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Psychoneuroimmunology and the Vagus Nerve: Key Links and Getting Back to Homeostasis

by Angeline Pacy on 06/07/15

Vagus, a word that sounds like Vegas, is a hot topic (filled with a little controversy). Both places (vagus and vegas) can get people into hot-water, so-to-speak, without class the right strategy. Let me guide you to some special insights about this fascinating place!  

The vagus nerve acts as a bridge of sorts, with some impact on immune system regulation (a gate-keeper for some autoimmunity but not all), emotional centers (through alpha and beta adrenergic signaling responses that control some neurotransmitters) and the autonomic nervous system (that controls vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, blood volume, and the bowel movement rate). Basically, when it's dysfunctional, people can get stressed-out or not stressed-out enough and respond to stimuli around them in abnormal ways. 

Symptom presentation can be wide. Fainting is not unusual. Patients can also have dips or spikes in blood pressure just by seeing a doctor who provokes fear or anger (white coat syndrome). People can present with random episodes, including trouble walking (a gait problem) that comes and goes. The causes are individualistic but can include the nervous system's impact on blood sugar or neurotransmitters like epinephrine (that can change how their body relates to space around them). They can get over-emotional when their body-chemistry (physiology) is disrupted. Sometimes people managing various types of related dysfunction are labeled 'small-heart syndrome' patients, cry-babies, wimps, or people with character weakness or coping problems when they are actually quite physically disabled. Interestingly, some of these patients struggle with autoimmunity because of the nerve dysfunction. As a result, like many illnesses like this dysfunction falls under an umbrella discipline called psychoneuroimmunology. While most people can benefit from greater support, including learning new coping skills, the physiological component is still profound. 

When one looks more carefully on a physiological level, the condition is often far more complex and involves inflammation, demyelination or irritation of the nerve and nervous system. Medical imaging like QEEG, F-MRI and PET scans (to get closer to root-causes) reveals significant findings. Underlying causes include toxicity, infection and autoimmunity it's self. Advanced diagnostics that are rarely covered by standard insurance (and sometimes results are not fully disclosed). As a result, few publications are available about abnormal vasovagal nerve tone and response, and what is published is rarely flattering. For many years, that the dysfunction serves a coping-skill function for the impacted patient patients were pathologized as "neurologically functional," implying (like somatoform or psychological disorders). Today, the definition of the pathologizing of patients with vagus nerve (and autonomic nervous system) dysfunction “functional” has changed to mean that the cause is of unknown origin. However, continues. Just because someone has an abnormal vagus nerve response does not mean that they are hysterical. It means that there is something wrong.

Of course, there will be men falling under this umbrella, but estrogen is a risk-factor within this dysfunction (or testosterone is neuroprotective, depending upon how one wants to perceive the epidemiological trends), as demonstrated by the disproportionate number of women suffering from diseases like Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis.

Because an abnormal vasovagal nerve response and abnormal vagal nerve tone (see highlighted link below to find a fascinating article with key definitions) are often interpreted in the clinic to be some sort of nerve is somehow the result of the inability to cope with stress (and not the character defect, as if the inflammation and dysfunction of this particular masses of dying and chronically ill patients rejected for routine care (because other way around), there is not enough time in the day to reach out to the they fall under this misunderstood umbrella).

It would be an understatement to say that stress impacts this nerve; but, stress comes in many forms (including central nervous system inflammation, a common contributor). It is absurd to try to distinguish between the "chicken and the egg" relationship between stressors, inflammation interrelating systems that cannot be tweezed out from one another; inflammation and an abnormal vagal nerve response when the human mind and body are intricate master regulator of inflammation and immune system functioning. It takes on a life of its own. It creates new diseases.

Some people would like dice patients up, and sever the nerve, to control hyper-immune responses (autoimmunity). The problem is, it never addresses the root-causes in most instances. The dysfunction of the nerve is a symptom of something larger, in Bio-Pyscho-Social areas. It can also be more specifically an early indicator of neurodegenerative disease and more. Surgery could be a legitimate (to the extent that integrative medicine can intervene). The benefits must solution in some cases but the underlying conditions must be addressed first out-weight risks and the long-term consequences have yet to be revealed.

Is the surgical intervention described in the article above the only hope for patients falling under the umbrella of Psychoneuroimmunology and related vagus nerve dysfunction? My treasure chest of skills (crafted by life-experience and research) overflows with tools for these very unique, very individual needs and more!

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