While it’s exciting to learn what stimulating the vagus nerve might be able to do, it’s also important to maintain perspective. “We have evidence to support the use of vagus nerve stimulation for depression and epilepsy, but outside of these two, the evidence is limited,” says Jennifer Anders, PsyD, of Yellowpine Therapy in Boulder, Colorado. “Just because there is limited evidence doesn’t mean it’s not helpful, but the science isn’t quite there yet,” she explains.
In addition to general stress relief and calming benefits, here are other potential things stimulation may do:
May Decrease Epileptic Seizures
Approved as a treatment for epilepsy by the FDA, stimulating the vagus nerve via pulses of electrical energy sends signals to the brain to decrease seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. This treatment is indicated for those whose epilepsy does not respond to drug treatment, and is surgically implanted.
May Improve Symptoms of Depression
Implanted vagus nerve stimulation was FDA-approved in 2005 for treatment-resistant depression, though due to coverage issues, it’s not often used, according to one review. These benefits were seen during studies on people with epilepsy whose mood improved with vagus nerve stimulation. Stimulating the nerve sends signals to the brain that affect mood, notes Mayo Clinic. This may happen by influencing the activity of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and serotonin, explains Howard.
May Soothe Symptoms of PTSD
For someone who has PTSD, it may feel like they’re living in a chronic state of threat. Some preliminary research suggests that using an externally placed vagus nerve stimulator applied via ear electrode may affect certain parts of the brain that help improve emotional regulation in people with PTSD, compared with sham treatment. Another study also found that the treatment could turn down the stress response in people with PTSD, compared with sham treatment, decreasing heart rate and improving blood flow, among other positive changes.
May Help With Insomnia
Vagus nerve stimulation at night can help promote relaxation and prepare the body for going to bed, says Dr. Anders. In a randomized controlled trial on an external vagus nerve stimulation device, using it on the ear twice a day for 20 minutes over a one-month period helped 73 percent of people in the vagus nerve group decrease insomnia symptoms, compared with 27 percent of the control group who improved.