Self-Care, the Vagus Nerve, and COVID-19
By Deepak Chopra, MD and Gustaf Kranck, M.Sc.
There is widespread awareness of the wellness movement in this country, and the term “self-care” is being more and more recognized. Since advice has existed for decades on proper diet, exercise, sleep, and the avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, in what way is self-care an advance? This seems like a critical question during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Self-care is an advance over the usual well-known preventive measures if it can do more, in other words, if there are choices that improve the whole mind-body system. Increasingly the key to self-care seems to be the vagus nerve. The general public awaits a silver-bullet treatment and a future vaccine, but the benefits associated with the vagus nerve are accessible by anyone right now.
A bit of anatomy first: twelve major nerves radiate out from the brain, and these so-called cranial nerves connect the brain to every area of the body. They function like information superhighways, constantly sending messages back and forth from brain to body. The most important cranial nerve is called the vagus nerve, named from the Latin word for wandering. The vast majority of sensory signals to and from the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestinal tract travel along the six miles of the vagus nerve.
In the past few years, a surprising discovery was made: deep, regular breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, sending a signal of relaxation that is very effective in settling down the stress response. News stories about vagal breathing, as it was named, drew widespread attention. But as research became more focused, it emerged that the vagus nerve might be something like a master key in the body. In its wanderings the vagus nerve affects the heart, lungs, digestive tract, and the immune system. These are the critical systems involved when someone becomes infected with the COVID-19.
The implication is that by stimulating the vagus nerve, a holistic benefit might come to these systems altogether. One of the co-authors of this article, Gustaf Kranck, has a personal story connected with vagal stimulation. Among the many ways that the vagus nerve can be stimulated are meditation and yoga. After getting burned-out by stress after the 2008 great recession, Gustaf began to practice meditation and felt that it “saved his brain.” Motivated to explore further, he hit upon the wealth of research that is being conducted on the vagus nerve. At present there are thousands of scientific papers on the subject and vagus stimulation devices are FDA approved for depression. In recent months there has been published more than 150 papers on vagus nerve and Coronavirus – most of them showing clear indications that the vagus nerve is central to the disease progress.
Here it is necessary to step cautiously. Recently an eminent French researcher, Dr. Jean-Pierre Changeux, published findings that indicated a kind of medical benefit from nicotine – which neurologically acts as a vagus stimulant. The findings from France were that those who were active smokers, even while contracting Coronavirus, seemed to have a more favourable disease progress than those who had recently stopped smoking. Needless to say –, a controversy erupted. Promptly after the publication of these studies in late April, the French government ordered limitations on the sale of nicotine patches from pharmacies in order to prevent hoarding.
Yet it is completely non-controversial to state that activating the vagus nerve with meditation and yoga, along with deep regular breathing and good sleep, are known conclusively to improve functioning in the systems most affected by the virus, particularly the respiratory system. Just as thoroughly documented is meditation’s benefit in reducing the stress response, with implications for reducing inflammation, one of the key dangers when the body’s immune system overreacts to the virus.
Gustaf made another striking observation. When meditating and doing controlled breathing practice, he could measure how this vagus nerve activation brings heartbeat and breathing rhythms to perfect sync – if he was in good health. His discovery was that with a hand-to-hand wearable electrocardiogram (EKG) he could simultaneously measure with high precision both the heart rate and breathing– and therefore instantly test how well they were synchronized.
This synchronization is very important. There is a sound physiological reason behind this. The vagus nerve regulates oxygen delivery in the body, so that it is used most efficiently and without waste. You need more oxygen to muscles during exercise and to the gut when relaxed. Vagal nerve stimulation seems to be crucial here, and a test of breathing and heartbeat rhythms, which is non-invasive and quite simple, may be useful in determining who is well and who is sick (we are not claiming, however, that the sickness would specifically be COVID-19). In healthy people the breath and heartbeat are in sync; in sick people the two functions go out of sync.
We hope this information is useful in promoting self-care through the methods for vagus nerve stimulation already mentioned. It costs nothing to do vagal breathing, get a good night’s sleep, meditate, and practice yoga. We feel this is the direction that self-care and the virus should take.