Vagus nerve and Long COVID: What's the connection?
Before we get to how the vagus nerve relates to long COVID, let’s first discuss what the vagus nerve is and how it functions.
What exactly is the VAGUS nerve?
The old saying is NOT true in this case: What happens in Vagus does not stay in Vagus, it goes EVERYWHERE!
The vagus nerve, also termed “the wanderer”, travels throughout the body from the brain touching most organs in the body (lungs, esophagus, stomach, spleen, liver, intestines). It can be thought of as your second “spinal cord.”
The vagus nerve plays a large role in the autonomic nervous system, particularly the parasympathetic branch which is known as the "rest & digest" portion.
The Vagus nerve has 2 distinct parts:
1.) Ventral vagus: associated with choice, safety, social engagement, turns OFF defenses,
supradiaprhagmatic (above diaphragm) i.e. "thriving" mode, engaged, energetic, social connection
2.) Dorsal vagus: associated with instinct/survival and the threat response, turns ON defenses,
subdiaphragmatic (below diaphragm) i.e. “shut down” mode, depression, apathy, isolation
As you can see, these distinct parts have opposing functions to help keep us in balance depending on the situation. Our nervous system is constantly interpreting cues from our environment, both internal and external, to keep us safe and regulated. This is one of key premises in Polyvagal Theory which describes how we perceive and interpret cues from our environment around us links to emotional regulation, social connection and the fear response.
What does the VAGUS nerve do?
The vagus nerve has many functions:
regulates blood pressure and heart rate
regulates insulin secretion and glucose homeostasis in the liver
increases gastric juices, gut motility and stomach acidity
suppresses inflammation via the anti-inflammatory pathway
helps keep anxiety and depression at bay
opposes the sympathetic response to stress
needed for coughing, swallowing
One of the most important functions of the vagus nerve is it’s control of the inflammatory reflex of the entire body. When you have pain, you have inflammation. When your vagus nerve is under stimulated it cannot counteract the inflammation in your body and pain becomes worse or chronic.
What are common SIGNS of Vagus nerve dysfunction?
unusual HR/BP (too high or too low)
ear pain, ringing in ears
hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing
leaky gut that doesn’t respond to treatment
low stomach acid
The Vagus nerve is often dysregulated in those with a history of chronic stress, late stage adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression and even food sensitivities.
How does the Vagus nerve relate to Long Covid symptoms?
The above symptoms listed of vagus nerve dysfunction correlate with similar symptoms often found in those suffering with long COVID such as:
hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing
high heart rate, low blood pressure
GI symptoms (constipation/diarrhea)
brain fog, headaches
difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue
This leads us to believe that the COVID virus is effecting the vagus nerve. In fact, a recent study was performed in Spain to look at vagus nerve functioning in long COVID patients and found approximately 66% of patients had at least one symptom that suggested vagus nerve dysfunction. Almost all had 3 or more symptoms related to vagus nerve dysfunction and several even showed vagus nerve thickening or inflammation on ultrasound. Link to article below:
How do you treat the vagus nerve?
We speak of the Vagus nerve in terms of tone. Most people dealing with chronic pain, stress or long COVID have LOW vagal tone. When your muscle has LOW tone it is weak or underutilized, same with your vagus nerve.
We can stimulate the vagus nerve via several targeted manual resets on the body. We also teach clients specific resets/exercises to help stimulate the vagus nerve at home to increase it’s tone and resiliency. Thus decreasing the trigger for both inflammation and stress in the body.
Cells are either in growth mode or in defense mode. They can’t be in both at the same time. In other words, you cannot heal while you are defending. When we think about chronic stress or inflammation, the body is in a constant state of defense which is associated with dorsal vagus dominance. This dysregulation or LOW ventral vagal tone will keep our body in defense or "shut down" mode. This is often why we see depression associated with chronic pain.
I’ve found that true understanding of the nervous and vagal system is the language of ‘the body’; the body cannot heal from the outside but WITHIN. We’ve been traditionally taught in healthcare that there is a pill/medication or specific external modality for every symptom or dis-ease. However, when we start looking at root cause issues, it leads us back to what’s happening WITHIN the body that is triggering these symptoms.
In addition to aiding in calming down inflammation in the body, often clients report the vagus stimulation exercises to be quite relaxing and are good tools to use in times of stress or anxiety to help them self regulate.
If you or someone you know is suffering from long-haul COVID or any of these symptoms, come visit us or find a local practitioner who's trained in vagus nerve work to see if the vagus nerve could be the root cause to some of your symptoms.