Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Science Confirms That the Vagus Nerve Is Key to Well-being

The mysterious nerve network that quiets pain and stress — and may defeat disease

Elemental
Published in
5 min readDec 19, 2019

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TTake a deep breath. Hug a friend. Reach for the ceiling and stretch your limbs. Each of these simple acts bestows a sense of calm and comfort. And each works its soothing magic in part by activating a complicated system of nerves that connects the brain to the heart, the gut, the immune system, and many of the organs. That system is known collectively as the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves, which sprawl out from the brain and into the body like an intricate network of roots. These nerve networks act as lines of communication between the brain and the body’s many systems and organs. Some of the cranial nerves interpret sensory information collected by the skin, eyes, or tongue. Others control muscles or communicate with glands.

The vagus nerve, also called the “10th cranial nerve,” is the longest, largest, and most complex of the cranial nerves, and in some ways it’s also the least understood. Experts have linked its activity to symptom changes in people with migraine headaches, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, epilepsy, arthritis, and many other common ailments. The more science learns about the nerve, the more it seems like a better understanding of the vagus nerve function could unlock new doors to treating all manner of human suffering.

Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” which is apt when one considers all the different parts of the body the vagus nerve reaches. “It seems like every year somebody finds a new organ or system that it talks with,” says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

“There’s a massive bioelectrical and biochemical series of events that the vagus nerve is responsible for, and all that is almost impossible to map.”

Field says that branches of the vagus nerve are connected to the face and voice. “We know that depressed people have low vagal activity, and this is associated with less intonation and…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

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.