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How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?

Disease & Conditions, Health, Mental Wellbeing, Sleep, Stress

How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?


Vagus nerve stimulation has become an exciting topic of conversation in recent years. Although the practice has been around for centuries, more and more people realize its potential for treating a variety of conditions.

So, how does vagus nerve stimulation work? This is one of many questions we’ll answer in this post, along with explaining how you can stimulate the vagus nerve from the comfort of your home with a vagus nerve stimulation device such as the Xen device.

Get to Know the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex nerve in the human body. It runs from the brainstem to the abdomen and controls many important functions, including heart rate, digestion, and immunity.

To better understand how vagus nerve stimulation works, it’s important to know a little more about the nervous system, starting with the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system brings on the fight-or-flight response. Other responsibilities of the sympathetic nervous system include increasing heart rate and blood pressure.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is the primary actor in this nervous system.

The vagus nerve is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” nerve because it’s responsible for functions like slowing heart rate and increasing digestion. It’s also known as the “anti-stress” nerve because it helps to offset the fight-or-flight response, or counter the sympathetic nervous system.

Now that we know a little bit more about the vagus nerve, let’s take a look at how vagus nerve stimulation works.

How Does Vagus Nerve Stimulation Work?

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a therapy that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to many of the body’s major organs, so stimulating it can have a wide range of effects.

VNS is most commonly used to treat epilepsy and depression. However, it’s also being studied as a treatment for migraines, anxiety, tinnitus, and Alzheimer’s disease. Along with medical benefits such as these, there are quality of life benefits as well.

VNS has improved sleep, increased energy levels, and reduced pain. It can also help to improve concentration and memory.

So how does vagus nerve stimulation actually work? First, let’s take a look at the specifics.

How VNS Works

There are two main ways to stimulate the vagus nerve: surgically and non-surgically.


Surgical vagus nerve stimulation involves implanting a device called a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS). The vagus nerve is stimulated with electrical impulses from a pulse generator device. The pulse generator is usually implanted under the skin in the chest area.

Wires from the pulse generator are threaded through the vagus nerve in the neck. These wires carry the electrical impulses to the vagus nerve.

The electrical impulses cause the vagus nerve to send signals to the brain. These signals help to modulate mood and alleviate symptoms of conditions like depression, anxiety, and epilepsy.

While vagus nerve stimulation is generally considered to be safe, there are some risks associated with the procedure. These risks include hoarseness, shortness of breath, neck pain, and tingling in the fingers or toes.

As with any medical procedure, discussing the risks and benefits with a doctor is essential before deciding if vagus nerve stimulation is right for you.


Non-surgical vagus nerve stimulation, also commonly called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, tends to involve stimulating the vagus nerve through the ear. For example, one might wear vagus nerve-stimulating headphones for a certain amount of time each day. These headphones target the vagus nerve, sending electrical impulses that help to modulate mood, improve sleep and concentration, and provide other benefits.

Non-invasive options such as this have helped make VNS more accessible to the masses, including those who might not have specific medical conditions that VNS could treat but still benefit from the general vagus nerve stimulation.

Other Methods of Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve is just one option for vagus nerve stimulation. Other methods include:


Used for centuries in religious and spiritual practices, chanting is now also being studied for its vagus nerve-stimulating effects. Chanting can help to increase heart rate variability, an indication of vagus nerve activity.

Chanting may also help to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, and boost immune system function.

Cold exposure

Exposing the body to cold temperatures can also help to stimulate the vagus nerve. This is because vagus nerve activity increases when the body’s temperature decreases.

Cold exposure can be done in a number of ways, including taking a cold shower or bath, swimming in cold water, or spending time in a sauna. In addition, cold plunges have become incredibly popular for their vagus nerve stimulating effects.

Research has shown that cold exposure can help to improve mood, reduce inflammation, and boost immune system function.


Regular exercise has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and increase heart rate variability. Exercise can also help to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, and boost immune system function.


Deep breathing and other types of breathwork can also help to stimulate the vagus nerve. Deep breathing helps increase heart rate variability (HRV) and reduce stress and anxiety.

Here’s a simple breathwork exercise to start you off:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  3. Slowly inhale through your nose, allowing your stomach to rise.
  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting your stomach fall.
  5. Repeat this breathwork exercise for at least 10-15 breaths.

So there you have it! These are just a few of the ways that vagus nerve stimulation can work. If you think vagus nerve stimulation might be suitable for you, be sure to talk to your doctor to find out more.

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