How to Control Inflammation with Your Brain

By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND on Monday November 30th, 2015

Unlocking the power of the Vagus Nerve for self healing

I read an article yesterday that has me extremely excited about the implications. The article is called ‘Hacking the Nervous System’ by Gaia Vince. In the article, the author describes the experience of a woman who suffered from severe, debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and her eventual treatment with a device which minimized inflammation by simply stimulating the vagus nerve.

What this means, is that by activating the vagus nerve which works through the parasympathetic nervous system, we can greatly influence inflammation and the immune system. The role of the brain on body inflammation can be profound. If you suffer from digestive complaints, high blood pressure, depression or any inflammatory condition, please read on. Let me explain the possible implications step by step.

What is the vagus nerve?

First of all, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body which originates in the brain as cranial nerve ten, travels down from the neck and then passes around the digestive system, liver, spleen, pancreas, heart and lungs. This nerve is a major player in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the ‘rest and digest’ part (opposite to the sympathetic nervous system which is ‘fight or flight’).

Alt text hereThe Vagus Nerve travels all the way from the brain to the digestive system

Vagal tone

The tone of the vagus nerve is key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagal tone is measured by tracking your heart-rate alongside your breathing rate. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. Higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.

What is high vagal tone associated with?

High vagal tone improves the function of many body systems, causing better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, improved digestion via better production of stomach basic and digestive enzymes, and reduced migraines. Higher vagal tone is also associated with better mood, less anxiety and more stress resilience.

One of the most interesting roles of the vagus nerve is that it essentially reads the gut microbiome and initiates a response to modulate inflammation based on whether or not it detects pathogenic versus non-pathogenic organisms. In this way, the gut microbiome can have an affect on your mood, stress levels and overall inflammation.

What is low vagal tone associated with?

Low vagal tone is associated with cardiovascular conditions and strokes, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, and much higher rates of inflammatory conditions. Inflammatory conditions include all autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, endometriosis, autoimmune thyroid conditions, lupus and more).

Alt text hereBreathing exercises are a great way to tone your vagus nerve

How do we increase vagal tone?

In the article above, vagal tone was increased through a device that stimulated the vagus nerve. The good news is that you have access to this on your own, but it does require regular practice. To some degree, you are genetically predisposed to varying levels of vagal tone, but this still doesn’t mean that you can’t change it. Here are some ways to tone the vagus nerve:

  1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing from your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
  2. Humming. Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum a song, or even better repeat the sound ‘OM’.
  3. Speaking. Similarly speaking is helpful for vagal tone, due to the connection to the vocal cords.
  4. Washing your face with cold water. The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.
  5. Meditation, especially loving kindness meditation which promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. A 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that increasing positive emotions led to increased social closeness, and an improvement in vagal tone.
  6. Balancing the gut microbiome. The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone.
Alt text hereHow to control inflammation with your brain

Managing the body’s inflammatory response

The implications of such simple and basic practices on your overall health, and in particular on inflammation are far-reaching. If you suffer from an inflammatory condition, digestive upset, high blood pressure or depression, a closer look at vagal tone is highly recommended.

We’ve known for years that breathing exercises and meditation are helpful for our health, but it is so fascinating to learn the mechanism by which they work. I hope this short article has inspired you to begin a meditation practice, as it has for me, and also to look for other means to manage the body’s inflammatory response.

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.




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Forsythe P, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA.Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axis communication. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:115-33.

Kok, B, Fredrickson, B, Coffey, K, et al. How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone. Psychological Science 2013 24: 1123


47 Responses to How to Control Inflammation with Your Brain

  1. I have been doing a deep breathing with intention of healing a painful part of my body and it works. Now I know, it is about vagus nerve breathing!

    Thank you for the article.

  2. I use heart-focused breathing for cardiac coherence. (See <heartmath.com) I also have a program on my iPhone that reads the distance between each beat (via an ear clip) that allows me to increase my cardiac coherence and body balance.

  3. I found this article very helpful – I am shocked at the hate comments on this thread though – Just sayin’ –

  4. Every problem I have stems from something being inflamed; Asthma, lungs inflamed, Osteoarthritis, joints inflamed, IBS, bowels inflamed. I think maybe I really need this!!!! Thanks.

    • Hi Fifi, I take a herbal activator that activates a pathway in your body naturally, it will reduce your oxidative stress by 40% within 30 days it works a treat?

  5. The author forgot the BIG vagal stimulation–sexual excitement. How could the author have overlooked this? How???

  6. After having out of control pain for so long and trying my best to learn to just live with it….I began to pay attention to my breathing and also immediate meditations when I feel the pain beginning to take hold…it has now become natural to breathe correctly. My pain is nearly completly gone. Articles like this are a blessing.

  7. When I sleep on my left side i have this throbbing sensation behind my left ear. It feels like heart beat, I suffer from autoimmune disorder, spondylosis, IBS, dry eye syndrome, neck & arm pain. So many neurosurgeons I visited here in UAE , none of them can diagnose the reason of throbbing effect behind my ear, some tell me to put ice on the head, some tells me to take vitamin B, one of them even prescribed high BP medication even though I don’t have BP. Thanks for the article, it explains the cause.

    • In Islam we are to sleep on our Right side.

      The heart is on the left side so sleeping on the left increases pressure on the heart and presumably on your left ear.

      Medicine is basically junk made up by fake jews and their money loving doctor friends who form corporations and influence government only for coin.

      Then they will tell you that they are your friend and that you should see a doctor and get insurance.

      But the reality is that, since you were young, you were warned repeatedly about many things. So many things that you are embroiled in a myriad of problems, and no way out, except, that which you were repeatedly warned about.

  8. This sounds utterly stupid and brainless. Breathing and speaking are things most people do all day long. How is a nerve toned or not toned? A nerve hurts or is at peace. Claiming this as if it is a cause of CFS and other conditions is a disservice to all those who suffer. Obviously meant to promote selling some device. Complete garbage.

  9. So excited to see this article. So much we still don’t know or understand about the body and yet in recent years a LOT is emerging to help us be healthier in body, mind and spirit. I do some of these things already but not all, so I have some new things to do. Thanks 🙂

  10. Number 4 is due to the water activating the mammalian dive reflex! It causes our heart rates to drop, BP to lower, and general improvement of oxygenation of the body.

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