Viva Vagus! What Happens in the Vagus Nerve Affects Every Part of Our Lives - Page 2

Author // Susan Bennett

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Viva Vagus! What Happens in the Vagus Nerve Affects Every Part of Our Lives
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Why do individuals with autism have difficulty making eye contact? The neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social-engagement system can only be expressed when the nerve system detects the environment as safe. You can’t make eye contact in flightor- fight mode.

Why do some autistic individuals speak with unusual modulation of the voice and enunciation? The vagus helps to modulate the larynx and muscles used for speech.

Why do individuals on the spectrum often lack animation in their faces, especially the level of the nose and above? The vagus nerve triggers animation in the facial muscles.

Why does auditory integration training work so well for many individuals on the spectrum? Auditory integration training stimulates the vagus nerve through the ear, increasing muscle tone that is normally stimulated directly through the vagus nerve.

What helps stimulate the vagus nerve to function more optimally? Deep breathing exercises, meditation, aerobic exercise (brisk walking, bicycling, running jogging), martial arts training, tap dancing, auditory integration training, interactive metronome therapy, drumming, oxygen therapies (hyperbaric oxygen), spinning, cranial sacral massage, and chiropractic adjustments. Relaxed, positive social interactions with friendly people who like the person and whom the person trusts also help.

Why do half of autistic individuals improve in level of functioning when they have a fever? The mechanism that spikes a fever switches on metabolic systems in the body normally switched on by a fully functional vagus nerve.

Why is the immune system frequently depressed in individuals with autism, subjecting them to many infections? The vagus nerve stimulates the immune system to fight off infections. Why do individuals with autism often have high levels of toxins and heavy metals? The vagus nerve stimulates the body to detoxify.

Why is there a deficiency in B-12 in most individuals within the autism spectrum? The vagus nerve stimulates the production of intrinsic factor in the small intestine, which the body needs to make B-12.

What nutritional support can help protect and repair the vagus nerve? Viruses tend to activate when exposed to excessive levels of sugar and carbohydrates. Foods and supplements that support neurological repair, such as coconut oil and milk, sunflower lecithin, phosphatidyl serine, and choline, may also help.

What can I do to calm an overactive sympathetic nerve system that’s keeping my child in fight-or-flight mode? Reduce external stressors, provide a calm, safe environment, and use humor to address potentially stressful situations. There are also supplements that can lower levels of cortisol. Taking steps to identify and rid the body of infections will also help to calm down the parasympathetic nerve system.

Why do meditation and relaxation techniques help? Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve connections in the lung area. So, for example, if you regularly and deeply breathe in through your nose and expand your lungs, then hold in your breath for two seconds and release it through your mouth, you can immediately lower your blood pressure. The vagus nerve produces calm and feelings of well-being—the opposite of the sympathetic fight-orflight response. Vagal tone is measured by tracking how the heart rate speeds up and slows down during breathing. Increased vagal tone stimulates better social feelings, which in turn stimulates better vagal tone in a virtuous cycle. In one study, meditators had increased vagal tone after nine weeks, which correlated with positive emotions.

Are there mainstream therapies being developed to improve the function of the vagus nerve? Pharmaceutical companies are currently sinking millions of dollars into research in this area to develop both drugs and devices to help stimulate the vagus nerve. Preliminary studies have indicated that vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy currently used to reduce pharmacoresistant seizures in epilepsy may improve neurocognitive performance in individuals with autism, as well as alleviate depression in individuals with untreatable depression. The therapy is a surgical solution, in which a pacemaker-like device is implanted in the body to continually stimulate the vagus nerve. In the journal Epilepsy Behavior, researcher Y.D. Park reported a study with 59 autistic patients and six with Landau-Kleffner syndrome (epileptic aphasia). Improvements were reported in all areas of quality of life monitored, particularly alertness (76 percent at 12 months). But better standardized and long-term studies are required to assess the results better.

I’m personally not recommending an invasive surgery, but the concept of stimulating the vagus shows great promise.

Pathways Issue 51 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #51.

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