Every now and then, I get really excited when I see a groundbreaking new biohack. Here’s the latest one.
This amazing article shows how doctors are learning to hack your nervous system using electricity. An incredible neurosurgeon from New York, Dr. Kevin Tracey is actively hacking chronic inflammation, toxic shock, and a bunch of other nervous system issues. He and his team are doing all of it using electric currents.
This isn’t some crazy guy in a garage – these are university professors who are literally running a current across one of the most important nerves in the body: the vagus nerve.
Several of the most important hacks I’ve ever done involve vagus nerve. Read on to learn what this nerve does for you, then how you can hack it.
What Does Your Vagus Nerve Do?
Known informally as the “wandering nerve,” this nerve starts at your brainstem, travels throughout several major organs in your body, and – to bottom line it – does a ton you probably weren’t even aware of.
The article summarizes nicely:
“The vagus nerve starts in the brainstem, just behind the ears. It travels down each side of the neck, across the chest and down through the abdomen. ‘Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ and indeed this bundle of nerve fibres roves through the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs.
Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress.
The strength of your vagus response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.
Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive, such as in Maria Vrind’s rheumatoid arthritis or in toxic shock syndrome, which Kevin Tracey believes killed little Janice.”
Intrigued yet? But wait, there’s more!
How Do You Hack Your Vagal Tone?
One of the biohacks that I’ve used is cold thermogenesis. Just taking a cold shower in the morning, like Tim Ferriss recommends, has effects directly on your vagal tone.
The old Buddhist and Chinese approach of sticking your face in ice water works pretty well too – see how to take an “ice face” bath here – but watch out: too much ice freeze can cause biohacking injuries!
All of this ice stuff comes down to giving you better vagal tone.
Heart rate variability, another life changing Bulletproof hack, ties directly into shaping your vagal tone too. It allows you to gain more control over your nervous system more quickly than almost any other biohack I’ve found to date (you can find some other great meditation hacks here too).
On top of that, if you heard the Bulletproof Radio episode with Dr. Jennings about realigning your jaw you may remember that the trigeminal nerve connects directly to the vagal nerve. By aligning your jaw you can directly lower systemic inflammation in your body.
The point? Three of the most important things I’ve *ever* done for my own performance were totally vagus nerve hacks:
- Cold Thermogenesis
- Heart Rate Variability Training
- Jaw realignment – improving the relationship between your trigeminal & vagus nerves
The best part: there’s so much more researchers are just now beginning to discover.
My guess is this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Enjoy this incredible biohacking story about what it took to solve a mystery – and possibly unearth a huge new field of vagal tone hacking to come….
Hacking The Nervous System
One nerve connects your vital organs, sensing and shaping your health. If we learn to control it, the future of medicine will be electric.
Published 26 May 2015 By Gaia Vince. This story first appeared on Mosaic Science and is excerpted here under a Creative Commons license.
When Maria Vrind, a former gymnast from Volendam in the Netherlands, found that the only way she could put her socks on in the morning was to lie on her back with her feet in the air, she had to accept that things had reached a crisis point. “I had become so stiff I couldn’t stand up,” she says. “It was a great shock because I’m such an active person.”
It was 1993. Vrind was in her late 40s and working two jobs, athletics coach and a carer for disabled people, but her condition now began taking over her life. “I had to stop my jobs and look for another one as I became increasingly disabled myself.” By the time she was diagnosed, seven years later, she was in severe pain and couldn’t walk any more. Her knees, ankles, wrists, elbows and shoulder joints were hot and inflamed. It was rheumatoid arthritis, a common but incurable autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own cells, in this case the lining of the joints, producing chronic inflammation and bone deformity.
Waiting rooms outside rheumatoid arthritis clinics used to be full of people in wheelchairs. That doesn’t happen as much now because of a new wave of drugs called biopharmaceuticals – such as highly targeted, genetically engineered proteins – which can really help. Not everyone feels better, however: even in countries with the best healthcare, at least 50 percent of patients continue to suffer symptoms.
Like many patients, Vrind was given several different medications, including painkillers, a cancer drug called methotrexate to dampen her entire immune system, and biopharmaceuticals to block the production of specific inflammatory proteins. The drugs did their job well enough – at least, they did until one day in 2011, when they stopped working.
“I was on holiday with my family and my arthritis suddenly became terrible and I couldn’t walk – my daughter-in-law had to wash me.” Vrind was rushed to hospital, where she was hooked up to an intravenous drip and given another cancer drug, one that targeted her white blood cells. “It helped,” she admits, but she was nervous about relying on such a drug long-term.
Luckily, she would not have to. As she was resigning herself to a life of disability and monthly chemotherapy, a new treatment was being developed that would profoundly challenge our understanding of how the brain and body interact to control the immune system. It would open up a whole new approach to treating rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, using the nervous system to modify inflammation. It would even lead to research into how we might use our minds to stave off disease.
And, like many good ideas, it came from an unexpected source.
The Nerve Hunter
Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon based in New York, is a man haunted by personal events – a man with a mission. “My mother died from a brain tumor when I was five years old. It was very sudden and unexpected,” he says. “And I learned from that experience that the brain – nerves – are responsible for health.” This drove his decision to become a brain surgeon. Then, during his hospital training, he was looking after a patient with serious burns who suddenly suffered severe inflammation. “She was an 11-month-old baby girl called Janice who died in my arms.”
These traumatic moments made him a neurosurgeon who thinks a lot about inflammation. He believes it was this perspective that enabled him to interpret the results of an accidental experiment in a new way.
In the late 1990s, Tracey was experimenting with a rat’s brain. “We’d injected an anti-inflammatory drug into the brain because we were studying the beneficial effect of blocking inflammation during a stroke,” he recalls. “We were surprised to find that when the drug was present in the brain, it also blocked inflammation in the spleen and in other organs in the rest of the body. Yet the amount of drug we’d injected was far too small to have got into the bloodstream and travelled to the rest of the body.”
After months puzzling over this, he finally hit upon the idea that the brain might be using the nervous system – specifically the vagus nerve – to tell the spleen to switch off inflammation everywhere.
It was an extraordinary idea – if Tracey was right, inflammation in body tissues was being directly regulated by the brain. Communication between the immune system’s specialist cells in our organs and bloodstream and the electrical connections of the nervous system had been considered impossible. Now Tracey was apparently discovering that the two systems were intricately linked.
The first critical test of this exciting hypothesis was to cut the vagus nerve. When Tracey and his team did, injecting the anti-inflammatory drug into the brain no longer had an effect on the rest of the body. The second test was to stimulate the nerve without any drug in the system. “Because the vagus nerve, like all nerves, communicates information through electrical signals, it meant that we should be able to replicate the experiment by putting a nerve stimulator on the vagus nerve in the brainstem to block inflammation in the spleen,” he explains. “That’s what we did and that was the breakthrough experiment.”
Read the rest of the story here.