The Role of The Vagus Nerve in IBS

This morning I was flipping through a magazine when I came across an article on the vagus nerve and I found myself intrigued. As a health blogger, patient advocate and medical editor, I had hardly ever heard of it and wondered why.

What does the vagus nerve have to do with IBS?

My intrigue was increased when the first few lines in the article noted that the vagus nerve is responsible for transporting neurotransmitters along the brain-gut axis. As the article emphasized, this means it has been implicated as playing a potential role in certain illnesses and disorders – especially those impacting the gut, like IBS. However, the good news to this is that the vagus nerve may also open up doors for better ways to treat IBS and other related illnesses.

In particular, there has been some pontificating in the scientific world that stimulation of the vagus nerve could prove useful in treating IBS, as well as mental and emotional disorders like PTSD. Since trauma and IBS tend to intersect often, this makes a lot of sense.

The link between the vagus nerve, stress, and IBS

It seems stress actually inhibits the vagus nerve and in doing so, adversely impacts the gut. For instance, one paper from 2018 noted that: "Stress inhibits the [vagus nerve] and has deleterious effects on the gastrointestinal tract and on the microbiota, and is involved in the pathophysiology of gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) ..."1 This is why so many modalities that seem to alleviate stress – such as low impact exercise and deep breathing techniques – also seem to have some positive benefits for IBS patients as well.

This same paper then goes on to suggest that something called vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS, could be potentially useful in treating IBS and IBD. This is because they think it could help regulate and boost gut microbiota. Currently, VNS is used to treat epilepsy and serious types of depression with a fair level of success. This reminds me of a previous post I had where I covered a study where a woman who had electrical brain stimulation experienced significant improvement in her IBS (which was not the primary reason she was receiving it).

More research on the vagus nerve and the gut

Another study also published in 2018, analyzed the role of VNS in treating IBD. As the study noted, the vagus nerve is the longest nerve that innervates the gastrointestinal tract. The study reviews previous trials and noted that VNS techniques "significantly improved the multivariate index of colitis."2

There are two main types of VNS devices – one that is invasive (that is, implanted by a neurosurgeon) and one that is a handheld, noninvasive device. The noninvasive VNS devices seemed to have competitive success rates with invasive VNS for the ailments they treat in addition to IBS (such as headache, depression, epilepsy) but the downside for IBS patients for noninvasive is people seem to forget or neglect to use it regularly and therefore do not get to experience its maximum benefits.

Looking for ways to improve my IBS

As for me, I am now definitely going to do more research into the vagus nerve and potentially inquire about the possibility of securing and trying a noninvasive VNS for my headaches and other chronic pain issues (with the hope that there will also be benefits to my IBS).

However in the meantime, while not everyone will be able to access a VNS device under their insurance, there are other ways to work on stimulating the vagus nerve – such as through acupuncture, chiropractic care, and deep belly breathing.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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