Anti-Aging

Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation Can Slow Your Biological Aging Clock

Non-Invasive Vagus Nerve Stimulation Can Slow Your Biological Aging Clock about undefined
When it comes to aging, the clock never stops ticking. All of us, of course,
are constantly aging.

But even though chronological time steadily ticks forward, how quickly you age biologically may be sped up or slowed down depending on your daily lifestyle habits. Added to that, researchers now believe that stimulating one large nerve that runs from your head down your body can be helpful for improving the way you age.

These scientists are focused on the vagus nerve. It's the main nerve of what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system. This nervous system helps regulate your heart rate, digestion and immune system, as well as many other processes in your body that operate involuntarily, without your conscious control.

Luckily, the vagus nerve is now easy to stimulate without the invasive surgical treatments of the past. So, let's see how this new, non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation therapy can help your brain, heart, nervous system and other parts of your body remain resilient against aging and illness.
 

Key Takeaways

  • The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body, regulating almost all of your body's involuntary processes from your heart rate to your immune system.
  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a surgical procedure that can help treat a number of chronic conditions. Is is related to, but not the same as, deep brain stimulation (DBS).
  • A non-invasive form of vagus nerve stimulation, called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), is easy and painless. What's more, it's now being shown to slow the signs and symptoms of aging and improve everything from heart health to memory sharpness.

What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves in the body and is responsible for various bodily functions, including digestion, heart rate, and breathing. It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, carrying both sensory and motor fibers.

The vagus nerve carries signals between the brain, heart, and digestive system, playing a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions such as digestion, heart rate, and the immune system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping the body in a healthy state of calm and is one part of the autonomic nervous system.

The second part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic nervous system, which activates fight or flight response during a threat. 

What is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Vagus nerve stimulation (also known as vagal nerve stimulation) is a medical procedure that uses an implanted device to send regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve.  The vagus nerve -- and these electrical currents-- run from the lower part of the brain through the neck to the chest and abdomen.
 
The implanted device, similar to a pacemaker, is programmed to deliver pulses, or stimulation, at regular intervals. This electrical stimulation alters brain activity and is thought to have therapeutic effects for various conditions, such as epilepsy, depression, and potentially other neurological disorders.

The vagus nerve stimulation device is implanted under the skin in the left chest area, with an electrode or wire attached to the generator device and placed under the skin, and the wire is attached to or wound around the vagus nerve in the neck.

What is vagus nerve stimulation used for?

Vagus nerve stimulation therapy is designed to change how brain cells work by providing electrical stimulation to certain areas of the brain.

Vagus nerve stimulation is similar to deep brain stimulation but it is a different treatment. While deep brain stimulation is stimulating areas of the brain directly, vagus nerve stimulation is benefiting the brain through the nervous system.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of certain medical conditions. It's traditionally used for:
  • Epilepsy treatment: Vagus nerve stimulation is approved as an add-on therapy for adults and children with epilepsy who have not achieved adequate seizure control with other treatments. It may prevent or lessen seizures by sending regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve.
  • Treatment-Resistant Depression: Vagus nerve stimulation is also approved to treat chronic or recurrent depression in adults who have not had success with other treatments. The device works by sending stimulation to areas of the brain that affect mood.
  • Stroke Rehabilitation: Vagus nerve stimulation has been approved as an aid for rehabilitation when someone has trouble using their hand or arm after a stroke. The
stimulation helps create new pathways in the brain as the person performs exercises, aiding in the process of regaining function.
  • Numerous chronic diseases: Current research is exploring the potential benefits of vagus nerve stimulation for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, bipolar disorder, obesity, and Alzheimer's disease. While these applications are still investigational, they represent potential areas for future use of vagus nerve stimulation.

When it comes to receiving anti-aging benefits, vagus nerve stimulation surgery has not been top of mind for leading anti-aging doctors, simply because of the invasiveness of the procedure and the side effects.

Side effects of vagus nerve stimulation surgery

The side effects of vagus nerve stimulation surgery may include:
  • Voice changes such as hoarseness or voice alteration.
  • Throat and neck discomfort, a cough or tingling sensation in the throat or neck.
  • Respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, especially at night.
  • Digestive problems such as indigestion and nausea.
  • Sensory issues such as numbness and tingling sensations.
Up until recently, the only thing that doctors could do was treat these symptoms by adjusting the electrical impulses which can help minimize any uncomfortable effects. Even still, this makes the treatment less than ideal.
That's why we've got some pretty great news.

Thanks to technological advances, vagus nerve stimulation need not involve an operation. In fact, there's a new, non-invasive treatment that's providing a host of health benefits that go beyond the treatment of illness. Now researchers are saying this simple treatment can easily help anyone who wants to fight aging.

What is non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation (transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation)?

Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, is a safe technique that involves the application of electrical current to the skin over the auricular branch of the vagus nerve-- or the area of the nerve near your ear. This method enhances brain function and has been used to enhance various cognitive and physiological processes.

The stimulation is typically applied using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine with customized auricular (ear) electrode clips. Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is usually performed for a specific duration with a defined pulse width and frequency for electrical stimulation.
 
How does this work?

The research shows that the technique of transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is an easier, less invasive way to trigger vagus nerve stimulation. In fact, the anatomical studies of the ear suggest that the tragus (the inner side of the external ear, in front of the passage to the ear), concha (the depression in the external ear leading to its central opening), and cymba concha (the upper, smaller part of the external ear), are the places on the human body where there are vagus nerve fibers, and it is believed that transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation stimulates these fibers.

What's more, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation is considered safe and effective.

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has no major side effects

The potential adverse events arising from transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation are minimal, with reported side effects such as itching, stinging, or a burning sensation from the electrodes, and reddening of the skin.

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has been developed as a non-invasive, less expensive, and easily applicable alternative to invasive cervical vagus nerve stimulation, offering potential widespread accessibility and clinical benefits. And according to the latest science, the benefits are many.

What are the Health Benefits of Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Vagus Nerve Stimulation?

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has been studied for its potential benefits in cognitive aging, and autonomic nervous system function in people over the age of 55. It's considered by researchers in the field to be a promising alternative to invasive vagus nerve stimulation. Let's take a closer look...

Bolsters your memory and brain health

The vagus nerve plays a significant role in cognitive function, particularly in memory, learning, and information processing. Research has shown that vagus nerve stimulation can modulate memory consolidation processes, which makes it important in the formation of long-term memories.

Additionally, vagus nerve stimulation has been associated with enhanced learning and memory through its effects on plasticity and memory in animal models. What's more, it has been shown to alter the epigenetic landscape (the way genes work), which could be one reason for its cognition-enhancing effects.

Overall, the vagus nerve's role in cognitive function is multifaceted, involving influence on memory, learning, and brain plasticity, making it a key component for anyone interested in understanding and potentially enhancing cognitive processes.

Specifically, researchers say vagus nerve stimulation appears to be especially helpful for people suffering from moderate cognitive impairment (MCI).

The Challenge of Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment is a distressing memory problem that sometimes occurs as we age and is often a precursor to developing Alzheimer’s disease. It’s estimated that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of people over the age of 65 have MCI and the risk grows as you get older.

If you suffer from diabetes, stroke or depression, you run an increased risk of MCI. Long term studies of MCI vary in their results, but they generally show that within ten years of developing MCI, 60 to 100 percent of MCI sufferers show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation offers new hope.

Improves Memory in Mild Cognitive Impairment

Researchers in Asia tested out six months of twice daily (on weekdays) transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation on 30 people, aged 55 to 75-years-old with MCI. They found that transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation significantly improved memory and overall cognition.

In this research, the investigators stimulated points on the ear where the vagus nerve is just under the surface. The two points they used are acupuncture points which, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, are considered to be on the heart and kidney meridians.

Other studies have shown that this stimulation can improve what’s called the brain’s executive function, which includes mental skills focusing your attention, dealing with emotions and keeping your self-control. Research in Germany, for example, shows that stimulating the vagus nerve helps people better cope with settling conflict and disagreements with others.
 
Other tests in Europe have found that it stimulates the release of norepinephrine in the hippocampus (an important memory center) and improves the ability to socially interact with others and recognize other people’s emotions.

Improves mental health

While more research is needed on transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, research suggests that traditional vagus nerve stimulation has been associated with various mental health benefits, including that it:
  • Relieves treatment resistant depression: Vagus nerve stimulation has been used to treat chronic, treatment-resistant depression and has a positive effect on mental health.
  • Balances emotions: Stimulation of the vagus nerve may regulate emotions, helping individuals feel calm, clear, and compassionate. This in and of itself can help fight mild cognitive impairment.
There are also a number of benefits for heart health.

Strengthens heart health

Vagus nerve stimulation can help prevent cardiovascular disease. For example, vagus nerve stimulation can:
  • Lower the risk of AFib: An investigation at the University of Oklahoma demonstrates that six months of vagal stimulation can lower the occurrence of AFib – the condition that causes the heartbeat to become fast and irregular – and thereby may also reduce the risk of stroke.
  • Reduce blood pressure: As we age, our blood pressure tends to rise and can potentially lead to heart disease and brain issues. But a study at the University of Toledo demonstrates that stimulating this nerve “may be a promising potential approach to treating hypertension.”
  • Lower chronic inflammation: As we get older, the immune system tends to go into harmful inflammation mode over and over again – a problem often referred to as “inflammaging.” However, research at Harvard (and other institutions) has discovered that working with the vagus nerve “can control the magnitude and duration of inflammation.” The Harvard scientists note that this technique could possibly be used to dampen inflammation connected to rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Improve Heart Rate Variability: Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to decrease heart rate and also improve heart rate variability, an indicator of the heart's ability to adapt to various demands and is linked to overall cardiovascular health.

