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sympathetic dominance leads to inflammation: control your nervous system and control your inflammation


“Neural reflex circuits regulate cytokine release to prevent potentially damaging inflammation and maintain homeostasis. In the inflammatory reflex, sensory input elicited by infection or injury travels through the afferent [sensory] vagus nerve to integrative regions in the brainstem, and efferent [motor] nerves carry outbound signals that terminate in the spleen and other tissues.  In addition to exerting an anti-inflammatory effect in experimental models of sepsis, pancreatitis, ischemia, and arthritis, current research suggests that vagal activation can potentially modulate other diseases with an underlying inflammatory component.”From the August 2014 issue of Europe PMC (Rethinking Inflammation: Neural Circuits in the Regulation of Immunity).

While having a strong and properly-functioning immune system is a big deal, having a hyped-up, super-charged immune system is not as it leads to the body attacking itself (autoimmunity).  Inflammation is part of the immune system, and it was just A WEEK AGO I wrote about the scam that is the new class of drugs being used to address inflammation ($200,000 / year). 

Today I want to show you a completely different and revolutionary way to address inflammation, as well as what you can do to be part of the revolution. When it comes to figuring out what may be DRIVING INFLAMMATION, fixing your diet is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.  First, cut the sugar and junk carbs because they are massively inflammatory to anyone and everyone (HERE), and then do an ELIMINATION DIET to figure out whether or not you are sensitive to GLUTEN, NIGHTSHADES, FODMAPS, or who knows what else.


Beyond diet and then dealing with junk like BLACK MOLD, DYSBIOSIS, PARASITES, ALUMINUM or OTHER METALS, or numerous others, a huge driver of inflammation that few people ever contemplate is SYMPATHETIC DOMINANCE as measured in the medical community by something known as HEART RATE VARIABILITY or HRV (HRV is the basis for biofeedback). 

When the “Sympathetic” side of the ANS or Autonomic Nervous System (the side that controls your fight-or-flight response) is dominant over the “Parasympathetic” side (relaxation and digestion – “rest and digest“), the body becomes perpetually stimulated into anxiety and the feeling that everything in life is a crisis.  It usually leads to exhausted people who are unable to effectively rest of sleep.  Be aware that this is not simply a mind-over-matter issue.  It’s real, and if you don’t figure out how to stop it or at least dramatically slow it down, it will eat your lunch. 

Allow me to prove it to you by showing you some diseases associated with function of the Autonomic Nervous System (Sympathetic -vs- Parasympathetic).  Before we get there, however, you must know just a bit about the Vagus Nerve.

The Vagus Nerve is the 10th Cranial Nerve (CN X), meaning it’s one of the 12 nerves that comes directly off of the brain.  After leaving the Medulla Oblongota (the area of the brain that controls unconscious activities such as breathing), it exits a tiny hole in the bottom of the skull called the Jugular Foramen, where it runs between the jugular vein and carotid artery (this helps explain the VASOVAGAL RESPONSE that the occasional patient will have in response to SCAR TISSUE REMODELING done in the neck area).  From there, the Vagus Nerve winds its way down, controlling all the organs in it’s path, down to almost the end of the colon. 

As for the problems associated with having a an overstimulated SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) and/or understimulated PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System), including the Vagus Nerve, they are many and diverse.  Also notice that this is a two-way street — a vicious cycle if you will.  A hyped SNS will lead to inflammation, but inflammation leads to a hyped SNS.    All research below is cherry-picked due to constraints on both time and space.


