The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind it

image: iStock photo

I recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:




-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

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  1. Lisa Barry on August 15, 2018 at 9:02 am

    Thank you David, as always spot on and perfect and I will be sharing your information as I do all the time to clients and in my workshops about you! x

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks, Lisa. 🙂

  2. Bonnie on August 15, 2018 at 9:29 am

    Thank you. I love that you filtered through and broke this down. I am a Yoga teacher and I love being able to share this kind of information. It gives us reasons and results.. I think this helps us to realize we can make life choices with loving care.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Thanks Bonnie. That’s so true! 🙂

  3. Natalie Thompson on August 15, 2018 at 11:08 am

    I’ve been following you and your blogs for a few years now and find what you write immensely helpful, inspiring and informative in a way that I can’t conpare with anything else.
    Thank you.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks for your such kind words, Natalie. 🙂

  4. Charlotte Harwood on August 15, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Thank you David, as always, for your work and great contributions. I have just written an essay for my VHT (vibromuscular harmonisation technique) course, on the vagus nerve. Your article here confirms everything. Brill !

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:56 pm

      I love the timing, Charlotte. 🙂

  5. Angela on August 15, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    Love this! Thank you so much for translating those pesky scientific papers so we can all understand the info!!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Haha, thanks Angela. 🙂

  6. Laurie Calland on August 15, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Thanks, David. Interesting, motivating, and useful information.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks Laurie. 🙂

  7. Don Ross on August 15, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    I’m writing a book about using hypnosis to support cancer patients. Thank you for gleaning this information from the study. I will be citing this in the book. I love your work, I have been quoting the Five Side Effects of Kindness to my hypnosis clients and encouraging everyone to read it. Thanks for your work.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 15, 2018 at 4:54 pm

      Thanks Don. Good luck with your book. I’m sure it will be a valuable resource for supporting cancer patients. 🙂

  8. Shauna Marie on August 15, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    Thank you for the research you do on the behalf of cancer patients and their caregivers.
    These findings help us all…
    Yoga has been on my radar for years and I’ve been ignoring the subtle signs. I think I’d best listen to the wisdom of my “inner voice”.
    Take good care and please come to canada one of these days. It would be my great pleasure to hear you speak in person.
    Shauna Marie

  9. Michelle Townsend on August 15, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you for explaining this information in the way that you always do…easy to understand.
    I work with cancer patients every week running relaxation sessions and providing Hypnosis/Hypnotherapy for them. Being a cancer survivor myself it is also reassuring to know and I will be sharing this information with my groups over the coming weeks. It will also help with my book too. Thanks again

  10. Silvana Evans on August 16, 2018 at 5:33 am

    Thank you David. Love is the answer

  11. May tierney on August 16, 2018 at 7:39 am

    Hi David I have attended a few of your talks at Cancer support Scotland I am one of the complementary therapist and have been working with cancer clients for about 13years and see the difference relaxation, meditation and visualisation makes a calm mind produces calm body reducing stress, anxiety and the inflammatory effects that high stress levels cause. Thank for passing on these studies.

  12. Dr Greg Marshall on August 16, 2018 at 8:24 am

    This goes some way to explaining how hypnosis( which I have used in dentistry for most of my career) produces the effects on the patien’s body and mind. Breathing slows (with and by suggestion) which will allow the effect of the vagus nerve to slow the heart rate producing a calm deeply relaxed state that patients generally say they have never experienced before. I am not a physiologist but your explanation of the findings of the review paper make a lot of sense.
    My daughter is a Reiki Master and the effects on her clients will be very similarly produced
    Thank you

  13. Laura Stanley on August 16, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Hi David, thanks so much for this, I am SO pleased you put the bit in at the end about not being immune to cancer, as I think it’s some times hard for people who may be suffering from cancer to read this info and not get anxcious or question themselves, even though they are people with loads of companion and kindness and still get it!! So useful to know and helpful to confirm that all these things help and slow it down. Thank you.

  14. Dr Greg Marshall on August 16, 2018 at 1:17 pm

    My daughter’s name is Penny Marshall with whom you have had some previous communication

  15. Joelle Hunnewell on August 17, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you for the interesting article. I’m a 6-time metastatic breast cancer survivor who has practiced yoga for more than 40 years. Cancer for me is a chronic illness. Is there a way for a layman to measure her own HRV? It seems like something that could be very helpful for people like me.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 19, 2018 at 2:37 pm

      Hi Joelle, you can get HRV devices from the Heartmath Institute, and you can view HRV on a laptop, iPad or Smartphone. It doesn’t give you an exact figure, but you can see it for yourself on the screen and roughly estimate it because when you breathe comfortably it shows HRV as a sine wave on the screen as you can see the high and low for yourself. I hope that makes sense. There’s probably loads of companies who have similar technology but Heartmath is the only one I personally know of. I hope that helps. 🙂

  16. Sallie Evans on August 18, 2018 at 11:08 am

    David, as ever, a huge thank you for all that you do.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on August 19, 2018 at 2:31 pm

      Thanks Sallie. 🙂

  17. Ainsley Threadgold on August 21, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Having just transferred to a Vegan diet and knowing that one of the very positive effects, is a massive reduction in the bodies over all inflammation . I wonder what correlation this has with Vegas nerve activity.

  18. Drew on September 19, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    Great article David. As was you talk in Leeds this week. Do you have citation for the 2 cancer RCTs that you described on your talk please?

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on September 21, 2018 at 9:54 am

      Thanks Drew. Here’s the references:
      O. Eremin et al., ‘Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodality therapy: A randomised controlled trial’, The Breast, 2009, 18, 17-25
      L. G. Walker et al., ‘Psychological, clinical, and pathological effects of relaxation training and guided imagery during primary chemotherapy’, British Journal of Cancer, 1999, 80(1/2), 262-268
      See also, C. A. Lengacher et al., ‘Immune responses to guided imagery during breast cancer treatment’, Biological Research for Nursing, 2008, 9(3), 205-214
      There are quite a few other studies that used immune targeted imagery and measured different things. You’ll find the full list of studies and refs in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, 10th Anniversary Ed. (It’s published on 9th October 2018. The original version doesn’t have theses studies so it has to be the 10th Anniversary Edition). I hope that helps. 🙂

  19. Drew on September 21, 2018 at 11:03 am

    Thanks David. You book is on my shopping list. Cheers Drew

  20. Bea on October 3, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    You’re amazing David! Thank you SO much for breaking this down for normal people so we can apply this in our lives. I am healing from cancer right now, and it’s great to see this new research on what works. I actually just discovered you through Anita Moorjani’s website and am reading my way through all your books to support my mind-body healing. I am really excited for the new release of Heal Your Body – what an accomplishment, congratulations to you! Thank you for all the incredible work you are doing to help people change their lives.

    • Don Ross on October 17, 2018 at 4:38 pm

      Bea, agree, I also recommend “Mind to Matter” by Dawson Church.

  21. Gene on October 22, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    As a BowenWork practitioner I am beginning to see a correlation between cancer and the health of the Vagus Nerve. When I began to research my suspicions, your article came up. Thanks so much.
    BowenWork is very good at stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. We even have a protocol for Vagus Nerve stimulation.

  22. Brenda on November 22, 2019 at 2:28 am

    It sounds promising. Thank you.

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