Visceral nerves: vagal and sympathetic innervation

JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. Sep-Oct 2008;32(5):569-71. doi: 10.1177/0148607108321705.


The autonomic nervous system is the primary neural mediator of physiological responses to internal and external stimuli. It is composed of 2 branches: the sympathetic nervous system, which mediates catabolic responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system, composed of the vagus nerve, which regulates anabolic responses. As the vagus nerve innervates most tissues involved in nutrient metabolism, including the stomach, pancreas, and liver, activation of vagal efferent activity has the potential to influence how nutrients are absorbed and metabolized. Vagal efferent activity is initially activated at the onset of food intake by receptors in the oropharyngeal cavity and then during food intake postprandially. Vagal efferent innervation of the pancreas contributes to early-phase insulin release as well as to optimizing postprandial insulin release. In the absence of vagal activation, which occurs when glucose is administered intragastrically, postprandial glucose levels are higher and insulin levels blunted compared with when there is activation of oropharyngeal receptors by food. An induction of vagal efferent activity also occurs during chronic pancreatic B-cell challenge with 48-hour glucose infusions. Under these conditions, the compensatory increase in insulin secretion is partially mediated by an increase in vagal efferent activity. In conclusion, the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system, plays a critical role in the regulation of blood glucose levels and is an often overlooked factor contributing to glucose homeostasis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Glucose / metabolism*
  • Eating / physiology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Insulin Secretion
  • Liver / innervation
  • Liver / physiology
  • Pancreas / innervation*
  • Pancreas / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Visceral Afferents / physiology*


  • Blood Glucose
  • Insulin