Calm the Vagus Nerve for Better Sleep
We all know how important sleep is for our overall health and well-being. But did you know that there’s a nerve in your body that plays a big role in regulating sleep?
It’s called the vagus nerve, and stimulating it can help improve sleep quality.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the vagus nerve and how to stimulate it for better sleep. We’ll also share some tips on other things you can do to sleep better.
So if you’re ready to get some restful sleep, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves, extending from the brain stem to the abdomen. It is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and helps regulate heart rate, digestion, immune response, and other involuntary functions.
Stimulation of the nerve is usually done in order to help with conditions like gastroparesis, which is caused by slow or delayed digestion, improving sleep, anxiety, stress.
Dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, has been linked to a range of mental health issues according to the Polyvagal Theory. The Polyvagal Ladder can be used in therapy to help clients become more aware of their nervous system states and to help them self-regulate.
What are the benefits of stimulating the vagus nerve for sleep?
1. Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can help to improve the quality of sleep.
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can help to improve the quality of sleep by targeting specific areas of the brain responsible for regulating sleep. VNS works similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) by helping people to control their thought processes and behaviors related to sleep.
2. Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can reduce the occurrence of sleep apnea and snoring.
Vagus nerve stimulation can reduce the occurrence of sleep apnea and snoring by stimulating the vagus nerve afferent fibers. This can cause an increase in respiratory rate, a decrease in respiratory amplitude, a decrease in tidal volume, and a decrease in oxygen saturation during periods of device activation, without causing an arousal, or a change in heart rate or blood pressure. Penry and Dean reported that vagus nerve stimulation can reduce seizures by up to 50% in adult seizure patients, and up to 90% in pediatric seizure patients.
Studies have also shown that VNS can reduce the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) in those with sleep apnea, as well as reduce the frequency of episodes of snoring.
3. Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can reduce stress and anxiety.
Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can reduce stress and anxiety by targeting areas of the brain that regulate stress levels, such as cortisol. By stimulating hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, energy levels can also be improved, thus reducing fatigue. This is because VNS helps to balance the autonomic activity, promoting feelings of relaxation and reducing overall stress and anxiety levels.
Studies have shown that VNS can significantly improve sleep quality and reduce fatigue symptoms, which can further reduce stress and anxiety levels.
4. Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can increase heart rate variability
Vagus nerve stimulation has the potential to increase heart rate variability (HRV) which can help promote better sleep. The vagus nerve is responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates various bodily processes such as breathing, heart rate, digestion, and social behaviors.
Activation of the vagus nerve increases the HF (high-frequency) ratio, which is a measure of heart rate variability. By increasing the HF ratio, vagus nerve stimulation is able to reduce stress and promote relaxation, allowing for better sleep.
Studies have shown that vagus nerve stimulation can increase the melatonin level during 10.00 pm to 12 midnight, which can help to induce sleep. Finally, the “smart” vagus nerve activates the “rest and digest” response, which can further help to relax the body and mind and thus promote better sleep.
5. Vagus nerve stimulation for sleep can increase parasympathetic nervous system activity
Vagus nerve stimulation, such as humming, singing, gargling with water, massage, cold water immersion, laughter, exercise and breathwork, can increase parasympathetic nervous system activity and therefore improve quality of sleep.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for slowing down the heart rate, constricting pupils, reducing light entering the eyes, and lightening the workload of the lungs, creating a sense of relaxation.
These activities stimulate the vagus nerve, which then triggers the relaxation response and a calmer state. Additionally, nasal breaths, instead of mouth breaths, help to improve vagal tone, allowing for deeper and more restful sleep.
How to calm a vagus nerve?
There are several techniques you can use to help calm your vagus nerve:
- Deep breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths can activate the vagus nerve and stimulate the relaxation response.
- Meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation can also help to activate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
- Yoga: Gentle yoga postures can help to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
- Cold exposure: Taking a cold shower or immersing yourself in cold water can activate the vagus nerve and help to reduce inflammation and promote relaxation.
- Singing or humming: Singing or humming can also stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
- Massage: Gentle massage or acupressure can help to stimulate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
- Laughter: Laughing can activate the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
Natural ways to stimulate the vagus nerve
1. Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises involve controlling the breath and focusing on the diaphragm, the muscle at the base of the lungs. By engaging in paced diaphragmatic breathing, you can activate the vagal reflex, which helps to regulate the nervous system and promote a sense of relaxation.
When practicing paced breathing, it is important to
- set aside at least 10 minutes per day for formal practice.
- During this time, you can reset, balance, and tone your nervous system by breathing through your diaphragm and slowing your breathing rate to 6 breaths per minute.
