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What are the vagus nerves and why are they becoming a social media health craze?

Stimulating your vagus nerves can improve health, but doctors are stressing safety
Neurons Illustration
Posted at 7:19 PM, Feb 08, 2024

There's a lot that goes on in the human body that many of us may not be aware of. Recent videos going around on social media has our team looking more into the vagus nerves.

Many are claiming that stimulating the vagus nerves can be good for your health. Doctors say there is some truth to this, but they're concerned about some of the methods being promoted. Mainly videos of people sticking their face in ice water, which they claim reduces stress or relieves migraine symptoms.

"People should check with their doctor before they do this. There are cardiac side effects to ice water submersion or ice water on the face, and some of these cardiac side effects could have significant implications in people who might have, for instance, underlying heart disease. So you have to be careful," said Dr. Kevin Tracey with the Feinstein Institutes at Northwell Health. He has spent more than 30 years studying the vagus nerves.

So what are they exactly?

Vagus nerves are on either side of your body, and run from about the bottom of your ears all the way down to your abdomen. They touch almost every organ along the way. Because of this, vagus nerves are able to carry messages from organs back to the brain, and then the brain can tell organs what to do.

Dr. Tracey describes this as the central communication system between your organs and your brain. It's sort of like how our cell phones connect us with the rest of the world. But instead of sending a text to your friend telling them you're on your way, vagus nerves do things like tell your pancreas to release insulin when sugary foods are on the way to your stomach.

Other functions vagus nerves are connected to include digestion, heart rate, and the immune system.

So besides the ice water bath to the face, videos on social media are also promoting things like massaging the neck and ears, as well as deep breathing.

These techniques are less harmful in the eyes of doctors.

"If your pulse slows during the maneuver that you're doing in a healthful way, like meditating, then that's pretty good evidence that your meditation is facilitating your vagus nerve signals to slow your heart. Same for deep breathing," said Dr. Tracey.

Aerobic exercise when done safely can also stimulate vagus nerves. But Dr. Tracey stresses that if you have any heart concerns at all, you should talk with your doctor before trying any of this.