Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Activating the Vagus Nerve Might Lower Your Covid-19 Risk

While physical distancing and masks are crucial, social interaction could calm the immune system and turn down inflammation

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readNov 25, 2020

Like other apes, humans are social animals. We evolved to live in codependent communities, and we do poorly if deprived of interpersonal contact.

Everyone has a different threshold for social interaction. But nearly all of us tend to become distressed when cut off from others, and our immune system responds to this distress by ramping up its defenses. A new study in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews finds that social isolation is associated with a rise in inflammation-promoting molecules, including some that are implicated in severe Covid-19. And past research has linked loneliness to poor cellular immune health and increased viral loads during an infection.

All of these cellular and immune changes are worrying in the context of SARS-CoV-2. Inflammation is a unifying feature of illness, and out-of-control inflammation seems to be a common feature of severe Covid-19.

“People [who have Covid-19] are not dying because of a high viral load, they’re dying because of a high cytokine load,” says Stephen Porges, PhD, a distinguished university scientist at Indiana University. Cytokines are immune cells that can turn up or down inflammation. In many cases of severe Covid-19, pro-inflammatory cytokines surge, and the resulting inflammation causes organ damage and death.

“Our nervous system requires social interaction. Without that information, our bodies can’t calm down.”

Porges says that this now infamous “cytokine storm” can build up for a number of reasons. Medical conditions such as obesity and diabetes — both of which are established risk factors for severe Covid-19 — tend to raise a person’s cytokine load, he says…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.

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