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Natural Ways to Support Vagus Nerve Function
Acupuncture is one means by which the vagus nerve can be stimulated. The reason why acupuncture produces so many beneficial effects may be because it can increase the vagus nerve's ability to regulate inflammatory responses in internal organs.30 The autonomic nervous system is involved in acupuncture's benefits because it is the connection between external sensory inputs and internal organ responses. Signals from many acupuncture points may travel to the vagus nerve, where they affect the function of the autonomic nervous system.30 Studies also have shown that tai chi can influence vagus nerve function.31 Heart rate variability increases immediately after both young and old men perform tai chi.32
As mentioned earlier in this article, heart rate variability is a marker of vagus nerve function. Studies have shown that a number of supplements can improve heart rate variability and vagus nerve function. For example, researchers investigated the effects of L-citrulline on resting heart rate variability and blood pressure in obese postmenopausal women.33 The researchers randomly divided the women to receive either L-citrulline or a placebo. Supplementation with L-citrulline resulted in improvements in heart rate variability and blood pressure as well as a significant increase in vagal tone. Beetroot juice is another supplement that increases heart rate variability at rest and during aerobic exercise in addition to reducing systolic blood pressure in human subjects.34 In subjects who consumed a multivitamin-mineral preparation together with 300 mg guarana, heart rate variability remained stable, whereas in participants consuming either caffeine or a placebo, heart rate variability significantly declined.35
Omega-3 fatty acids are another nutrient shown to affect vagus nerve functioning. Higher concentrations of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are associated with lower blood pressure and resting heart rate and higher heart rate variability.36 Another study found that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids were linked to higher heart rate variability during sleep-time.37 A review of the medical literature showed that short-term fish-oil supplementation enhanced vagal tone and thus improved heart rate variability.38
Optimal functioning of the vagus nerve can drive many aspects of our health. Chronic fatigue, depression, ADHD, obesity, cardiovascular conditions, and impaired immunity are all related to reduced function of the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve has relieved trigeminal nerve pain and migraine and cluster headaches and prevented acute kidney injury. Through its inflammation-dampening effect, vagus nerve stimulation could also be used successfully in inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, postoperative ileus, and rheumatoid arthritis. Acupuncture and tai chi can improve vagus nerve activity; and L-citrulline, beetroot juice, multivitamins, guarana, and omega-3 fatty acids have all been shown to increase heart rate variability, a marker of optimal vagus nerve function.
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Dr. Chris D. Meletis is an educator, international author, and lecturer. His personal mission is "Changing America's Health One Person at a Time." He believes that when people become educated about their bodies, that is the moment when true change and wellness begins. Dr. Meletis served as dean of naturopathic medicine and chief medical officer for 7 years at National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) and was awarded the 2003 Physician of the Year award by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. www.DrMeletis.com.
Kimberly Wilkes is a freelance writer specializing in health, science, nutrition, and complementary medicine. She has written more than 300 articles covering a variety of topics from the dangers of homocysteine to sugar's damaging effects on the heart. She is the editor of Complementary Prescriptions Journal and enjoys scouring the medical literature to find the latest health-related science.