The Vagus Nerve as the Modulator of Restoration and Health

Recently, the vagus nerve has become very popular in the health space. This is because this tenth cranial nerve profoundly influences the critical organs in the body, such as the heart, gut, brain, and lungs.

The vagus nerve is the master regulator of the “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system (ANS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It allows your body to effortlessly perform its subconscious functions and supports restoration. In contrast, a heightened sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the “fight and flee” part of the ANS, keeps your body on guard and ready to defend against threats.

The polyvagal theory is an innovative approach to dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is based on the vagus nerve’s functions. It is the study of the neurological, psychological, and physiological responses of the nervous system to threats and safety. When one is feeling safe, they are PNS dominant. This allows their mind-body to retain balance and supports growth, health, and nourishing social connections.

Essential oils can support this therapeutic application. They are a holistic tool that can help to release the emotional blocks that keep one stuck and in a state of alarm.

In this post, I will explore how essential oils can support vagal tone, the functioning of your vagus nerve, in a variety of ways.


Essential Oils for Calming the Mind and Body on All Levels

Due to the fact that they can instantaneously dial down autonomic arousal, essential oils can directly impact vagal tone. They have been shown to induce relaxation, calm the mind and body, and enhance mood. Along with their soothing psychological effects, they also impact our biochemistry, neurochemistry, brain patterning, physiology, and even social interactions.

For these reasons, essential oils can be successfully integrated into conventional, integrative, and naturopathic medicine mental health and nervous system support protocols. Below, I will review more on how essential oils can work to address vagal tone based on how they modify various levels of body functioning.

Essential Oils Affects on Biochemistry and Neurochemistry

On the biochemical and neurochemical level, essential oils can alter brain health, nervous system and molecular signaling patterns, and cognitive function. They have been shown to modulate neurotransmitters via several mechanisms. Essential oils also protect the brain from oxidative stress. (R, R) This is important, because when the brain is irritated by free radicals and inflammatory mediators, the nervous system suffers. In a review article of the neuroprotective and anti-aging properties of essential oils, the author states (bold text mine):

The use of essential oils (EOs) and their components is known since long in traditional medicine and aromatherapy for the management of various diseases, and is further increased in the recent times.

The neuroprotective and anti-aging potentials of EOs and their possible mechanism of actions were evaluated by numerous researchers around the globe.

Several clinically important EOs and their components from Nigella sativa, Acorus gramineus, Lavandula angustifolia, Eucalyptus globulus, Mentha piperita, Rosmarinus officinalis, Jasminum sambac, Piper nigrum and so many other plants are reported for neuroprotective effects.

This review article was aimed to summarize the current finding on EOs tested against neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer disease (AD) and dementia. The effects of EOs on pathological targets of AD and dementia including amyloid deposition (AB), neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs), cholinergic hypofunction, oxidative stress and glutamatergic abnormalities were focused.

Furthermore, effects of EOs on other neurological disorders including anxiety, depression, cognitive hypofunction epilepsy and convulsions were also evaluated in detail. In conclusion, EOs were effective on several pathological targets and have improved cognitive performance in animal models and human subjects.

Thus, EOs can be developed as multi-potent agents against neurological disorders with better efficacy, safety and cost effectiveness.

Essential Oils Alter Brain Function Patterns and Impact Physiology

Essential oils and certain fragrances have been shown to alter brain wave patterns, influencing concentration, focus, relaxation, and emotions. In an in-depth review article, the authors provided specific examples of these effects as measured by electroencephalograph (EEG) activity. These brain state changes impact our physiology, as the vagal nerve is bi-directional. As stated in the paper:

In our daily life, several fragrances appear and a sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity.

Fragrance is a volatile chemical component with a molecular weight of <300 Da that humans perceive via the olfactory system.

In the olfactory process, the fragrant molecules in the air attach to the cilia of olfactory receptors in the olfactory epithelium, located in the nasal cavity. Then the guanine nucleotide binding protein (G-protein) coupled receptors (GPCR) are activated and electrical signals are generated. Subsequently, the electrical signals are transmitted to the brain by olfactory sensory neurons via olfactory bulb and higher olfactory cortex [5,6].

Consequently, these electrical signals modulate the brain functions including memory, thoughts, and emotions.

Many studies describe that the inhalation of fragrances highly affect the brain function since the fragrance compounds are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and interact with receptors in the central nervous system [7,8].

Furthermore, many studies have suggested that the olfactory stimulation of fragrances produces immediate changes in physiological parameters such as blood pressure, muscle tension, pupil dilation, skin temperature, pulse rate and brain activity [5,9,10].

Hence, the studies in relation to the role of fragrances in the brain functions of healthy and diseased subjects have significantly increased in the past decades.

Keep in mind that the individual differences in aromatic preferences and gender can affect these patterns of nervous system arousal or calming. For example, although lavender is biochemically soothing, it isn’t going to provoke pleasantness if one hates the smell.


Essential Oils: Multi-systemic Effects on the Social Level

Through their multi-system effects on our brain and body, essential oils can also alter our behavior which can result in more positive social connections. Studies have even supported the use of essential oils for easing the symptoms of addictive substance withdrawal.

I have used essential oils in my practice to help my clients implement self-care practices and to assist them with releasing unwanted reactionary patterns that sabotage their relationships. For example, specific emotional blends can help to release psychological blocks that impact one’s ability to take part in life. In relationship to the polyvagal theory, these aspects can support the ventral vagal state of the nervous system, in which one feels comfortable to show up, communicate, and connect with others.

Human bonds are an often-overlooked epigenetic influencer of undue stress and physical ailments. By assisting with alleviating emotional toxicity and enhancing emotional intelligence, essential oils can help to create more fulfilling, healthier, and longer lives.

The Vagus Nerve and Aromatherapy

According to Psychology Today (bold emphasis mine):

Although aromatherapy often gets a bad rap for being new-agey or woo-woo, there are countless animal and human clinical studies which show that aromatherapy has a profound impact on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and can reduce “fight or flight” distress by activating the calming effects of our parasympathetic vagus nerve response.

Notably, taking a deep whiff of anything by inhaling through your nose followed by a long exhale from your mouth is a form of diaphragmatic breathing that is going to calm your ANS by squirting out some vagusstoff (German for “vagus substance”) which slows heart rate and alleviates anxiety….

Through the lens of a psychophysiology, aromatherapy helps to modulate an optimal state of arousal and positive emotional valence associated with a perfect blend of adrenaline and acetylcholine. This combo also reflects the sweet spot between “boredom and anxiety” which facilitates a “flow” state and/or superfluidity (the highest tier of flow).


Summary: How Essential Oils Support the Vagus Nerve

As you can see, essential oils are more than just calming scents. They are vagus nerve modulators that also influence our physiology, psychology, neurochemistry, biochemistry, and social connections. Through various mechanisms, they can enhance our brain health, mood, and calm our reactive nervous system down, allowing for more rational response patterns in relationships. This is connected to the polyvagal theory on feeling safe in order to heal, grow, and restore from trauma.

In a future post, I’ll review some of my favorite oils for supporting vagal tone.

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  10. See additional references in links to articles.

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Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)

This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

Thanks Pixabay and Canva.