  • DIABETES AND SUGAR DYSREGULATION:  Why do I start here?  Because as I’ve shown you over and over again, most health issues (including ENDOCRINE and CANCER) start with sugar issues — even in the absence of full-blown DIABETES (which happens to be one of the numerous “inflammatory” diseases).  The sugar / sympathetic dominance connection was explored in a study from 1995; that’s right, over two decades ago.  The journal Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice (Association of Vagal Tone with Serum Insulin, Glucose, and Diabetes Mellitus) concluded that, “Reduced vagal activity assessed by heart rate variability (HRV) has been observed in studies of diabetics.  This first population-based study on this subject confirmed that diabetics have significantly lower vagal activity than non-diabetics. In individuals not diagnosed as diabetics, serum insulin, and, to a lesser degree, serum glucose were inversely associated with vagal function, suggesting a role in the pathogenesis of diabetic neuropathy.”  What’s this really saying?  That even if you don’t yet have a high enough blood sugar level to be “officially” labeled as a diabetic, these higher levels of blood insulin (INSULIN RESISTANCE / PRE-DIABETES) are associated with both lower vagal function and NEUROPATHY.  It’s why LIVING THE HIGH CARB LIFESTYLE will always catch up with you and eventually make your life miserable.
  • ALLERGIES & ASTHMA:  When it comes to ALLERGIES and ASTHMA, this well-bibbed study (Neural Pathways in Allergic Inflammation) from the 2010 issue of the Journal of Allergy is spot on.  “It is estimated that approximately one-third of the general population is affected by allergic diseases. Asthma, food allergy, dermatitis, and systemic anaphylaxis are amongst the most common allergic diseases.  A plethora of epidemiological and clinical data suggests higher incidence of anxiety and increased emotional reactivity in individuals suffering from allergies. In studies of food allergy, specifically, it has been shown that the prevalence of anxiety or depression is higher in adults with food allergy.  In summary, this paper showed that allergic inflammation conveys information to the central nervous system that, in turn, sends information back to the inflammatory site by releasing neural mediators such as acetylcholine.”  As you’ll notice throughout this post, acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter and arguably the biggest regulator of the ANS.
  • RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS:  Although I have shown you some very cool stuff in regards to RA, the August 2014 issue of Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology published a study called Vagus Nerve Stimulation: A New Bioelectronics Approach to Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis? in which these European authors “discovered that knockdown of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor type 7 (α7nAChR) in RA fibroblast-like synoviocytes results in an increased production of mediators of inflammation and degradation. The α7nAChR is intimately involved in the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway (CAP).”  In other words, certain specific neurotransmitter receptors for (Ach — Acetylcholine) are anti-inflammatory. The authors activated these pathways via stimulation of CN X (Vagus Nerve), and then turned around and suppressed them by removing the Vagus Nerve. “Various observational studies have demonstrated that RA patients have lower vagus nerve tone shown by reduced HRV compared to age-matched controls. This phenomenon has also been observed in other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, ankylosing spondylitis, and chronic inflammatory bowel diseases. Activation of the vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, was found to dampen inflammatory processes.”  How big a deal is this bullet point?  I’ll sum it up with the conclusions of a study from a 2011 issue of Biomed Central (Can Vagus Nerve Stimulation Halt or Ameliorate Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus?).  “This implies that therapies directed at regulation of the cholinergic and alpha7nAChR-mediated mechanisms… may halt and/or ameliorate rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other rheumatological conditions.
  • ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS:  Two years after this, the journal Acta Rheumatology Portugal (Autonomic Functions and their Relations with Disease Activity in Ankylosing Spondylitis) revealed that, “Cholinergic neurons control TNF synthesis by means of acetylcholine (ACH).  ACH is the main neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic system. This relation between the autonomic nervous system and immune system has been called the ‘cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway’. Inflammatory stimuli stimulate vagal afferents [sensory nerves] and then the hypothalamus [brain]. Experimental stimulation of the vagus caused decreased TNF synthesis in liver, spleen and heart, and serum TNF levels decreased in endotoxemia, ischemia / reperfusion injury and hemorrhagic shock. After vagotomy, animals showed an exaggerated TNF response to an inflammatory stimuli.”  By the way, TNF (Tumor Necrosis Factor) is an extremely potent inflammatory mediator commonly seen in AS.
  • ARTHRITIS IN GENERAL:  A year later, the journal Nature Reviews: Rheumatology published a study called Role of Peripheral Nerve Fibres in Acute and Chronic Inflammation in Arthritis.  While this study did not delve as deeply into the whole Vagus Nerve Stimulation thing (VNS) as other studies did, it provided some amazing clarification and insight into what we’ve been talking about.  “During acute inflammation, rapid neuronal reorganization and change of activity takes place. The hallmarks of this process are an increase in systemic sympathetic activity, a decrease in systemic parasympathetic activity and loss of sympathetic nerve fibres from sites of inflammation concomitant with increased innervation with sensory nerve fibres and increased sensory nerve fibre activity. In locally inflamed tissue, the decrease in sympathetic nerve fibre density results in reduced anti-inflammatory signalling and, together with neuropeptides released from sensory nerve fibres, promotes local inflammation.”  Be aware that this is a vital and necessary thing as inflammation is the primary method of beginning the process of healing damaged tissue of all sorts. “However, in chronic autoimmune inflammation, these changes of the peripheral nervous system lead to an unfavourable situation with ongoing energy reallocation and continuous local destruction. As an example of a chronic inflammatory condition, we discuss evidence for neuroimmune regulation in autoimmune arthritis with a focus on the sympathetic nervous system.”  Stick around because in just a bit, I am going to show you how to tip the balance of the ANS toward the parasympathetic side.  Oh, and for those of you who think you need an x-ray or MRI to see just how much arthritis you have, READ THIS FIRST.
