Raynaud’s Syndrome is a condition where blood vessels in a person’s extremities shut down when exposed to cold. It is caused by peripheral blood vessels overreacting to colder temperatures and can result in painful and discolored extremities.
The Vagus Nerve
New research suggests an alternative method for treating Raynaud’s symptoms indirectly via the vagus nerve. Literature regarding the application of essential oils is generally weak. Literature regarding the application of essential oils to the vagus nerve presents a wide opportunity for further research.
The autonomic nervous system consists of three parts, the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and the enteric nervous system, each playing an interconnected role in maintaining homeostasis. The role of the autonomic nervous system is to regulate the body’s flight, fright or freeze response (Boundless, n.d.).
The parasympathetic nervous system plays a minor role regarding Raynaud’s symptomatology, The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest system”. It is responsible for slowing the heart rate, regulating the intestines, glands and sphincter muscles of the gastro-intenstinal (GI) tract.
The sympathetic nervous system also helps regulate the flight or fight response. The role it plays in regulating stress is particularly helpful to managing Raynaud’s phenomenon. The key feature of the sympathetic nervous system is that it is responsible for regulating blood flow to muscles by shutting down blood flow to the skin.
The “enteric nervous system” is the intrinsic nervous system of the GI tract. The GI tract is a series of hollow organs that includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus (U.S. Department of Health and Hu man Services, 2017). “The magnitude and complexity of the enteric nervous system is immense – it contains as many neurons as the spinal cord.
The enteric nervous system, along with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, constitute the autonomic nervous system.” Neuroscientists are particularly interested in learning about the gut-brain connection. The stomach sits at the center of the GI tract. Neuroscientists have learned “It is the only organ that contains an intrinsic nervous system that is able to mediate reflexes in the complete absence of input from the brain or spinal cord” (Gershon, 1998).
It is for these reasons that the stomach is sometimes referred to as a “second brain”. Expressions such as, “go with your gut” or “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” take on new meaning in light of these concepts. Though the enteric nervous system is not capable of conscious thought, it profoundly communicates with our “first brain”. The information highway between the enteric nervous system and the brain is called the vagus nerve (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2020).
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
“The vagus nerve is one of 12 pairs of cranial nerves that originate in the brain and controls involuntary body functions. The nerve passes through the neck as it travels between the chest and abdomen and the lower part of the brain.” It is the neural pathway between the brain and the enteric nervous system (American Association of Neurological Surgeons, n.d.).
“Recent studies have shown that vagal nerve stimulation has vasodilatory and anti-inflammatory properties which has led to more preclinical research examining vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) as treatment for a wider range of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.
Although there are no direct data to demonstrate vagus nerve stimulation’s effect in Raynaud’s phenomenon, the investigators believe that VNS’s success in treating headache and migraine attacks indirectly support its use in Raynaud’s phenomenon by its direct effect on vasospasms (narrowing of blood vessels). In fact migraine has been found as a risk factor for the development of Raynaud’s phenomenon further supports this notion” (Kahaleh, 2019).
A characteristic of primary Raynaud’s syndrome is that vasospasming is reversible (Suter, Felson, Fraenkel, 2005). Physicians have access to the data from clinical trials that support the use of R. officinalis to treat vasospasms and there are indicators that stimulation of the vagus nerve will also show improvement in Raynaud’s phenomenon.
One would think that given that primary Raynaud’s is reversible, a conventional doctor providing Raynaud’s as a diagnosis would be able to offer a wider variety of treatment than to, “wear gloves.”
Vagus nerve stimulators are implantable devices that send, “regular, mild pulses of electrical energy to the brain via the vagus nerve, through a device that is similar to a pacemaker. There is no physical involvement of the brain in this surgery and patients cannot generally feel the pulses (American Association of Neurological Surgeons, n.d.). There are also external devices that stimulate the vagus nerve in a similar way by sending electrical impulses through the vagus nerve. The external devices deliver the electrical charge through the skin on the neck where the vagus nerve passes down into the chest.
Aromatics and Vagus Nerve Stimulation
The efficacy of R. officinalis and external vagus nerve stimulation in alleviating the symptomatology of Raynaud’s syndrome should be of high interest to aromatherapists. One method for applying essential oil is the vita flex technique. The vita flex technique was brought to the United States from Tibet and literally means “Vitality through the reflexes.” Essential oils and the vita flex technique complement each other very well and achieve a synergistic quality when combined.
The premise behind vita flex is that slight pressure applied via the fingertips create a static electric charge known as piezoelectricity. To achieve the charge, “a rolling motion of the finger pads, tips, and nails, creates the stimulation similar to how an electric switch or circuit works. When done correctly, the electrical energy that is produced during the technique transfers to the nerve pathways” (Vita Flex, n.d.). It is interesting to note that this technique makes similar claims to the techniques employed by vagus nerve stimulators.
Peer reviewed journals contain evidence that the application of R. officinalis shows improvement in primary Raynaud’s syndrome. Scientific evidence points to vagus nerve stimulation as another possible therapeutic approach in alleviating Raynaud’s symptoms. Tibetan vita flex, as advocated by some aromatherapists, could also bring about relief for Raynaud’s sufferers, especially when combined with essential oils.
Aromatherapists are in a unique position to combine all three of these data points into a single unified therapeutic approach to treat Raynaud’s. Given the prevalence of Raynaud’s syndrome, the apparent lack of interest in better therapeutic approaches by the established medical community and the likely success a unified approach would yield, aromatherapists need to further study such an approach. It could revolu ionize life for people with Raynaud’s and revitalize interest in the study and application of Aromatherapy.
This blog is part of a series on Raynaud’s Syndrome, you can read the first part of the series here.
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