Meet me in Vagus...the Vagus Nerve, that is! : Taking the Hell out of Healthcare
Angeline Pacy
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Meet me in Vagus...the Vagus Nerve, that is!

by Angeline Pacy on 06/07/15

Vagus, a word that sounds like Vegas, is a politically charged topic. Both places (vagus and vegas) can get people into hot-water, so-to-speak, without the right strategy. The vegus, like vagas, can cause people to blow through fortunes. 

Let me guide you to some special insights about this fascinating place called the vagus nerve. Together we can raise the consciousness of health, medicine and our world!

What Does the Vagus Nerve Do?

The vagus nerve acts as a bridge of sorts, with a wide impact on the body. It does this through: 

  • Alpha and beta adrenergic signaling responses that control the release of some neurotransmitters
  • Some regulation of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that controls vital signs like heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, blood volume, the bowel movement and breathing rate
What Does Vagus Nerve Dysfunction Look Like

Symptom presentation can be wide. Basically, when it's dysfunctional, people can get stressed-out or not stressed-out enough. They can respond to stimuli around them in abnormal ways (poor stress tolerance). They can have an over-active or under-active "fight or flight" response. But, that's not all.

People can present with random episodes of dysfunction. Episodes can include trouble walking (a gait problem) that comes and goes. The causes are very individual but can include the nerve's control on blood sugar, blood pressure and neurotransmitters like epinephrine (a neurotransmitter that releases dopamine and changes how the body relates to space). Episodic conditions are easy to dismiss, if that is what a healthcare system is inclined to do.

Other symptoms, like fainting, are not unusual. Patients often have dips or spikes in blood pressure. Some of it can be provoked just by seeing a stimulus, like a doctor who provokes fear or anger (called white-coat syndrome) and creates a spike in blood pressure. Speaking of "white coat syndrome," people with vagus nerve dysfunction can get over-emotional when their body chemistry (physiology) is disrupted too (emotional deregulation). With adrenaline surges, or dips, some patients may experience explosive rage, tears, pass-out, or become completely disengaged during times of danger or stress. 

As a result, sometimes people managing various types of related dysfunction are labeled very negatively in medicine. Terms used to described this population include 'small-heart syndrome,' cry-babies, wimps, character weakness, basket-case, or having "coping problems." In reality, these people are actually quite physically disabled from a complex syndrome. 

Interestingly, the nerve regulates some autoimmunity too. As a result, this type of dysfunction falls under an umbrella-discipline called psychoneuroimmunology. While most people can benefit from greater emotional support, including learning new coping skills, the physiological component is still profound and often not within patient control (especially if the underlying condition is not addressed).

"Functional" Neurological Conditions

The belief that vagus nerve dysfunction is "neurologically functional," implying that the dysfunction somehow serves an emotional “function” or purpose, dominated medicine for many years. It was often used synonymously with somatoform disorder or a physical manifestation of mostly psychological illness. 

Today, the vague definition of "functional neurological" conditions has expanded to mean "idiopathic" or "cause unknown." More often than not though, today "functional disorder" this is code for the following:

- "I am not obligated to investigate your condition anymore due to politics and/or economics. I do not specialize in root-cause care. I work for the hospital and your insurance company, not for you."

When one looks more carefully on a physiological level, these conditions are often far more complex and involve areas in medicine often not covered by insurance (such as inflammation, neurometabolism defects, demyelination or irritation of the nerve and nervous system as a whole). Medical imaging (like QEEG, F-MRI, and PET scans) reveals significant abnormalties.

Politics of the Nervous System

Underlying causes include toxicity, hypoxia, trauma/injury, and neurological infection (in addition to autoimmunity). These issues are often politically charged. Neurology is politically charged. One can not identify a neurological patient purely through observation; and in broader terms, our healthcare system has used this issue to their own economic advantage (much to the detriment of patients and a society in chaos...just step out of the minivan to discover for yourself what chaos awaits too many Americans thanks to under-treated neuropsychiatric dysfunction).

Advanced diagnostics are rarely covered by standard insurance (and the chronically ill are often under-insured, facing economic challenges and barriers to diagnostics and services). Also important to acknowledge, sometimes imaging study results are not fully disclosed to the patient or disclosed at all in some instances (due to a combination of the politics associated with root-causes AND insurance limitations/contracts with hospitals and providers). As a result, few reliable publications are available about abnormal vagus nerve tone and vagus nerve response or the root-causes of dysfunction and low stress tolerance; what is published on the topic is rarely flattering. It's sterilized research produced by hospitals on the payroll of corporate giants and special-interest groups.

Just because someone has an abnormal vagus nerve response and low stress tolerance does not mean that they are "hysterical" (a sexist term to relate to female duress). It means that there is something off.