If that wasn't enough, vagus nerve stimulation can also help reduce the body's response to stress. As a result, not only can it positively impact the heart, but it can improve overall health and well-being.

Relieves pain

The vagus nerve projects to many brain regions related to pain processing, and vagus nerve stimulation can affect these areas. It may control pain by modulating the activities of neurons involved in the pain pathway.

As mentioned in the bullets above, vagus nerve stimulation also has pretty amazing anti-inflammatory properties, and it may control pain by alleviating inflammation. Researchers agree that the anti-inflammatory property of vagus nerve stimulation contributes to its pain-inhibitory effects.

When it comes to specific scientific studies, there are several. Both human and animal studies have shown that vagus nerve stimulation can produce analgesic (pain-relieving) effects. In fact, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to deliver strong analgesic effects and inhibit spinal nociceptive reflexes (one of the body's physical reactions to pain), potentially providing relief from chronic pain conditions.

Practically, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation devices can block pain signals when held against the skin of the neck, preventing or relieving head pain. We've reported on a vagus nerve-stimulating device for relieving headache pain before. This method is being studied as a potential treatment for various conditions.

What's more, vagus nerve stimulation also supports immune system balance. These immune-enhancing properties of vagus nerve stimulation paired with its pain-relieving ability have convinced researchers that it can help ease the symptoms of chronic autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Of course, vagus nerve stimulation has other benefits to your digestion, too.
 

Improves digestion

Vagus nerve stimulation can improve digestion through its ability to relax the body, send positive signals to the gut, and trigger various digestive processes.

For example, the vagus nerve is responsible for communicating with the stomach to initiate the churning of food and the release of digestive enzymes. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can counteract stress responses, promote relaxation, and enhance digestion. Additionally, vagus nerve stimulation has been associated with the modulation of the brain-gut axis, the maintenance of intestinal homeostasis, and the regulation of food intake, satiety, and energy homeostasis.

Furthermore, vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to influence monoaminergic brain systems-- that's a fancy way of saying that it can impact mood and anxiety disorders. Overall, vagus nerve stimulation has the potential to support digestive function by promoting a relaxed state, enhancing communication between the brain and the gut, and regulating various physiological processes related to digestion.

After all of these health benefits, it comes as no surprise to researchers that vagus nerve stimulation can help defend your body against the signs and symptoms of aging.

Slows down aging

In addition to all of the positive benefits on the brain, heart, digestive system and immune system, vagus nerve stimulation is also associated with positive changes in autonomic function, including fighting a decrease in vagal tone.

Vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that regulates your body's response to environmental challenges such as physical stress. It's more important to your overall health than you might believe. Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and attentional regulation in children. In fact, low vagal tone is considered a marker of the body's sensitivity to stress.

Best of all, researchers believe vagus nerve stimulation improves autonomic function by enhancing vagal tone, which is beneficial to overall health and well-being.

Fights "inflammaging"

Age-related inflammation, or "inflammaging," is a risk factor for premature aging and death in the elderly. Vagus nerve stimulation can counteract this by reducing inflammation and potentially improving endothelial function, thereby blocking some of the symptoms of aging.

The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in modulating inflammation through its anti-inflammatory properties. Research has shown that the vagus nerve has an anti-inflammatory role through the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This axis has an important job to mediate the effects of stressors on the body by regulating numerous physiological processes, such as metabolism, immune responses, and the autonomic nervous system.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been found to improve the systemic inflammatory response, and helps regulate pro-inflammatory cytokine levels and inflammation. The vagus nerve's anti-inflammatory properties are essential for controlling the body's innate immune responses and inflammation, which can help you improve various inflammatory conditions.

Further research is needed to fully understand the potential of vagus nerve stimulation in anti-aging interventions and to explore its therapeutic applications in age-related conditions. But it's no surprise that researchers are sitting up and paying attention.

Vagus nerve stimulation gets increasing attention

While the direct link between vagus nerve stimulation and anti-aging is still an evolving area of research, the potential benefits in promoting healthy cognitive and physiological aging are being increasingly recognized.

With all that’s being discovered about the advantages of using a very small amount of electric current to stimulate the vagus nerve, we think we may be seeing this treatment used more and more often in medical settings. A report on this treatment put together by researchers at the University of Virginia notes that scientists are trying to refine this modality to make it more precise in how the stimulation to the nerve is applied.

But these researchers also report that tVNS shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. There are even studies that hint it might be useful for helping people lose weight.

