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Autism Coach

The Vagus Nerve - Core Piece of the Autism Puzzle - Part 3 - What can be done to help?

Posted by Suan Bennett, Autism Coach on

What helps stimulate the vagus nerve to function more optimally?

Deep breathing exercises, meditation, aerobic exercise (brisk walking, bicycling, running jogging), martial arts training, tap dancing, auditory integration training, interactive metronome therapy, drumming, oxygen therapies (hyperbaric oxygen), spinning, cranial sacral massage, chiropractic adjustments.  Also relaxed, positive social interactions with friendly people who like the person and the person trusts.

Why does auditory integration training work so well for many individuals on the spectrum? Because it stimulates the vagus nerve through the ear, increasing muscle tone that is normally stimulated directly through the vagus nerve.  Dr. Stephen Porges has also created a program using filtered music to stimulate the vagus nerve that is in clinical trial.(3)

What nutritional support can help protect and repair the vagus nerve?

Viruses tend to activate when exposed to excessive levels of sugar, carbohydrates. Herpes viruses activate when exposed to excessive levels of arginine found in peanuts, chocolate and some other nuts. Foods high in lysine, such as turkey, tend to inactive and keep herpes viruses dormant. Anti-herpes prescription drugs may also be of help, but research is showing that they have to be used on a long-term basis to be successful (such as six months). Foods and supplements that support neurological repair may also help, such as coconut oil and milk, sunflower lecithin, phosphatidyl serine and choline. For more information please refer to our Neurological supplement section.

Are there mainstream therapies being developed to improve the function of the vagus nerve?  

Pharmaceutical companies are currently sinking millions of dollars into research in this area to develop both drugs and devices to help stimulate the vagus nerve.  Preliminary studies have indicated that vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy currently used to reduce pharmacoresistant seizures in epilepsy, may improve neurocognitive performance in individuals with autism as well as alleviate depression in individuals untreatable depression. Park reported a study with 59 autistic patients and 6 with LKS, with epilepsy. Improvements were reported in all areas of quality of life monitored particularly for alertness (76% at 12 months). But better standardized and long term studies are required to assess the results better. I’m personally not recommending an invasive surgery (this is having a pacemaker like device implanted in your body that continually stimulates the vagus nerve), but it evidently shows great promise in helping improve level of functioning in trials.

What can I do to calm down the overactive sympathetic nervous system which keeps us in flight and fight mode? Reducing external stressors, providing a calm safe environment, using humor (laughter helps) to address potentially stressful situations. There are also supplements that can lower levels of cortisol, such as rhodiola rosea and Ginseng. Please refer to our Adrenal/Cortisol supplement section. Taking steps to identify and rid of the body of infections will also help to calm down the parasympathetic nervous system.


Why do meditation and relaxation techniques help? Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve connections in the lung area. So, for example, if you regularly and deeply breathe in through your nose and expand your lungs, hold in your breath for two seconds and release through your mouth you can immediately lower your blood pressure. The vagus nerve produces calm and feelings of well-being—the opposite of the sympathetic fight and flight. Vagal tone is measured by tracking how the heart rate speeds up and slows down during breathing. Increased vagal tone stimulates better social feelings, which stimulates more vagal tone. In one study, meditators had increased vagal tone after nine weeks, which correlated with positive emotions.

Back - Part 2 - How does the vagus nerve cause symptoms of autism?

References

  1. The Neurobiology of Autism edited by Margaret L. Bauman, Thomas L. Kemper, second edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Medical Hypothess. VanElzakker MB 2013 Sep;81(3):414-23. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2013.05.034. Epub 2013 Jun 19. Chronic fatigue syndrome from vagus nerve infection: a psychoneuroimmunological hypothesis.
  3. Reducing auditory hypersensitivities in autistic spectrum disorder: preliminary findings evaluating the listening project protocol. Porges SW, Bazhenova OV, Bal E, Carlson N, Sorokin Y, Heilman KJ, Cook EH, Lewis GF. Front Pediatr. 2014 Aug 1;2:80. doi: 10.3389/fped.2014.00080. eCollection 2014.
  4. Emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorders: relations to eye gaze and autonomic state. Bal E, Harden E, Lamb D, Van Hecke AV, Denver JW, Porges SW. J Autism Dev Disord. 2010 Mar;40(3):358-70. doi: 19885725
  5. Vagal activity, early growth and emotional development. Field T, Diego M.
  6. Infant Behav Dev. 2008 Sep;31(3):361-73. doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2007.12.008. Epub 2008 Mar 4. Review. PMID: 18295898
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