What’s the Vagus?
The Vagus nerve is the longest, largest, and most complex of the cranial nerves. It gets its name because it “wanders” like a “vagabond” from the brain to most of our visceral organs (heart, lungs, stomach, and liver, among others).
Among its many functions, the Vagus nerve controls our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the complement to the sympathetic nervous system, the one that triggers fight or flight responses in reaction to external stressors. When the sympathetic nervous system reacts to stress, it floods our bodies with cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn speeds up our heart and breathing rate, and causes us to tense up.
To counteract this effect, the Vagus nerve releases acetylcholine, it’s main neurotransmitter, to deliver instructions to different organs to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm us down. In this way, the Vagus nerve helps us slow down our breathing and our heart rate. It can also switch off inflammation by relaxing the immune system. In other words, the Vagus nerve is a built-in regulator to manage stress..
As the intricacies of this complex nerve system have become better understood, there has been a rising interest in using Vagus nerve stimulation to treat a broad range of clinical conditions, from epilepsy to migraines to depression. The effectiveness shown by these treatments has led the FDA to approve a number of Vagus stimulation devices for clinical use.
We are also starting to see some intriguing products on the consumer side.
Sensate is a device designed to help you decompress and reduce your stress levels in sessions as short as 10 minutes. Using sensate is a two-step process. First, you don your headphones and pick a soundscape from their specially-designed library of binaural beats. These are sounds engineered at different frequencies that can be detected by the brain and elicit certain responses, like relaxation.
Next, you place the Sensate device on your chest, where it works by emitting “engineered infrasonic tones” that stimulate the Vagus nerve through bone conduction. Your chest carries the vibrations into your body and triggers an effect that helps you slow down the heart and change the frequency of your brain waves.
According to the company, These two coordinated stimuli together create a sensory experience that helps reduce stress and anxiety. Sensate also claims to improve your focus and increase your mental resilience.
Who is behind it?
Sensate was developed by a British company called BioSelf Technologies. The company was founded by Stefan Chmelik, a lifelong meditator who runs an integrative health clinic in London. For many years, Stefan has been focused on helping people who have a hard time practicing meditation to tap into its benefits. These efforts led him to focus on technology-assisted relaxation techniques, which ultimately led him to develop Sensate.
We wish there were more data available about how Sensate works and the science behind its design. The company claims that “98% of Sensate users felt better after just 10 minutes of use. They reported lowered stress, improved sleep outcomes, reduced anxiety, and better focus.”
We found this video in which Chmelik shares that they have seen up to “86% improvements in heart rate variability” in Sensate users, which is a marker for increased stress resiliency.
Unlike meditation, Chmelik explains, where the benefits can usually be observed only over prolonged periods of practice, Sensate can achieve the “same neurological signatures in a single 10-minute session.” He recommends 10-minute sessions daily over 6 weeks to “rewire your nervous system to be more stress-proof.”
Try it for yourself
There are many ways to stimulate your Vagus nerve to strengthen your parasympathetic nervous response. Yoga and mediation are two examples. However, if these are not your thing, giving Sensate a try may be worthwhile. The product is currently being sold as part of an Indiegogo campaign here.
Alternatively, check out Xen by Neuvana, which uses a similar strategy for stimulating the Vagus nerve through sounds.