  • ABNORMAL GUT FUNCTION:  The two sides of the “Gut Dysfunctions” coin are dysbiosis (which I’ve already mentioned) and LEAKY GUT SYNDROME. Also remember that 80% of your entire immune system is in the Gut (HERE).   Dr. Esmerij Vander Zanden, a Gastroenterologist / Hepatologist in Amsterdam, wrote a 150 page paper in 2011 called The Vagus Nerve as a Modulator of Intestinal Inflammation, in which she stated, “A decade ago, Borovikova reported that acetylcholine, the principle  neurotransmitter of the vagus nerve, can attenuate pro-inflammatory cytokine release… Moreover, they demonstrated that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve attenuates the systemic inflammatory response…  Acetylcholine, the principle neurotransmitter released by the vagus nerve, can  exert its anti-inflammatory effect via binding to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors  (nAChRs), which are expressed on macrophages and other immune cells.  The cholinergic nervous system attenuates the production of proinflammatory  cytokines and inhibits inflammatory processes.  Ingestion of dietary fat stimulates the production of cholecystokinin (CCK), which  is a characteristic hormone released during ingestion to trigger several digestive  functions including pancreas secretion, and activation of afferent vagus nerve  signals to induce satiety [fullness]. Interestingly, a recent study indicated that CCK, released  as a result of high-fat nutrition, inhibited hemorrhagic shock-induced TNFα  and interleukin-6 release [inflammation]. This anti-inflammatory effect of CCK release is mediated  by the vagus nerve.  Both acute and chronic  exposure to stress can increase epithelial permeability via cholinergic mechanisms. cholinergic stimulation increases epithelial transport by disrupting tight junction integrity [Leaky Gut].  On the other hand, other animal studies show that vagus nerve activity can be  protective in maintaining gut barrier function under pathological conditions.”  This study is a veritable goldmine, and I just barely scratched the surface.  Among other things, the good doctor is showing us that a HIGH FAT diet might not be so bad after all (as long as it’s based on GOOD FATS), in that it has the potential to stimulate the parasympathetics (PNS) via CCK.  The study also discussed the PNS’ ability to clear out harmful bacteria.  Can anyone say SIBO?
  • INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE / IBS / SIBO:  Speaking of SIBO…..  IBS and IBD covers a lot of ground.  A two year old study in Frontiers in Immunology (The Neuromodulation of the Intestinal Immune System and Its Relevance in Inflammatory Bowel Disease).  After talking at length about the importance of HOMEOSTASIS, these authors stated, “One of the main tasks of the immune system is to discriminate and appropriately react to “danger” or “non-danger” signals. This is crucial in the gastrointestinal tract, where the immune system is confronted with a myriad of food antigens and symbiotic microflora that are in constant contact with the mucosa, in addition to any potential pathogens. This large number of antigens and commensal microflora, which are essential for providing vital nutrients, must be tolerated by the intestinal immune system to prevent aberrant inflammation.  In order to maintain homeostasis, the immune system has diverse regulatory strategies including additional non-immunological actors able to control the immune response. Accumulating evidence strongly indicates a bidirectional link between the two systems in which the brain modulates the immune response via the detection of circulating cytokines and via direct afferent input from sensory fibers and from enteric neurons.”  This is cool because it’s talking about the continuum between the brain, the ENTERIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (about 90% of the Vagus’ traffic to the brain is from the ENS), the MICROBIOME, and cytokines / inflammation. What did these authors talk about as a potential solution?  Among other things the stated, “we and others have extended the concept of the vagal anti-inflammatory pathway to the GI tract by showing the beneficial effect of electrical VNS……”   What if there were ways to stimulate the Vagus Nerve without invasive surgical implants?
  • AUTISM:  Over the years I’ve written a heck of a lot of articles pertaining to AUTISM.  What seems to be the common denominator?  Two things; issues with GUT HEALTH and inflammation (debate abounds about where said inflammation comes from — i.e. VACCINES).  In the March 2011 of Neuropsychology Reviews (The Immune System’s Moderating Response to Inflammation Relieves Autistic Behavior: Response to Peter Good) the authors talked about why autistic behavior tends to improve when these kids have a FEVER.  Of course it boiled down to inflammation (“absent inflammation, heat stress does not improve behavior in autism.“), but listen to what the authors concluded. “The inflammatory reaction with its sympathetic activation is buffered by the vagal cholinergic anti-inflammatory system (CAIS).  Electrical vagal stimulation is used to treat inflammatory diseases, including depression, which features neuroinflammation. Vagal stimulation also increases heart rate variability, as autonomic tone veers from sympathetic toward parasympathetic dominance. In controlling inflammation and sympathetic predominance, the CAIS may lower arousal level. Much autistic behavior appears to be a compensatory reaction to chronic pathologically heightened arousal. Vargas discovered neuroinflammation in people with autism, both in vivo and at autopsy. An outpouring of cytokines from activated microglia, the CNS counterparts of macrophages, involves the excessive release of glutamate, the preponderant excitatory neurotransmitter, increasing the brain activation toward hyperarousal.”  Although they were not mentioned by these authors; besides staying away from known exciteotoxins such as MSG and ASPARTAME (not to mention consuming anti-inflammatory diets like PALEO or GAPS), there are certain things that might make a real difference for those with autism.  These authors mentioned Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS).  Dr. Stephen Porges has some extremely cool info on this topic as well.  Oh, and don’t forget Microglial Activation as we will deal with it two bullets down.
  • DEPRESSION:  Although this study acted more like a commercial for SSRI ANTIDEPRESSANTS, a 2008 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Impaired Parasympathetic Function Increases Susceptibility to Inflammatory Bowel Disease in a Mouse Model of Depression) concluded that (notice once again the link to Gut Health), “Evidence indicates that intestinal inflammatory conditions can be exacerbated by behavioral conditions such as depression. We recently provided proof of concept that depressive-like behavior is associated with an exaggerated response to inflammatory stimuli in the gut. The recent demonstration of a tonic counter-inflammatory influence mediated by the vagus nerve in experimental colitis provides a potential link between behavior and gut inflammation. Depression results in autonomic imbalance, with impaired parasympathetic functions and a dominant sympathetic drive, contributing to cardiac pathophysiology. The notion that depression is associated with parasympathetic dysfunction has led to the exploitation of vagal electrical stimulation as a novel treatment for refractory depression.”  None of this should come as a total shock considering DEPRESSION is one of the myriad of diseases that fall under the category of “inflammatory”.
  • CHRONIC FATIGUE AND PTSD: An article from the site Healing Histamine (Harvard Neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van Elzakker: Chronic Fatigue Vagus Nerve Link) expounds on this, sounding at times like the awesome histamine / inflammation / microbiome researcher, DR. ART AYERS.  Listen to what Dr. E says as it relates to infections of the Vagus Nerve.  “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a neurological condition. It’s a disease that one of the main symptoms is a long-lasting, severe fatigue. Again, this is medical fatigue. It’s not the kind of fatigue that I have after a day at work where I need to just recharge for a few minutes.  there are a lot of pathogens that really like nerve tissue. That includes chicken pox, the herpes zoster virus, Epstein-Barr, HHV-6, some kinds of enterovirus, even the Lyme bacteria is a bacteria that really likes nerve tissue. I would say, not coincidentally, all of those are also pathogens that are linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  All of us have herpes viruses in our body. More than 90 percent of human beings have more than one strain. Chicken pox, HSV-1, the simplex. We’re all walking around with these viruses in our bodies, but most of the time, they’re latent. People may have had the experience when they start to get a cold or a flu and they get a little cold sore on their tongue, that means when you’re immuno-compromised, these herpes viruses can come back out of latency.”  He goes on to talk about GLIAL CELL ACTIVATION and tons of other cool stuff.  How big a deal is this?  Take a look at my response to a physician who contacted me about some chronic issues that had to do with EBV (there are many physicians who believe that occult EBV (Epstein Barr Virus) or CMV (Cytomegalo Virus) — both of which are of the herpes family and are the cause of mono — are the root of any number of other chronic illnesses (HERE).
