I was astonished and excited to read about a completely new avenue of therapy for inflammatory diseases under investigation right in my own backyard. A press release posted May 15, 2015, by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the research arm of the North Shore-LIJ Health System, and SetPoint Medical Inc., a biomedical technology company, revealed their experimentation into a new therapeutic modality focused on vagal nerve stimulation to reduce inflammation!
Dr. Kevin Tracey, in his lab at the Feinstein Institiute, has studied bioelectronic medicine and how to use it to influence and reduce inflammation in various parts of the body.
What is Bioelectronic Medicine?
Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field of study that uses a tiny device to stimulate a specific nerve which can reduce the inflammatory response. The beauty of this approach is that it is using the body’s own ability to heal itself without the need for the systemic, dangerous medications that are in use today for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
This is an elegant approach because bioelectronic medicine targets very specific nerves which then target very specific tissues. It causes the release of the body’s own natural chemicals (neurotransmitters) which the body (in its infinite wisdom) uses to treat and balance itself at the specific site of the problem.
Clearly, a therapy that can target a specific site of inflammation and use the body’s own curative materials, is much better than having to use risky medications with widespread, destructive side effects – not to mention the huge expense of the current biologic medications in use for autoimmune diseases. For instance, Enbrel, a rheumatoid arthritis drug had $4.7 billion in sales last year, which made it No. 7 on the industry’s best-seller list.
Need I say more about the pressing need for less costly and safe alternatives?
What Can Be Treated with Bioelectronic Medicine?
It appears that any disease that has inflammation as a component may potentially be treated with this approach. That includes autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, obesity, type 2 diabetes and possibly even certain cancers. The common thread here is that there is either an over-reactive immune response, or an under-active immune response.
In bioelectronic medicine,
signals are sent and received in the body so that it knows to upregulate its response in immune deficiency, and downregulate its response in autoimmune disease. (source)
This is how the body is supposed to work and this new research is uncovering how to harness the body’s own ability toward homeostasis. It is truly a breakthrough!
The Vagus Nerve
Dr. Kevin Tracey and his lab have discovered not only that the vagus nerve regulates the immune system, but also, how it is regulated by the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is actually two nerves, right and left, but is usually referred to as one. It is the tenth cranial nerve and travels from the medulla obongata in the brain through the neck and chest to the abdomen. It enervates tissues and all the major organs along the way.
Clearly, the vagus nerve is super important.
This recent study published in Bioelectronic Medicine tested electrical activation of the vagus nerve in reducing TNF. The researchers concluded that,
These results indicate that single pulse and unidirectional electrical activation of the cervical vagus nerve reduces TNF in endotoxemia. (source)
Tumor Necrosis Factor
Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is a cytokine that induces inflammation. Dr. Tracey has discovered that the vagus nerve transmits TNF throughout the body. He has performed experiments in which inflammation is induced and then the vagus nerve is cut. When the vagus nerve is cut the inflammation stops.
Thinking outside the box, Dr. Tracey applied this information to the mapping of the neural pathways,
…charting a route from the vagus nerve to the spleen to the bloodstream and eventually to mitochondria inside cells.
Interestingly, Dr. Tracey also said,
We now know more about this electrical circuit to treat [inflammation] than is known about some clinically approved drugs… A patient gets a device like this implanted once for one disease, and they’re done… No prescriptions, no medicines, no injections. That’s the future. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.(source)
Studies on The Inflammatory Reflex
Dr. Tracey has been studying the inflammatory reflex since 2000. In 2002 he published preliminary research in Nature on this topic involving the vagus nerve fiber types and their responsibility for reducing the body’s inflammatory activity.
This study published in Bioelectronic Medicine in 2014, brings us closer to understanding the important neural-immune regulatory mechanisms termed the inflammatory reflex, and the opposing, cholinergic antiinflammatory pathway. These pathways regulate innate and adaptive immunity.
The researchers conclude,
… studies being done today will help determine whether neurostimulation of the cholinergic antiinflammatory pathway (NCAP) has the potential in the nearer term to fulfill the needs of patients, caregivers and payers for an additional potential treatment option for inflammatory disorders, and might thus become one of the first feasible examples of a bioelectronic medicine.
In this study published in Plos one in 2014 by the same authors as the above study, found that,
The severity of collagen-induced arthritis is reduced by neurostimulation of the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway delivered using an implanted electrical vagus nerve stimulation cuff electrode, and supports the rationale for testing this approach in human inflammatory disorders.
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve Naturally
Of course one should be on an anti-inflammatory diet like SCD, GAPS, Paleo or AIT Paleo. However, even with the diet, some folks still suffer from the effects of inflammation and autoimmunity. Some folks still need medication to help manage the inflammation. Hopefully the future will bring an alternative therapy like bioelectronic medicine as an option.
As far as I am concerned this research and development can’t come too soon. I am truly looking forward to the application of this novel treatment for inflammatory disorders, but until that time there has been some evidence of ways to stimulate the vagus nerve naturally.
According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian in his book Why isn’t my Brain Working? there are three ways to naturally stimulate the vagus nerve:
- Singing loudly
- Gargling with force several times a day
- Initiating the gag reflex gently with a tongue depressor
Dr. Kharrazian recommends one practices these things in order to improve gut health. This is interesting because we know that the gut is where the immune system lives and is intricately involved in inflammation.
What do you think about this new approach? Would you get a tiny device implanted to decrease inflammation if you had an inflammatory condition? Leave a comment and let me know!