Vagus Nerve Regulation: An Integral Part of Healing Stress, Anxiety, Inflammation and Chronic Illness
Many of our patients, both adults and children, are dealing with stress daily. While stress is an adaptive response, repeated high-stress events and/or low-grade chronic stress can create inflammation, and if unchecked, lead to chronic illness.
Patients suffering from ADHD, anxiety, asthma, digestive issues, emotional issues or ongoing stress are likely to have an imbalance in their vagus nerve tone. This keeps their sympathetic nervous system in an upregulated state and prevents long-term healing.
Once patients are in a cycle of chronic illness they often need a catalyst beyond herbs and diet. These patients get some improvement with acupuncture and other therapies but fail to completely heal. Restoring the normal function of the vagus nerve is a critical component of the treatment that is often overlooked.
The Important Role of the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is poetically referred to as the “wandering nerve.” Two thick stems starting in the cerebellum and brainstem diverge into multiple branches that weave their way down the neck into the body connecting with the lungs, heart, and most major organs before finally reaching the lower bowels in the abdomen.
A healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase in heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. The vagus nerve facilitates the mind-body connection and it’s the cabling behind the “heart’s emotions” and “gut instincts”.
The vagus nerve is an amazing network that has the capacity to up-regulate and down-regulate the immune system by directly interfacing with macrophages and other immune cell lines.
One of the KEY roles of the vagus nerve is to end the body’s fight-or-flight response once the trigger for the stress has passed.
There is also evidence that the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in combating inflammation, which Chinese Medicine refers to as ‘heat’.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), heat, or inflammation, is viewed as a major cause of imbalances that will eventually lead to illness. In the Western medical paradigm, science is now increasingly aligning to this ancient view that unregulated inflammation is hugely destructive and appears to be at the root of many major illnesses.
According to luminaries in the field of East-West medicine, Efrem Korngold, OMD, and Stephen Cowan, MD:
“Chinese medicine approaches to treating inflammatory problems emphasize restoring the inner terrain, supporting host resilience, and countering adverse environmental influences, termed Pathogenic Qi. The Triple Burner, one of the primary theoretical models in Chinese traditional medicine, is an elegant, holistic construct for understanding terrain, resilience and adaptation to stress. It not only provides a map of the territory in which inflammation takes root, but an integrated approach to treatment.”
Stephen Cowan introduces the idea of the vagus nerve as the governor of the inflammatory process and a functional component of the Triple Energizer (also referred to as the Triple Warmer or Triple Burner). Like the Triple Energizer, the vagus neural network modulates and promotes all the functions and processes of healthy digestion. See the full article.
So quintessential to managing mental state, stress response, inflammation and anxiety lie in being able to activate this calming nervous pathway of the parasympathetic system.
In so doing it has the following physiological functions:
- Slows the heart rate
- Calms the mind
- Oxygenates the blood
- Lowers blood pressure
- Relaxes tense muscles
How to Regulate the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve can be activated in a number of ways including cold water emersion, deep and slow breathing, meditation, exercise, laughter, massage, singing, humming, chanting and gargling as well as supplements including probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.
In conventional vagus nerve stimulation, a device is surgically implanted under the skin on the chest. Then a wire is threaded under the skin connecting the device to the left vagus nerve. When activated, the device sends electrical signals along the left vagus nerve to the brainstem, which then sends signals to certain areas in the brain.
This technique is traditionally used to treat epilepsy and depression. Researchers are studying vagus nerve stimulation as a potential treatment for a variety of conditions, including headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, bipolar disorder, obesity, and Alzheimer's disease.
Acupuncture and phototherapy acupoint stimulation offers safe, effective alternatives to invasive procedures.
For acupuncturists, you can support vagal regulation with needles or low-level laser therapy at Triple Energizer 17, Stomach 36, Spleen 6, Gallbladder 34, and/or Du 26.
Auriculotherapy works well because the auricular branch of the vagus nerve innervates the concha. Stimulation of shenmen and points in the concha such as Point Zero or any of the internal organ points is very balancing.
Phototherapy patches are another fantastic way to help your patients manage stress and inflammation in-between visits.
The science of phototherapy, which has been around for about 100 years, uses light to improve the health of the body. Modern forms of phototherapy, such as Low-Level Laser Therapy (LLLT), which helps reduce pain, inflammation, and wrinkles in the skin, are very well understood scientifically.