  • TINNITUS:  Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear, affects between 10 and 15% of the population.  More studies are underway after initial research showed that Vagus Nerve Stimulation reduced tinnitus by as much as 50%.  Remember that “itis” = inflammation.
  • REFLEX SYMPATHETIC DYSTROPHY / COMPLEX REGIONAL PAIN SYNDROME:  CRPS (it used to be called RSD) is nasty stuff.  Listen to what Wikipedia says. “CRPS is a long term pain syndrome that often worsens with time. It is characterized by severe pain that’s out of proportion to the original injury and often accompanied by sensitivity, swelling, and changes in the skin.  It may initially affect one limb and then spread throughout the body; 35% of affected people report symptoms throughout their whole body.  The cause of CRPS is unknown though it is associated with dysregulation of the central nervous system and autonomic nervous system, resulting in abnormal temperature control and pain of the affected limb(s), leading to functional impairment and disability. Precipitating factors include injury and surgery.”  Want a good reason to keep your body inflammation-free?  CRPS!  “Clinical features of CRPS have been found to be inflammation…..”  
  • FREQUENCY-SPECIFIC MICROCURRENT: South of us in Fayeteville Arkansas is the office of Functional Neurologist, Dr. Katinka van der Merwe, who specializes in treating people with CRPSListen to what she says in an article on RSD dot org called Putting Out the Fire: A Brand New Approach to Treating RSD/CRPS.  “One of the first techniques I learned centered around restoring balance to the Autonomic (automatic) nervous system, specifically the Vagus nerve.  The Central Nervous System (CNS) is the system that runs everything in your body. It controls movement, function, your immune system, and pain. It also controls healing. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a subsystem of the CNS. It is the part of your brain that runs everything automatically, without you having to think about it. It is divided into the Sympathetic (fight or flight) Nervous system (SNS), and the Parasympathetic (rest or digest) nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for saving our lives when we are being attacked. It is vital, but not overly concerned with healing, sexual function, digesting food, or relaxing. The PNS is. The one thing every CRPS patient has in common is that they are stuck in Sympathetic overdrive, meaning, instead of their nervous system being nicely balanced between these two states, they are stuck in Sympathetic overdrive. This often happens long before they ever develop CRPS.”  What’s she doing?  Among other things, she’s treating these people with Frequency Specific Microcurrent, something I have been using in my clinic since 1991 (Mens-O-Matic).
  • HEART DISEASE / HEART FAILURE:  A study published in a 2013 issue of Annals of Thoracic Surgery (Cardiac Autonomic Nerve Stimulation in the Treatment of Heart Failure) had some interesting things to say on this subject.  After revealing that, “Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide,” and then talking about numerous medical interventions (mostly drugs and surgery), these authors made a confession of sorts when they revealed that drugs and surgery don’t work very well (something confirmed by a comment from a cardiologist near the bottom of YESTERDAY’S POST). “Currently available HF (heart failure) therapies have limited efficacy.”  So, listen to what they suggest instead.  “HF pathophysiology is associated with neurohormonal activation of the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in increased plasma levels of… inflammatory biomarkers and cytokines increase (tumor necrosis factor and C-reactive protein), as do markers of systemic and cardiac oxidant stress.  Use of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) as a medical therapy to counter sympathetic nervous system activation in HF has yielded encouraging results.  It is clear that optimal cardiac neurostimulation therapy varies, based on the type and severity of HF and on the individual balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic activity.”  Things that make you go hmmmm.
  • CANCER:  Less than a year ago, Dr. Grace Bullock published an article reviewing some studies on ANS dysregulation as related to CANCER (specifically BREAST CANCER) in an article called Vagus Nerve Activity May Impact Cancer Prognosis.  Listen to her conclusions.  “To date, cancer prognoses have largely been determined by tumor stage, age, genetic expression, inflammatory parameters and organ functioning. Now, new research suggests that vagal nerve activity may also predict survival in patients with metastatic or recurrent breast cancer more reliably than cancer stage alone. It has been proposed that high vagal tone may slow down tumor growth because it inhibits mechanisms responsible for tumor progression including oxidative stress, inflammation and excessive sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. In addition the vagus nerve also innervates major visceral organs where many cancers develop, including the lungs, gut, pancreas and colon.”  She then goes on to talk about low HRV seen in Cancer patients, which is the classic marker for Sympathetic Dominance, as well as mentioning some things that can be done to stimulate the Vagus Nerve and tip the ANS toward parasympathetic dominance.
  • HPA AXIS DISRUPTION, TISSUE DEGENERATION, AND AUTOIMMUNITY:  The December 2014 issue of the Journal of Arthritis Research Therapy provided an amazing study about the way this all relates to the HPA AXIS called The Sympathetic Nervous Response in Inflammation, which reviewed over 100 other studies on the topic.  Listen to these cherry-picked conclusions.  “Inflammation causes increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) Upon initiating an inflammatory process, the body adopts an ‘inflammatory configuration’ with increased systemic SNS and HPA axis activity. This reaction can be interpreted as an ‘energy appeal reaction’ resulting in the provision of enough energy-rich fuels, like glucose and free fatty acids, to fulfill the needs of an activated immune system.”  What the authors are talking about here is the ADRENAL GLANDS kicking in to boost production of cortisol — the stress hormone, whose purpose is simply to jack your blood sugar as quickly as possible. While in the right circumstances, this is normal physiology, when people become stressed out emotionally, mentally, physically, dietarily, etc, bad things happen hormonally and immunologically.  “If inflammation becomes chronic, as in chronic inflammatory illness [HERE is a list of them], the system changes into a ‘chronic inflammatory condition’ that is characterized by increased activity of the HPA axis without immunosuppression.  If a ‘chronic inflammatory configuration’ persists, as in autoimmunity, the effects are detrimental because of the persistently increased SNS activity, HPA activity, and the resultant chronic catabolic state.”  In other words, your body is constantly “suppressing” or dampening your immune system responses to keep it from attacking itself (AUTOIMMUNITY).  Rampant inflammation from any source, including Sympathetic Dominance, potentially leads to a freaky number of Autoimmune Diseases (HERE is a list of some of the more common ones) as well as living in a “catabolic state” (your body breaking itself down) because it hinders the body’s ability to regulate (dampen / soften) immune system responses. 
  • OTHERS:  Honestly, there are too many others to mention, with two of the biggies being FIBROMYALGIA and MIGRAINE HEADACHES right at the forefront (see Vagus Nerve and Vagus Nerve Stimulation, a Comprehensive Review: Part I, II, and III) in last March’s issue of Headache.




