Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer

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.

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

  1. Bonaz B, Bazin T, Pellissier S. The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Front Neurosci. 2018;12:49. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5808284/. Published February 7, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2019.
  2. Bonaz B. Is there a place for vagus nerve stimulation in inflammatory bowel diseases? Bioelectronic Medicine (2018) 4:4. Available at: https://bioelecmed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s42234-018-0004-9. Published April 3, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2019.

Comments

  • JudyStaed
    3 weeks ago

    Laura, there are no words to express how deeply your article resonated with me. I am not a young woman and my digestive issues have been lifelong. The endless search for answers have been ongoing. Two days before I was turning two I ran out in the street and was literally run over by a car. God must have wanted me here for a reason because the body of the car went over me but obviously not the wheels. In the process my left collar bone was broken and my left elbow was cut into deeply. I’m lucky to have that lower arm and functionality in it. Anyway, the Vagus Nerve runs down the left side of the neck…right where my collar bone was broken. There was a lot of trauma as a result of this accident and also twelve days in the hospital. Then the digestive issues began. First it was just nausea. Then as the years moved forward into my growing years it was heartburn. Then once into my twenties the colon problems began. As the years moved forward everything only became worse. No medicines have helped me. I have IBS in both fields but suffer chronic digestive issues whether I am constipated or going endlessly. I never know what field I’m going to be in on any particular day and for this reason making plans is extremely stressful for me. It was just by chance a few years ago that I learned about the Vagus Nerve and it was from my chiropractor who happened to mention it. While he treats me for my back we talk of many issues and he was the one who brought up the Vagus Nerve. I had a WONDERFUL acupuncturist some years back who in the absence of the Vagus Nerve connection treated me for digestive issues and it did help. She ultimately closed her practice near me and moved some distance away. After learning about the Vague Nerve connection I called her. She felt that because so many years had passed since the damage was done the chances of treating it were minimal. However, she said she would try if I traveled the distance to get to her. Again, my fear of not knowing what any day might bring I didn’t want to drive the distance it would be to get to her. I have thought about trying to find another acupuncturist more in my area. If there was any way to get my hands on that handheld device I would try it in a heartbeat. I am a living testament to the fact that a damaged Vagus Nerve can have life altering consequences in the body. I can not thank you enough for running this article. If you get any more information about a handheld device to help the Vagus Nerve PLEASE be in touch with me. What I’ve written here is a short overview of the endless digestive suffering I’ve had to endure in my life. Thank you again so very much for this article.

  • tmholland moderator
    3 weeks ago

    @judystaed,

    Thank you for being so open and sharing your story. It is always a really positive thing when an article can resonate with you and provide insight or help you realize you are not alone. I admire your strength and resilience and your will to keep going on a difficult road. Thank you for your participation in our community and I hope you are as well as can be today. -Todd, IrritableBowelSyndrome.net Team

  • JudyStaed
    3 weeks ago

    Todd, I can not thank you enough for your words. I can not tell you how much they mean to me. I am surrounded by people who love me and yet they CAN NOT feel my daily suffering. They can’t begin to understand what I go through every day. Having said that I have a motto in life which is reach for the good. I even wrote a poem about it. All we who look perfectly normal but suffer inside have to remember that good is all around us. We just have to reach for it daily. Thank you again. You have touched my heart and also made me realize yet again on IBS.net that I do not suffer alone. I hope you are having a very good day…and reach for that good!!!

  • ldonne
    3 weeks ago

    I too have felt this nerve pain but I have always associated it to hemorrhoids, because it is something that I do have. I sometimes get it during the night and it keeps me awake. I’ve had it during the day as well ,like the feeling you need to go and sometimes you get to the toilet and go a bit, and sometimes nothing. Frustration, for me because it’s another thing to deal with.

  • DorisE
    3 weeks ago

    It probably was about five years ago – I have had IBS-D (or?) for welllover ten years; I started to notice that before a rush to the bathroom I was getting a tingling right side/top of head. I of course then ran to the Internet and someone mentioned this being the vagus nerve. Next Dr. appointment for something else I asked my doctor about it and he snapped back, of course, that’s why patients in hospital faint while on the toilet. Some answer but typical. I have had this tingling about 50% of the times I have run to the bathroom but as my dr. was not interested, I didn’t pursue it… so interesting that you mention it – it’s all connected isn’t it. IBS-D has really changed my life in many ways, and is on a laundry-list of illnesses I now have. I am sick of the pain, I am sick of the mess, I am sick of the smell, I am sick of a poor diet… yet all the while knowing it could be worse. The best a specialist could do was give me a colonoscopy and say he sees nothing… so I have been on my own dealing with this. I know a lot of us are in the same boat, and now approaching 76 am worried if I have to go to a Home, with the lack of staff, and now fecal incontinence – who will look after me, clean me etc., when I am no longer able to do so myself?
    Now am going to check into the home device you mention for V.N.S. Thanks.

  • Poll