How Phototherapy Patches Work
Your body emits heat in the form of infrared light.
Lifewave patches are designed to trap this infrared light when placed on the body, which causes them to reflect particular wavelengths of light. This process stimulates specific acupoints on the skin that signal the body to produce unique biochemical and physiological changes to restore balance in the body.
Vagal Regulation at Home
When it comes to vagal regulation, advances in modern research allow us to combine the best of ancient wisdom with modern technology, helping us to achieve vagal nerve regulation. Daily vagal hygiene is integral to this process, which is why we recommend Lifewave phototherapy patches.
One of our favorite patches to use for this purpose is the Aeon patch. The Aeon patch reflects particular wavelengths of light, which decrease inflammation and increase antioxidant production in the body.
To restore the vagus nerve balance and improve brain balance, sleep, digestion, and emotional issues, it is recommended to place the Aeon Lifewave® patch behind the right ear. This is close to the acupoint Triple Energizer 17 and corresponds to the location of the vagus nerve beside the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle (see photo below).
We further recommend combining the Aeon patch with the SP 6 Complete patch, which has been found to balance the hypothalamus and helps regulates the HPA axis – vital to supporting healthy hormone and stress response as well as adrenal function. Simply apply the SP 6 Complete Lifewave® patch behind the left ear.
Patients can add Sp 6 Complete patch to the left Stomach 36 or left Spleen 6 to help maximize the regulating effect on the vagus nerve.
When your patients are stressed or not responding to your treatment as expected, adding in vagal nerve regulation through acupuncture and phototherapy can help restore the body back to balance and activate a normal healing response.
Using Phototherapy In Your Practice
If you’re curious about how to incorporate phototherapy patching in your practice, click here to learn more.
About the Authors
Dr. Suzy McCleary (TCM)
Suzy McCleary is a qualified Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, registered as both an Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Herbalist. Now a mother of two small children, Suzy first became interested in helping more children because of her experience as a former paediatric nurse working in intensive care in a number of specialised children’s hospitals around the world including the Boston Children’s Hospital in the USA and the world recognised Royal Children’s Hospital, in Australia.
With 12 years of clinical nursing experience and over 14 years of experience in private practice as a doctor of Chinese Medicine, Suzy continues to stay up to date incorporating ancient wisdom with modern times. Further studies include becoming a registered GAPS Practitioner, Functional Nutritionist, Shonishin Practitioner as well as completing Baby Shiatsu training. Suzy is currently preparing to sit her final exams for the Childhood Neurodevelopmental Disorders Course founded with the principles of developmental functional neurology.
As well as private practice Suzy runs an online program for new parents, known as the Barefoot Parenting Blueprint. Designed to empower new parents to take the care of their children back into their own hands and help them create connections that will last a lifetime. It provides valuable information and educational resources on everything from baby massage and acupressure techniques to help relieve common everyday health concerns, information on gut health for both mum and baby, demonstrates the importance of movement and nurturing touch as well as highlight the role of the outdoor environment. You can access it below on the following link: https://barefootparenting.com.au
In addition, Suzy has created a program to support families struggling with behavioural, developmental and health issues including skin complaints, lung and digestive issues. To access the “Function to Flourish” private facebook page click on the link below:
Robin Ray Green, L.Ac., MTCM
Robin Ray Green is a mother of two boys, a licensed acupuncturist, and herbalist and a leading expert in the field of pediatric acupuncture. She's been treating kids in her private practice for over 15 years.
She was inspired to work with kids after she helped her son overcome a severe case of eczema that Western medicine was unable to treat. She saw the need for practical and accessible pediatric training and founded the Center for Acupuncture Pediatrics in 2013. She provides live and online pediatric acupuncture training and mentoring to thousands of acupuncturists and holistic practitioners worldwide.
A published Hay House author, Robin’s book, Heal Your Child from the Inside Out: The 5-Element Way to Nurturing Healthy, Happy Kids, was released in 2016 and has helped thousands of children around the world. It is available online and in most bookstores.
Her popular kid’s health blog for parents, now at robinraygreen.com, has over 1 million visitors annually and she runs a directory to connect parents to pediatric acupuncture specialists at www.kidsloveacupunture.com.