“Inflammatory responses play a central role in the development and persistence of many diseases and can lead to debilitating chronic pain. In many cases, inflammation is your body’s response to stress. Therefore, reducing ‘fight-or-flight’ responses in the nervous system and lowering biological markers for stress can also reduce inflammation. Typically, doctors prescribe medications to combat inflammation. However, there’s growing evidence that another way to combat inflammation is by engaging the vagus nerve and improving ‘vagal tone.'”The opening paragraph of Christopher Bergland’s article in one of last summers issues of Psychology Today (Vagus Nerve Stimulation Dramatically Reduces Inflammation)

“The ventral vagal system is involved with most aspects of social contact and pleasure. It guides eye contact, hearing, eating, speech, singing, nursing, kissing, smiling, and some would say, direct heart to heart contact. The social engagement system is a two way interaction system (receptive and expressive) based mainly in the eyes, ears, larynx, and mouth, but incorporating the entire face and the torso above the diaphragm. All twelve cranial nerves participate in the social and expressive functions. However, only four of these nerves have both motor (efferent) and sensory (afferent) functions. They are the trigeminal, facial, glossopharyngeal, and the vagus. Interestingly enough, it is also these four, along with the oculomotor nerve, that carry most of the parasympathetic fibers involved in the cranial nerve system!”   –From Michael Samsel’s Finding Feeling and Purpose

