- What’s a Vagus nerve?
- Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic
- The Startling stats on HRV and Tumor Blood markers
- How You Can Improve Your Vagus Nerve Activity
- Tools to use today
I don’t usually like to post articles about cancer because it’s a sensitive subject that affects a lot of people. I just had to write about this because it’s really fascinating and really surprising. I’ll be interested in seeing how research in this field evolves. So here we go.
Active Vagus Nerve? What’s That?
The vagus nerve is probably the most interesting nerve in the body. It goes from your brainstem and connects to almost every organ in your body that you hardly think about. Check it out below:
Historically, this nerve is associated with creating a parasympathetic response for the body. A parasympathetic response is essentially the opposite of a sympathetic (aka stress response).
Fight or flight
Speed Up Heart Rate
Slows down digestion
Down Regulate Immune System
Feed and Breed
Slows down heart rate
Turns up digestion
Up Regulate Immune System
We need both of these systems working properly in order to be healthy. Our sympathetic system helps us to run away from danger and perform outrageous feats of athleticism when activated properly. Our parasympathetic system helps us to prepare for sleep and improve digestion and absorbtion of vital nutrients.
Life is really about finding a balance between these subsystems of your nervous system. It’s extremely common in our stressed out world to be sympathetic dominant. This dominance is what leads many people to have problems like high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, and other chronic illness.
While we cannot always control the environment that causes us to be stressed out, there are things we can do in our daily lives to help activate our vagus nerve and turn on our parasympathetic nervous system.
The Vagus Nerve and Cancer
So that’s all well and good, but how does that line up with something as deadly as cancer?
The authors used a metric called Heart Rate Variability(HRV) to monitor activity of the vagus nerve. Heart Rate Variability monitors the rhythm changes between consecutive heart beats and is highly correlated to the activity of the vagus nerve.
In previous studies, high HRV scores have been associated with lower tumor burden and increased survival in cancer patients. [1,2,3] but it wasn’t known whether high vagal activity was the cause of improvement or just a characteristic of people that recover well.
Here’s what the authors of this study found:
Patients with prostate cancer and colorectal cancer were studied. The stage of cancer and heart rate variability were measured before treatment to see if they predicted tumor markers at a 6 month follow up.
These graphs were the most eye opening part of the paper. Each graph shows the presence of cancer biomarkers. For prostate cancer they used Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA). For colorectal cancer they used CarcinoEmbryonic Antigen (CEA).
These graphs show that patients with high vagal nerve activity (high HRV) had substantially lower levels of tumor markers in their system compared to patients with low vagal nerve activity (low HRV) in late stage cancer. This was true even when accounting for age and treatment differences. What does this mean?
If you have metastatic or late stage cancer, having higher vagal activity can reduce your tumor burden and improve your odds at recovery.
Can I Improve my Vagus Nerve Activity?
So can you actually improve your vagus nerve activity, or is it something that you’re born with? As it turns out, there are not shortage of things that you can do to help improve your heart rate variability. These interventions include:
And that was just from a quick search on Pubmed.
The point being:
Heart rate variability/vagal activity is something you can change whenever you want.
Not a Cancer Treatment
Now here’s where things get sticky and why I don’t post about cancer in my blog. In the alternative medicine world, it’s easy for some people to take the results of one study, and extrapolate in a way to say that makes it out to be the big thing to cure cancer naturally.
Changing your vagal tone and HRV is NOT about treating cancer, and anyone using the above methods as a stand alone methodology of curing cancer is foolish.
Getting better function from your vagus nerve is about creating higher resilience in your body’s response to stress isn’t just good for cancer. It’s good for just about everything from post-exercise recovery to post-heart attack recovery.
Regardless of your condition, a better adaptation to stress benefits the body as a whole.
Tools for You
Heart Rate Variability is one of the metrics that we measure on patients in our office. It helps us keep a gauge of a patient’s autonomic nervous system in response to a Structural Correction program.
Fortunately, technology has evolved to the point where you can actually measure this on yourself regularly right from your own phone. While I have never used these apps before, these tools can provide a motivated patient to take their own measurements comfortably from their own home. Here are the highest rated tools:
Polar H7 Blue Tooth Smart Heart Rate Monitor (Starting at $55)
Elite HRV App (Free)
I suggest taking measurements over the course of a few days to get some baseline data before you start seeing what creates positive change. It’s important to control for certain variables. I would start by taking your HRV the first the in the morning so it helps eliminates some confounding variables. Remember that HRV can be influenced by numerous factors including sleep, prescription drugs, diet, and timing of the test.. It’s up to you to find the right combination that works for you.
Use these measurements to time your post-workout recovery, physiologic response to new treatments, or even the impact that sleep has on our overall health. While it’s not a full-proof measurement by any means, it’s a non-invasive and significant marker for overall health and well-being.