Of course, there will be men falling under this umbrella too, but estrogen was always perceived as a risk-factor for this nerve dysfunction (making it easier to associate women with weakness). Others frame it in a different way. Research now reveals that testosterone is neuroprotective. While diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis do impact a disproportionate number of women, men transitioning into "manopause" and men with endocrine dysfunction will also be more vulnerable to neurological disease.

A Neglected At-Risk Group

Because an abnormal vagus nerve response and abnormal vagus 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 coping problem (somehow the result of the inability to cope with everyday-life stress), masses of chronically ill and even dying patients are rejected for routine medical care (because they first fall under this misunderstood umbrella, are triaged incorrectly and then blacklisted as patients). This is especially easy to happen with our government's requirements for electronic medical records, where patients are labeled incorrectly and those damages carry over everywhere they go. There is no where to hide except in private care...or another country. Patients are silenced by deprivation, drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

Most people have preconceived ideas about the prison population, the under-employed, the chronically ill, homeless people, and people struggling with things like opioid addiction. Our society treats them as "bums" who are experiencing the consequences of their actions. Research defies our stereotypes.

As a rule of thumb, human behavior is best to be viewed impartially and without moral judgment. You don't know what someone's brain looks like (and chances are, neither does the patient's doctor or nurse). I pray for people like "Florida Man," an example of the disdain in our society for the poor and mentally ill. I don't judge. Research shows that brain injury rate is 7 times higher within the prison population. A 2019 study reveals that 65% of imprisoned women have brain injuries. Are these people being rehabilitated or cared for like animals? How many prisoners actual get a diagnosis and treatment? Brain injury, autonomic dysfunction and poor vagus nerve response are interconnected.

Stress and the Vagus Nerve

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 and inflammation. While the mind-body connection is strong, these interrelating issues cannot be tweezed out from one another simply by willing them away or meditating it away (although meditation can help some symptoms, unless a patient is severely hypotensive).

The Problem with Under-Treating this Population

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. Like many psychiatric diseases, vagus nerve dysfunction can be an early-indicator of neurodegenerative disease (or a late one in some cases) and other neurological problems (such as epilepsy, processing disorders and other malfunctions that are not detectable with conventional tests).

Bring it Home

Do you have people in your life who drive you insane? Push you over-the-edge with frustration, embarassment, neglect, or abuse? Are you holding on to bitterness and resentments because your loved-ones can't perform to your expectations? Does your family disappoint you? How about your bestie? That is sometimes understandable, but it may be time to make a change in your strategy for coping with the dysfunctional people in your life.

As an example, my own beloved loved-one presented early on with all sorts of autonomic nervous system dysfunction (among other things). Her pleas for help from conventional healthcare providers were met with distrust and dismissed as "an over-active fight or flight response" and sometimes worse. She lived in humiliation for years, and was even accused by a physical therapist of trying to "get something for nothing." Her untreated neuropsychiatric symptoms and associated vagus nerve dysfunction often made her life dysfunctional and the butt of jokes. Sometimes she coped well. Sometimes she didn't set enough healthy boundaries. She was never on-time. She made promises she couldn't keep. But, that dysregulation eventually escalated to full-blown amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease (an often fatal neurodegenerative disease). The warning signs were everywhere but our society did not want to listen. She was not the only one in our family and community dismissed and left with few, if any, services. We all judged her because we were uneducated about the neuropsychiatric issues associated with untreated inflammation...and we can not get her back. But, we can learn from her precious life and what it means to live with invisible illness.

As the article suggests, vagus nerve surgery could be a valuable intervention in some extreme cases, but not if the underlying problems are unaddressed. Why not get to root-causes first, before performing experimental and potentially dangerous brain surgery? All other options should be exhausted first. There are wonderful health products and med ical devices that support the autonomic nervous system.

If prevention were valued in our society, early signs of neurodegenerative disease and neurological dysfunction could be slowed or halted. Countless healthcare dollars could be saved, simply by providing the correct diagnostics and getting to the root-causes of dysfunction early-on. 

But more importantly, cleaning up the dysfunction of society reaps it's own rewards for everyone. Temporarily saving money, by ignoring the signs of neuroinflammation and related problems of underlying neurological dysfunction, is counter-productive and immoral. You may not want to help your neighbor, but ultimately it may save society from from tragedy (and reduce crisis-spending). We have a sick healthcare system and a sick society. Most crimes and underlying health conditions don't make the news or vital statistics. We can do better. YOU can do better. Your family needs you to step up and take control of your health and lives!

Hope

Addressing the whole person is vital. I take a Bio-Psycho-Social and Mind-Body-Spirit approach to health and nervous system care. My treasure chest of skills (crafted by life-experience and research) overflows with tools for these very unique, very individual needs and more. Follow my pages or reach out for inspiration!

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