“The sympathetic and parasympathetic components of the autonomic nervous system control and regulate the function of various organs, glands, and involuntary muscles throughout the body (e.g., vocalization, swallowing, heart rate, respiration, gastric secretion, and intestinal motility). The vagus nerve is a mixed nerve composed of 20% “efferent” fibers (sending signals from the brain to the body) and 80% “afferent” (sensory) fibers (carrying information from the body to the brain).  The vagus nerve is a major component of the autonomic nervous system, has an important role in the regulation of metabolic homeostasis, and plays a key role in the neuroendocrine-immune axis to maintain homeostasis through its afferent and efferent pathways. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) refers to any technique that stimulates the vagus nerve, including manual or electrical stimulation.” Dr. Robert Howland from his 2014 study published in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports (Vagus Nerve Stimulation).

Did you catch the last sentence of Dr. Howland’s statement above?  Re-read it.  In essence, what Howland is saying is that you don’t necessarily need to have a Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) surgically implanted into your body (chest) to activate your vagus nerve. (For the record, there are several devices that work transcutaneously in similar fashion to a TENS unit, which don’t require surgery, although some require a prescription from a physician.) 

Bottom line, there are some simple DIY things that have the ability to stimulate the Vagus Nerve, and at least in theory, create an anti-inflammatory effect, helping tip your ANS away from the fight-or-flight sympathetics, toward the rest-and-digest parasympathetics.  For the record, none of this is new.  These are things that the brilliant Functional Neurologist, DR. TED CARRICK, was teaching over three decades ago (and touted by the equally brilliant DR. KHARRAZIAN in the video above).

