The 10th cranial nerve, better known as the vagus nerve, is all the rage.
Called such because its many tentacles spelunk through the body — "vagus" being Latin for "wandering" — the vagus nerve is a giant network of nerves that connects your brain to your heart, lungs, liver and more.
Whenever your immune system deploys an army of soldiers to fight off foreign invaders, it is the vagus nerve who throttles the influx of those troops, thus making sure inflammation doesn't spiral out of control. But that's not all. While most organs have just one job to do, the vagus nerve — besides keeping your stress response in check — also helps regulate glucose and insulin production, digestion, and your respiratory and heart rate.
The fact that so many physiological processes are governed by this one organ makes it a very interesting object of research. If we were to somehow exert influence over it, that would have momentous implications for medical care.
Interest and myth around this piece of branching tissue traces back centuries. Hindus were hip to the hype long before TikTok, explains Wim: "In the old Vedas texts this is the crown chakra, the Sahasrara Brahmarandhra. They already knew how you could attain deep peace, deep catharsis."
Of course today, we try to tame and bridle nature. Chief vagus whisperer since the 1990s is doctor Kevin Tracey. At his Feinstein Institute in Manhasset, New York, he and his team have been exploring ways to regulate and modulate vagus nerve function by way of applying electrical impulses.
Back in 2007, Tracey invited Wim Hof to his lab, to get a better sense of how the brain and nerve talk to each other. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and hence thought to be outside of our control. But the Iceman has been known to topple a scientific paradigm or two.
They hooked Wim up to some machines with the instructions to meditate, and then tested his blood on no less than 307 different markers, to see if he was pulling his own vagus nerve strings. The results showed that his blood had been altered exactly in the way that it typically does when the vagus nerve has been deeply stimulated. The institute was astounded. Never before had control over the nerve been demonstrated so convincingly.
Plans were hatched immediately to replicate the results, but somehow that follow up never materialized. The why is a bit of a mystery. Wim believes Tracey saw more promise in a synthetic solution versus investigating the deeper powers of the human mind and body. "Natural remedies have fallen from grace. Alternative medicine has become synonymous with 'it doesn't work' and has effectively been demonetized."
Pills and appliances that you can touch and test and demonstrate are an easier sell to investors, and hence research into those things are easier to finance. The Feinstein Institute eventually came up with a small device that can be implanted at the back of the neck. This gadget serves people to varying degrees of effectiveness. For some, it's life changing. Others experience side effects like fatigue or headaches, and for others still the device does very little at all.
It's a lot better than a pill, which disrupts natural immune function and typically has more troublesome side effects. But Tracey seems to tacitly acknowledge that synthetics are not really the answer. Thirteen years after that infamous experiment, he reached back out to Wim, admitting that in all that time he had never managed to reproduce those results with his own subsequent work. He told Wim that he wanted to pick up where the two had left off; to set up a study that would prove once and for all our innate ability to channel the vagus nerve.
Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse. A pesky little microbe called COVID-19 swept over the world, and the strictmandates that followed put all U.S. medical research in a straitjacket, leaving Tracey's passion project dead in the water.
Wim laments the train of events, but he is not one to dwell on the past. Besides, he has a method that already does what Tracey's gadget does. Except it's free, has no side effects, and doesn't require that you have a metal-silicone contraption surgically placed under your skin.
The exact biochemical mechanisms of the Wim Hof Method haven't been fully mapped out, and its efficacy may be due more to adrenaline than vagus nerve action per se, but Wim says it doesn't even really matter that much. "It's up to the scientific community to figure that out, but that it works is indisputable."
We know from countless testimonials that Wim Hof Method breathing calms you right down. If you practice the method, you know it from firsthand experience. And studies back it up, too.
So when people come to Wim in despair, pleading 'how do I stimulate the vagus nerve??' His answer remains brutally simple.
"Breathe, ************. Breathe."