Could stimulating your vagus nerve improve your depression symptoms? VNS works on this principle, but it isn’t for everyone.

There are a variety of treatments for depression symptoms. Some of them include antidepressant medication and psychotherapy.

Other treatment options aren’t as traditional but could be possible for some people. The options include vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).

Vagus nerve stimulation is commonly used to treat epilepsy and, in some cases, depression. In sum, it’s electrically stimulating the vagus nerve through an implanted device.

Your vagus nerve is part of the 12 cranial nerves that originate in the brain. They are an essential component of your autonomic nervous system.

The vagus nerve runs down both sides of your body, beginning at your neck and spreading through your chest. The nerve helps control involuntary functions related to heart rate, breathing, and digestion.

In VNS, a small device is implanted into your body along the vagus nerve. The device sends electrical pulses that stimulate the nerve.

The process is similar to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which also uses electrical pulse stimulation.

Unlike VNS, though, ECT focuses on entire brain sections, not only the vagus nerve. ECT also relies on removable surface electrodes, not implants.

Stimulating the vagus nerve in VNS does appear to help with depression in many people.

A 5-year observational study on VNS for depression found the therapy, used alongside traditional treatment methods, led to better outcomes than conventional treatments alone.

The data also suggested VNS could work as an alternative option for people who had previous success with ECT.

A second 5-year study found similar results among patients with treatment-resistant depression. In the research, vagus nerve stimulation was responsible for significant improvements in previously untreatable depression symptoms.

The success of VNS may also carry over into noninvasive forms of the procedure.

In a study published in 2016 on transcutaneous VNS, researchers found that stimulating the vagus nerve through electrodes clipped onto the ear was also effective in treating symptoms of depression.

The results could mean that implanting a device isn’t necessary in every case.

How does vagus nerve stimulation work?

The investigation into how VNS works is ongoing.

Experts believe the electrical pulses stimulating the vagus nerve may help symptoms of depression by:

  • improving blood circulation to areas of the brain that regulate your mood
  • stimulating the production of neurotransmitters in the brain that also help regulate your mood

Some research from 2018 suggests — because the vagus nerve controls digestive functions — that the link between gut bacteria and mood may be one reason why VNS improves symptoms of depression.

Vagus nerve stimulation is seen as a treatment option for cases of depression that may not be improving with other therapies.

To qualify for VNS treatment, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states symptoms of depression must not have responded to four or more previous treatment attempts.

Traditional treatment for depression

Most people live with depression that can be managed through traditional treatment options. These options often include:

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VNS has been shown in the observational study to improve mild to moderate clinical depression symptoms.

Because vagus nerve stimulation requires surgery to implant a device, your health professional may not consider it a first-line treatment option. They’ll probably try medication and therapy first.

There may be some symptoms of depression VNS doesn’t effectively treat.

Suicide ideation is sometimes a symptom of depression. It’s also one of the areas where the efficacy of VNS is unclear.

In a 2019 systematic review on VNS, there appeared to be no statistical benefit for using VNS to treat suicide ideation in cases of depression.

Vagus nerve stimulation isn’t for everyone. You may not be a candidate for this procedure if you have:

  • lung disease
  • ulcers
  • fainting conditions
  • preexisting hoarseness
  • irregular heart rate
  • autonomous nervous system dysfunction
  • ongoing, additional brain stimulation treatments
  • only one vagus nerve
  • suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • rapid cycling bipolar disorder
  • history of delusional disorders

The side effects of vagus nerve stimulation typically occur during electrical pulse stimulation. These are usually mild and tend to improve over time.

You may experience:

  • skin tingling
  • hoarseness
  • voice changes
  • coughing
  • generalized pain
  • throat or neck pain
  • throat or neck spasms
  • indigestion
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • muscle twitches
  • nausea or vomiting
  • touch desensitization
  • shortness of breath

As with any surgical procedures, there may be a chance for:

  • anesthesia complications
  • medication reactions
  • infections
  • surgical site pain

VNS is not a first-line option for depression treatment. It may not be effective for all symptoms or types of depression.

It’s only FDA-approved for treatment-resistant depression, which is a rare instance. Symptoms of depression are often effectively managed with traditional treatments.

If you would like to explore other options to manage symptoms of depression, speaking with a mental health professional could be a good place to start.

To find a therapist in your area or speak to someone about mental health, you can call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

You can also use our resource guide.