  • GARGLING OR GAGGING:  Either of these activities (gagging is not so much an activity as it is a reflex) are neurologically controlled by the Vagus Nerve.  Just be aware that this is the sort of full-on kind of thing you might want to do while in the shower, as you need to be intense enough to make yourself tear if possible (watch the video above).  Also, because the Vagus is one of the six Cranial Nerves used in swallowing, if you are alone and in your car, repeatedly making the “GULP SOUND” could prove beneficial as well.  I also found several studies showing that chewing gum can be beneficial as far as VNS is concerned.  Want to see the best and easiest way to gag (as well as laugh, which is also a PNS stimulant)?  Watch THIS HILARIOUS FAMILY-FRIENDLY VIDEO.
  • HUMMING, SPEAKING, SINGING, TALKING:  Not only are these activities typically associated with relaxation, they stimulate the Vagus Nerve because the vocal cords are innervated by the recurrent laryngeal and superior laryngeal nerves, which are branches of the Vagus Nerve.  As far as listening to music, the studies I looked at seemed to be a wash.  I did, however, find a study showing that New Age music decreased sympathetic response by about a third — maybe it’s why I’ve always liked ENYA so much.
  • AVOID SUGAR AND JUNK CARBS / CONSUME A HEALTHY DIET:  A cruddy diet is an ANS disaster!  Why do people get ADDICTED TO sugar, soda, junk carbs etc?  Research has shown they have drug-like properties that are more powerful than cocaine or methamphetamine.  One of the reasons is that the these metabolic pathways crank the adrenals, providing a short-term boost of energy (can anyone say Energy Drink?), while actually burning out these organs and glandular systems.  For instance, if I eat very many carbs, my heart races.  Can anyone say fight-or-flight?  Just remember that because sympathetic stimulation tends to increase inflammation, and inflammation tends to increase sympathetic tone (the self-perpetuating cycle we spoke of earlier), diet can be a beautiful way to help balance the ANS.  There are mountains of online information about what foods to eat and what foods to avoid.  A simple rule of thumb, however, is that SUGAR IS INCREDIBLY INFLAMMATORY, while ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIETS tend to tip your ANS away from sympathetic control, toward the PNS.  There are also a number of studies showing that VARIOUS FORMS OF FASTING can be beneficial.  Another thing to at least contemplate is a KETOGENIC DIET.  Why?  Take a look at the results of this study (Short-Chain Fatty acids and Ketones Directly Regulate Sympathetic Nervous System…) published in a 2011 issue of PNAS.  “Under ketogenic conditions, ketone bodies produced in the liver from fatty acids are used as the main energy sources. To balance energy intake, dietary excess and starvation trigger an increase or a decrease in energy expenditure, respectively, by regulating the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).  Here, we show that SCFAs and ketone bodies directly regulate SNS activity via GPR41, a protein-coupled receptor for SCFAs, at the level of the sympathetic ganglion. A ketone body, β-hydroxybutyrate, suppressed SNS activity by antagonizing GPR41. These findings establish that SCFAs and ketone bodies directly regulate GPR41-mediated SNS activity…
  • OMEGA THREE FATTY ACIDS:  It’s fairly simple folks; fat is good for you — even (gulp) animal fat — as long as it’s the right kind of animal fat (HERE).  Allow me to show you something that’s super cool.  If you cruise on over to Oil of Pisces or PubMed, you’ll notice that there are dozens of studies on EPA / DHA (the active Omega-3 oils) for treating people with various sorts of arrhythmias (problems with hear rate — can anyone say HRV?).  Not surprisingly, a 2006 issue of Vascular Health and Risk Management (A Review of Omega-3 Ethyl Esters for Cardiovascular Prevention and Treatment of Increased Blood Triglyceride Levels) let the cat out of the bag by revealing “The two marine omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), prevalent in fish and fish oils, have been investigated……  Pro-atherogenic cytokines are reduced, as are markers of endothelial activation. Endothelial function is improved, vascular occlusion is reduced, and the course of coronary atherosclerosis is mitigated. Heart rate is reduced, and heart rate variability is increased by EPA and DHA. An antiarrhythmic effect can be demonstrated on the supraventricular and the ventricular level.”  Less inflammation, lower heart rate, increased HRV.  It’s a pretty darn good combination.  But these don’t necessarily have to come from fish. Around here, farm eggs (high in Omega-3’s) can be purchased just about anywhere.  As for meat that’s high in Omega-3’s, hunt your own deer (HERE), or get your meat / poultry from any number of locals.
  • GUT HEALTH:  When it comes to health, the Gut is everything.  It houses the biggest part of your immune system (80%), and manufactures something like 90% of your body’s serotonin / melotonin (HERE).  And that’s just for starters.  If your Gut is screwed up, you are going to have all sorts of health issues.  All sorts.  Period.  Issues that can neurologically reflex back to the brain via the Vagus Nerve.  It’s why I continue to beat the twin drums (call them bongos if you want) of GUT HEALTH and FECAL MICROBIOTA TRANSPLANTS (FMT).  For those of you who think this bullet is as easy as simply taking some probiotics, you might want to read THIS POST.
  • COLD SHOWERS / COLD BATHS / COLD WATER ON THE FACE:  Exposure to cold water causes the body to kick in its anti-drowning self-preservation machinery (the “Diving Reflex”) by slowing the heart rate and generally increasing vagal / parasympathetic tone.  And for you guys reading this, exposing the jewels to cold water can be a great TESTOSTERONE BOOSTER as well.  The parasympathetic boost from the cold water can be significant.
  • DEEP BREATHING USING THE DIAPHRAGM:  There are essentially three types of breathing; ACCESSORY BREATHING done with the neck and shoulders, chest breathing, and deep breathing that comes from the belly or diaphragm.  Deep Breathing generally involves slowing your rate of respiration to about half of normal, using your stomach / diaphragm, and making sure you exhale slowly.  Along these same lines, restricting your breath and bearing down like you are on the toilet (a Valsalva Maneuver — something we use to give us an idea whether or not a disc might be herniated) can be of benefit as well.  I have actually seen devices that purposefully restrict breathing for this very purpose.  Although the diaphragm itself is innervated by the Phrenic Nerve (from the mid-cervical spine), the Vagus Nerve passes through it, which typically indicates some degree of neurological control. There is a COOL LITTLE E-BOOK on Amazon by computer guru, Michael Phoenix, that you can look at as well (The Theory of Body Integration & the One Minute Workout).  Let’s be honest; who in their right mind would not want to know about a one-minute workout?  Besides dealing with breathing, Michael’s book focuses on PROPRIOCEPTION as well, which brings me to my next point.
