Vagal Tone and Immune Regulation

Kristen Sparrow • April 08, 2015


Goddess Statue
Ancient Medicine Made Modern

This ties into my area of interest of monitoring vagal tone during acupuncture treatment.  Acupuncture can be helpful with pain, but more interestingly, with immune problems such as allergy.  Since immune function is thought to be implicated in so many modern ailments, from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer to autism, this type of thinking may help lead the way to some new therapies.  Or making ancient medicine modern.
But another key aspect of the thinking here is this, “High vagal tone may reflect more flexible top-down brain regulation of immune and physiological activity.”  In my studies, I have seen an increase in HRV after needling in patients likely to clinically improve with acupuncture treatment.  (I have needed to focus on this dynamic aspect of HRV, since there can be some variation in baseline HRV between sessions.  But in general, patients have almost a “finger print” in their HRV response.  It’s not random, but individual.) And, yes, it seems to vary with points or stimulation used, but not as much as one might think.  Am I causing or merely capturing the healing shift?  Am I simply causing a placebo response that leads to healing?  Or is the treatment key?  Still questions.
J Neuroimmunol. 2013 Jul 15;260(1-2):28-36. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroim.2013.04.011. Epub 2013 May 14.

Vagal nerve activity as a moderator of brain-immune relationships.

Ohira H1, Matsunaga M, Osumi T, Fukuyama S, Shinoda J, Yamada J, Gidron Y.

Author information

  • 1Department of Psychology, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya 464-8601, Japan.


We investigated whether vagal tone, as assessed by heart rate variability (HRV), moderates the neural correlates of immune and physiological responses to acute stress. Participants with low and high baseline HRV underwent a reversal learning task as an acute stressor. Natural killer cells, norepinephrine, and adrenocorticotropic hormone in peripheral blood changed with acute stress in the high HRV group only. Activity in the prefrontal cortex and striatum correlated with the immune and physiological indices in the high HRV group. High vagal tone may reflect more flexible top-down brain regulation of immune and physiological activity.