate the activity of key neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters play a vital role in mood and emotions, and by modulating their activity, tVNS can, in turn, help to improve mood.
Along with using a vagus nerve stimulation device, other non-invasive ways to boost serotonin and dopamine include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Spending time in nature
There is continuous research in this area, but the evidence suggests that tVNS may be an effective treatment for mood disorders. If you’re struggling with your mental health, talk to your doctor about whether tVNS might be right for you.
If you’re interested in trying a vagus nerve stimulation device for yourself, look into the Xen device by Neuvana as a great place to start!