  • EXERCISE / YOGA / STRETCHING / TAI CHI / MOVING:  I will warn you, there are many types of exercise that stimulate the sympathetics as opposed to the parasympathetics.  It’s probably why when I head into the gym (at least to WHEN IT COMES TO STRENGTH TRAINING), I’m listening to something that will temporarily crank my energy levels by juicing my sympathetics.  Because so much proprioception is on or near the spine, CHIROPRACTIC ADJUSTMENTS, various sorts of body work, or even Tissue Remodeling (see last the link in the previous bullet) have great potential to be helpful as well.  Although I do not do it in my clinic, a significant number of natural healers (including chiros — especially those doing Ulan’s work) actually measure the effects of their treatment via HRV — the medical standard for determining the state of the ANS.  A high HRV is good, indicating parasympathetic dominance, while a low HRV shows sympathetic dominance.  Again, HRV the basis for biofeedback.
  • TAKE CARE OF YOUR THORACOLUMBAR SPINE:  The first video in this post (“Crash Course” videos are incredible and I highly recommend you take the eight minutes or so to watch it) mentions that the sympathetic nervous system originates in the THORACOLUMBAR SPINE.  In essence, this means that if you have FASCIAL ADHESIONS in this area, you are not only likely causing pain, you are likely perpetually stimulating your sympathetics to some degree or other.  Once things get real bad (like say failed back surgery syndrome), this effect can actually start to inhibit sympathetics (like HERE).  However, for the average, everyday, run-of-the-mill chronic low back pain person, you are likely stimulating your SNS via this ultra-common dysfunction.
  • POSITIVE THINKING, LOVE, LAUGHTER, AND RELATIONSHIPS:  Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Thoughts are real and they have consequences — something that one of my coaches is always talking about (HERE).   I’ll throw prayer and meditation into this bullet as well, as there are plenty of studies showing that they also increase vagal tone and HRV.  On the other hand, are you stimulating your sympathetics with an addiction to PORN OR SCREENS?  Stop it already!   And what about love?  Four years ago, eight researchers from the University of North Carolina published a study in Psychological Science (How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone) in which they talked about a very cool self-perpetuating cycle.  “participants were randomly assigned to an intervention group that self-generated positive emotions via loving-kindness meditation or to a waiting-list control group. Participants in the intervention group increased in positive emotions relative to those in the control group, an effect moderated by baseline vagal tone, a proxy index of physical health. Increased positive emotions, in turn, produced increases in vagal tone, an effect mediated by increased perceptions of social connections. This experimental evidence identifies one mechanism-perceptions of social connections-through which positive emotions build physical health, indexed as vagal tone. Results suggest that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic.”  If you did not grasp the amazing implication of this paragraph, re-read it until you do.
  • SEX:  Hopefully for you, this bullet goes along with the previous bullet.  Although both sides of the ANS (the PNS and the SNS) are used in sex, THIS CHAPTER of the book Neuroscience (Autonomic Regulation of Sexual Function) shows that even though it can certainly get your heart racing, sex is much more a function of the PNS than the SNS. This is why the PNS is often times called the “feed and breed” portion of the ANS.  I’m not sure I can think of a better way to stimulate the parasympthetics!
  • ACUPUNCTURE:  Having been certified in acupuncture since 1992, even though I do little of it any more (unless it’s with my microcurrent unit), some of the wildest and most amazing things I’ve ever seen in the field of natural health were accomplished using acupuncture.  There are tons of articles on using acupuncture to tone down the Vagus Nerve, and many DIY videos on YouTube on hitting certain points with simulators (hand-held sparkers) to increase PNS tone.
  • MASSAGE OR RUBBING THE SIDES OF YOUR OWN NECK:  When it comes to relaxation, why does massage or rubbing the sides of the neck work so well beyond the mechanical and proprioceptive aspect of rubbing the tissue?  Can anyone say VASO-VAGAL RESPONSE?
  • GET AN HRV APP FOR YOUR PHONE:  Because HRV has been the standard for testing the ANS for decades, and because apps for your phone are abundant (and in many cases, free), consider tracking your HRV.  Also, there are a growing number of electrical VNS devices on the market as well, many that do not require surgery.  No, I cannot vouch for the veracity of any of them.
  • OTHERS:  This list is by no means the last word.  However, it will provide you a good starting point.

Today’s post is just one aspect of what it might take to reclaim your health start taking your life back.  If you want to see a post that contains the whole enchilada, take a look at THIS.  Nope; I’m not telling you it’s a cure-all.  But before you spend a bundle with a SPECIALIST IN FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE, realize that this simple protocol has a great potential to effectively address your problems and save you a bundle in the process!


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One Response

  1. Thank you for an incredible resource. I keep coming back to this blog post and learn something every time. I wish your office was somewhere near me (clear across the country in Atlanta!).

    I have question about changing this dominance – in the absence of any pain, what is best modality out there for someone to use? When someone is in distress, the list of interventions could be very daunting – they just want relief and more things to do stresses them out further. In my opinion (I am an Ayurvedic practitioner), several Ayurvedic body therapies are very successful in tipping the scale. However the lack of such resources in this country precludes that option. The next best thing seems to be a good Acupuncturist who can work with the body’s nerve and energy channels. Any thoughts you could share on this would be very useful.

    Once again, thanks for your insights and work!

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