Using transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation can be performed with a TENS machine and can be provided by a number of anti-aging or natural health doctors. You can also purchase your own TENS machine for use at home. There are a number of different models available online as well as a number of instructional videos on how to use them on different parts of the body, including the ears.

Summary

Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS) emerges as a promising non-invasive technique with potential benefits for healthy aging, particularly regarding digestion, inflammation and pain relief, immune health and cognitive functions. As cognitive functions such as processing speed and episodic memory often decline with age, interventions like transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation could offer a novel approach to promote cognitive maintenance and compensation, thereby enhancing quality of life among older adults.

Frequently Asked Questions

What non-invasive device stimulates the vagus nerve?

Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, involves the application of electrical current to the skin over the auricular branch of the vagus nerve-- or the area of the nerve near your ear. The stimulation is typically applied using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine with customized auricular (ear) electrode clips. The ear is one of the places on the human body where there are vagus nerve fibers, and it is believed that transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation
stimulates these fibers.

What are the side effects of non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation?

The potential adverse events arising from transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation are minimal, with reported side effects such as itching, stinging, or a burning sensation from the electrodes, and reddening of the skin.

Do vagus nerve stimulators work?

Yes. Researchers believe vagus nerve stimulation improves autonomic function by enhancing vagal tone, which is beneficial to the brain, heart, digestive system and immune system. Vagal tone is a measure of cardiovascular function that regulates your body's response to environmental challenges such as physical stress. It's more important to your overall health than you might believe. Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional and
attentional regulation in children. In fact, low vagal tone is considered a marker of the body's sensitivity to stress.

How can I stimulate my vagus nerve without surgery?

 Non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, is a safe technique that involves the application of electrical current to the skin over the auricular branch of the vagus nerve-- or the area of the nerve near your ear. The stimulation is typically applied using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine with customized auricular (ear) electrode clips. Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is usually performed for a specific duration with a defined pulse width and frequency for electrical stimulation
 
Wang L, Zhang J, Guo C, He J, Zhang S, Wang Y, Zhao Y, Li L, Wang J, Hou L, Li S, Wang Y, Hao L, Zhao Y, Wu M, Fang J, Rong P. The efficacy and safety of transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation in patients with mild cognitive impairment: A double blinded randomized clinical trial. Brain Stimul. 2022 Nov-Dec;15(6):1405-1414. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2022.09.003. Epub 2022 Sep 21. PMID: 36150665. - https:// pubmed. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/36150665/
Fischer, R., Ventura-Bort, C., Hamm, A. et al. Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) enhances conflict-triggered adjustment of cognitive control. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 18, 680–693 (2018). Published24 April 2018 - https:// link. springer. com/article/10.3758/s13415-018-0596-2
Colzato LS, Sellaro R, Beste C. Darwin revisited: The vagus nerve is a causal element in controlling recognition of other's emotions. Cortex. 2017 Jul;92:95-102. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.03.017. Epub 2017 Apr 7. PMID: 28460255.- https:// pubmed. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/28460255/
Stavrakis S, Stoner JA, Humphrey MB, Morris L, Filiberti A, Reynolds JC, Elkholey K, Javed I, Twidale N, Riha P, Varahan S, Scherlag BJ, Jackman WM, Dasari TW, Po SS. TREAT AF (Transcutaneous Electrical Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Suppress Atrial Fibrillation): A Randomized Clinical Trial. JACC Clin Electrophysiol. 2020 Mar;6(3):282-291. doi: 10.1016/j.jacep.2019.11.008. Epub 2020 Jan 29. PMID: 32192678; PMCID: PMC7100921. - https:// pubmed. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/32192678/
Dirr EW, Jiracek LG, Baekey DM, J Martyniuk C, Otto KJ, Zubcevic J. Subdiaphragmatic vagal nerve stimulation attenuates the development of hypertension and alters nucleus of the solitary tract transcriptional networks in the spontaneously hypertensive rat. Physiol Genomics. 2023 Dec 1;55(12):606-617. doi: 10.1152/physiolgenomics.00016.2023. Epub 2023 Sep 25. PMID: 37746712. - https:// pubmed. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/37746712/
Serhan CN, de la Rosa X, Jouvene C. Novel mediators and mechanisms in the resolution of infectious inflammation: evidence for vagus regulation. J Intern Med. 2019 Sep;286(3):240-258. doi: 10.1111/joim.12871. Epub 2019 Jan 18. PMID: 30565762. - https:// onlinelibrary. wiley. com/doi/10.1111/joim.12871
Goggins E, Mitani S, Tanaka S. Clinical perspectives on vagus nerve stimulation: present and future. Clin Sci (Lond). 2022 May 13;136(9):695-709. doi: 10.1042/CS20210507. PMID: 35536161; PMCID: PMC9093220. - https:// www. ncbi. nlm. nih. gov/pmc/articles/PMC9093220/

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