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The vagus nerve and sleep: An introduction to VNS

Vagus Nerve And Sleep

Have you ever wondered about the connection between your vagus nerve and sleep? We all know sleep is one of the most important tools we have for keeping the brain and body healthy. Learn how to get better sleep with vagal nerve stimulation(VNS) in today’s post.

Plenty of rest is necessary to ensure your brain, muscles, and organs can operate normally. Unfortunately, there are many factors which can affect or disrupt our sleep pattern. 

Your nerves are just one of the many things which could influence not just how easily you fall asleep, but the quality of your rest too. Your nerves are responsible for sending electrical signals to your brain, and throughout the body, influencing sensations and movement. Over-stimulated nerves can lead to pain and discomfort, as well as increased feelings of stress.

The vagus nerve is the longest in the body, responsible for regulating almost all of the bodily processes you engage in without conscious effort, including breathing, managing your heart rate, and even digestion. Here’s what you need to know about the vagus nerve and sleep.  

Does the vagus nerve affect sleep?

The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in your “autonomic nervous system.” It starts at the brain, wanders close to the ear canal, then stems to almost every major organ system. 

The impact this nerve has on your autonomous processes, like breathing and heart rate, also means it has a significant connection with your sleep pattern. 

In ideal conditions, your body will naturally send autonomic signals to your brain when you’re preparing for sleep. Typically, you’ll experience a reduction in “sympathetic drive” and an increase in “parasympathetic” activity at night, when your body is ready for rest. The vagus nerve helps to signal your heart to slow down, so you can relax and fall asleep quickly. 

Problems with the vagus nerve can cause a multitude of issues. People who damage their vagus nerve can suffer from low blood pressure, difficulty speaking, or poor digestion, among other conditions. Vagus nerve dysfunction can also lead to problems with your heart rate. 

If your vagus nerve is “overactive”, it can cause bradycardia (a slow heart rate), while insufficient stimulation of the vagus nerve leads to tachycardia (a faster heart rate).

This is one of the reasons why scientists and medical professionals are beginning to suggest stimulation of the vagus nerve as a way to improve calm, and induce sleep. The more active your nerve is, the more your heart rate can slow.

The vagus nerve and sleep problems 

In order to relax for a good night’s sleep, the body needs to go through a series of processes. Most importantly, your heart rate and breathing should slow, allowing you to enter a relaxed, docile state. 

When the vagus nerve is under stimulated, it’s unable to send signals to your heart to slow down when you’re ready to rest, which could leave you feeling hyperactive and restless. 

Vagal nerve stimulation, or “VNS”, is the tool some medical and holistic professionals use to assist with this issue. In one study, scientists asked 68 men and women to participate in a two-week course of vagal nerve stimulation, to assess the impact on their sleep quality. 

The research found stimulating the vagus nerve before sleep significantly improved the quality of rest achieved by many of the participants. However, the researchers did also suggest more studies where necessary to determine how VNS could assist with a disrupted sleep pattern. 

Notably, experts also believe vagus nerve stimulation could assist with a range of other conditions and issues which might influence sleep. For instance, according to research, people with a strong vagal tone might find it easier to relax after a stressful event. 

Being able to manage levels of stress and anxiety could significantly improve your sleep pattern if you struggle to relax at night. 

Similarly, there’s also research which indicates vagus nerve stimulation can help to reduce pain and swelling in the joints for people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. This may suggest VNS could be a powerful tool for people suffering from chronic pain, and its impact on sleep. 

Man Doing Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Vagus nerve exercises for sleep 

Stimulating the vagus nerve before sleep helps to ensure it can send the right signals to the systems throughout your body, which prepare you for rest. 

There are various ways people can practice VNS at home, without the need for any specialist assistance or devices. Some of the most common options for vagus nerve stimulation for sleep problems include:

Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises are excellent for slowing the mind, body, and heart rate. They also help to shift your focus away from any pain or anxiety which might be keeping you awake. A good way to get started is to simply breathe deeply, filling your belly with air for a count of five, then pause. Next, exhale slowly through a small opening in your mouth. The idea is to reduce your breathing count to about 5 to 7 times per minute. 

Ear stimulation
A common choice among scientists for vagus nerve stimulation involves “auricular stimulation”. You can simply massage the ears to activate the vagus nerve close to this location. Alternatively, there are also specialist devices for transcutaneous VNS tools, which use electrical stimulation to activate the vagus nerve. 

Wearing headphones can also help to send vibrations through to your vagus nerve, which accelerates activation. There are specialist apps and tools available which are designed to send the right frequency of sound through to your ears, specifically to highlight the vagus nerve. However, simply listening to music can be a good way to relax before going to sleep too. 

Singing or talking
The vagus nerve naturally connects to your vocal cords. This means when you make sounds, or sing, you stimulate the nerve, and increase your vagal tone. You can simply hum to yourself, sing out loud along to your favorite music, or enjoy a tune with your partner in bed. Singing throughout the day will help to keep your vagus nerve in tune, and it’s a great way to maintain your mood too. 

Gargling water
Similar to singing or talking, gargling water, oil, or mouthwash is another way to stimulate your vagus nerve through your vocal cords. You can easily include this strategy in your evening routine before you go to bed, as many of us spend time gargling at the sink when brushing our teeth. Try to give your vocal cords plenty of time to stretch and vibrate while you’re gargling. 

Progressive muscle relaxation
PMS is a popular solution for people who have trouble sleeping. It helps to relax all the muscles in your body, slow your heart rate, and reduce stress. You can use meditation and guided applications to take you through the process step-by-step. However, progressive muscle relaxation is relatively simple. You simply focus on one part of your body at a time, noticing and releasing tension where you find it. 

How do I calm my vagus nerve to sleep? Icing the vagus nerve

One popular strategy for controlling the vagus nerve and sleep has begun to gain increasing attention in recent years, thanks to social media trends. Icing the vagus nerve involves exposing your body to extremely cold temperatures, to essentially shock everything back into rhythm. Cold temperatures also help to naturally reduce your heart rate, which could assist with relaxation. 

You don’t necessarily need to take an ice bath to use this strategy. Instead, you can consider simply using a cold cloth or compress. Place the cold compress on the back of your neck, around your ears, and on your chest for up to 15 minutes. You can also try cold immersion techniques like splashing water on your face, or stepping outside into a cold night. 

Some people find gargling with ice cold water to be an effective way of both icing the nerve and activating it through the use of the vocal cords at the same time. You can combine icing the vagus nerve with various other strategies for stimulation, such as paced breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and ear stimulation via massage. 

Using vagus nerve stimulation for sleep

While research on the vagus nerve and sleep is still limited, scientists and experts are beginning to better understand the role this nerve plays in our lives. 

Many people believe practices designed to stimulate the vagus nerve can be an effective way to promote relaxation, reduce mental health issues, and even minimize feelings of pain. 

Notably, if you’re new to vagus nerve stimulation, it’s usually a good idea to start slow. Take your time with some basic practices, like ear massage, progressive muscle relaxation, and slow breathing. Make sure you speak to your doctor before you try any icing techniques if you’re worried, they may have an impact on your health.

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

General advice disclaimer
This article contains general tips and advice. However, no diet or exercise program should be started without consulting your physician or other industry professional first. For more information read our full disclaimer here.

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