So, what does stimulating the Vagus Nerve actually do?

So here’s what happens.

Your Vagus Nerve is one important guy. Kinda like the quarterback. (Most) organs function — or don’t function — depending on the communication (or lack thereof) between the Vagus Nerve and the organ itself. If the quarterback isn’t doing a good job, the other players can’t do theirs.

That important nerve runs throughout your body, similar to, as Kevin Tracey would explain, an “undersea cable” that delivers nerves to each organ.

Up until the research of Kevin and his team, physiologists mapped the nerve and its role in tons of different areas — but it never was connected to its role in the way the immune system operates.

Think of the Nervous System as a personal computer that is sending out and receiving data, as well as working as a security system checking in on everyone.

Think of the Immune System as a border patrol agent — it’s there to execute the mission, but its job is not necessarily to think for itself. The border patrol agent does its job based on the information he or she is receiving from security cameras/etc.

So, for inflammatory diseases, evidence has shown that the Vagus Nerve isn’t active enough — but until Kevin Tracey (as well as Paul Peter Tak) started their research, no one really correlated that it mattered with the production of inflammation — and therefore, the occurrence of disease.

When the Vagus Nerve is electrically stimulated (because for people like me, mine was snoozin’ on the job), it causes an electrical reaction that soon becomes a chemical reaction in the spleen.

So that electrical impulse travels down the nerve to the spleen, and when it gets there, it then becomes a chemical reaction.

That chemical reaction releases a neurotransmitter called “Norepinephrine.” So, a neurotransmitter is a chemical that is released at the end of a nerve. This chemical in particular, Norepinephrine, which is a chemical that is basically the thing that tells the body and brain that it’s time to take action — basically, it’s the guy at the gym that is trying to sign you up for a training package and they are super enthusiastic about the results you’re going to see.

The Norepinephrine, in this case, is going to regulate some unique T-cells (IE, he gonna whip their ass in beach body shape).

The T-cells in turn release another neurotransmitter called “Acetylcholine.”

In this case, we’re going to think of Acetylcholine as a diplomatic negotiator that always gets their way (but lovingly, of course).

The Acetylcholine travels to the Macrophages which are at the end of the process — Macrophages are a type of white blood cell, and here, they express something called an A7 Receptor, which are pro-inflammatory. This is the guy that is making too many pro-inflammatory Cytokines.

(This is all happening in the spleen, and I don’t know about you guys, but I never thought my spleen was all that important. Huh.)

The interaction between the Acetylcholine with the A7 receptor then TURNS OFF the inflammation — in this case, turning off the over-production of Cytokines, such as TNF, IL-1, IL-6, IL-8, and HMGB-1 — all of which cause inflammation…. While at the same time turning on IL-10, which is a nice, anti-inflammatory Cytokine. Think of IL-10 as the Mr. Rogers of Cytokines. We like him. He helps, not hurts. He wants to be your neighbor, and the other guys, (TNF and all those fellas), they don’t want to. And they refuse to wear a nice, welcoming sweater vest. And they think PBS sucks. See? Bad guys. PBS is great, and you can take that information to the bank.

Kevin says that when the Vagus Nerve is cut, it’s like a car is losing its ability to use its brakes — so inflammation can just run wild — and that’s also true if the Vagus Nerve isn’t functioning properly and in my case, wasn’t active enough.

So, what diseases does the Vagus Nerve and stimulation of it have the potential to treat?

Rheumatoid Arthritis. Crohn’s. Alzheimer’s. Lupus. And so many more.

These big words have made my eyes a little sleepy! But — I hope that how my Vagus Nerve stimulator works now makes sense — as Kevin Tracey says, “If you don’t understand the mechanisms of these devices, it can be perceived as snake oil,” — and he’s right and I’ve heard it time and time again (mostly from doctors that are weary and skeptical of this new era of bioelectronic medicine).

Yet once we understand how and why it works, it makes sense.

In high school, I took a class called, “Power, Energy, and Transportation,” — prior to that class, I had ZERO scope of understanding for how a car engine worked — I just knew that I turned a key and got where I needed to go. After taking the class, however, I was able to understand the mechanisms of actions that occur in order for the engine itself to run as a whole —

— and with Vagus Nerve Stimulation, it is the same thing —

My body is the car itself.

My Vagus Nerve Stimulator is the Flywheel, which allows inertia to keep the crankshaft turning smoothly during the times when power is not being applied.

The Vagus Nerve is the crankshaft that connects the rods (the nerves) to the pistons (different organs in the body).

…. you get the point.

As a society, it is necessary that we understand our body’s mechanisms — because then, when one of the mechanisms fail, we can understand what steps we can take to repair it, just like we do with everything else we have to deal with in life — our cars, our homes, and more.

Sources:
“The Inflammatory Reflex” by Kevin J Tracey, Nature Publishing Group
“The Mind-Body Interface.” The Academy of Medical Sciences 2017 FORUM Lecture

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