- It can also help to practice this throughout the day by becoming aware of your breath multiple times and shifting it from your chest to your abdomen.
- If you are having difficulty with paced diaphragmatic breathing, it may be because you are not practicing enough, or you are not practicing correctly.
- To ensure correct practice, it is best to start when you are already in a relaxed state, and to practice for at least 10 consecutive minutes per day.
- If this is challenging, you can split the 10 minutes into smaller chunks throughout the day.
Meditation is the practice of focusing on one’s breath, thoughts or sensations to cultivate mental clarity and emotional calmness. In a meditative state, the mind is open and aware but not attached to any particular thought, emotion or sensation. As a result, it can help to reduce stress, improve self-awareness and promote relaxation.
Stimulating the vagus nerve through meditation helps us to achieve a relaxed state, which can have numerous benefits including improved sleep.
Singing has a direct effect on the vagus nerve, which is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves. When you sing, it increases parasympathetic activity, which leads to a decrease in stress. The vibrations stimulate the vagus nerve, leading to improved health and sleep.
Strengthening the vagus nerve, or improving vagal tone, can make you more flexible and adaptive in responding to cues in your environment as well as buffer against stress and help you recover faster from it.
Improving sleep hygiene and developing sleep-promoting thoughts and behaviors can help you get the best sleep and frequent lucid dreaming possible, which is why singing and humming can be helpful in improving sleep quality and reducing stress.
Massage is a type of physical therapy that uses manual manipulation of the body’s soft tissues to help relax the body and reduce stress. Massage can stimulate the vagus nerve through the stimulation of receptors in the body’s tissues.
The stimulation of the vagus nerve can lead to the release of neurotransmitters that can aid in relaxation and reduce anxiety. Evidence suggests that massage can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels which are all indicators of relaxation.
Additionally, studies have shown that massage can improve sleep by increasing the body’s production of endorphins, which can lead to a sense of well-being and relaxation.
The best type of exercise for stimulating the vagus nerve is one that encourages relaxation and breathing. This includes progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and exercises that involve humming, chanting, and singing.
Other activities such as yoga, exercise, and mindfulness can also help to stimulate the vagus nerve, though these are less focused on the relaxation response.
6. Relaxation Techniques
Some relaxation techniques that can stimulate the vagus nerve include Heart Rate Variability (HRV) breathing techniques, 478 sleep trick, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), Autogenic Training (AT), Guided Imagery (GI), and music.
- Heart Rate Variability breathing techniques involve taking long, deep breaths, which helps slow down heart rate and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This increases blood flow to the muscles, promoting relaxation and calming down the body.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) helps reduce physical tension by tensing and relaxing every major muscle group. This has a similar effect to exercise, after the temporary increase of tension the muscles are actually more relaxed than before.
- Autogenic Training (AT) takes elements form Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Clinical Hypnosis, and teaches you to produces certain sensations in your body that are associated with relaxation, like warmth, heaviness, and looseness. AT has been shown to help with relaxation and sleep, and has been shown to improve Heart Rate Variability.
- Guided Imagery (GI) uses mental energy to imagine yourself in a beautiful and idyllic space. This helps to redirect the mind away from intrusive thoughts or worries, and relaxes the body as well.
- 478 breathing technique has been proven to relax the body, reduce stress hormones, and improve mood. It can also be used to improve sleep, helping those with clinical insomnia fall asleep faster and sleep better.
- Yoga Nidra is said to be one of the most beneficial deep states possible, improves sleep quality, and promotes overall well-being. Decide when to practice yoga nidra, if you have a busy schedule – some says Yoga Nidra compared to Meditation is more calmer!
These relaxation techniques can all stimulate the vagus nerve, and therefore help to induce the relaxation response, helping to reduce insomnia and improve sleep quality.
7. Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene measures for stimulating the vagus nerve includes
- create a sleep-friendly environment, such as a dark, cool, and quiet bedroom, and to avoid screens and electronic devices before bedtime.
- taking a warm bath before bed can help to relax the body, reduce stress, and activate the vagus nerve.
- Managing stress levels throughout the day is essential, as stress can interfere with the body’s ability to relax and fall asleep when excited.
- Establishing a consistent sleep-wake cycle and restricting naps during the day can also help to activate the vagus nerve.
- Practicing awareness of the breath and body can help to engage the vagus nerve and promote relaxation.
8. Temperature Stimulation
Temperature stimulation can affect the vagus nerve in a variety of ways. Cold exposure, such as taking a cold shower or immersing oneself in ice water, can stimulate the vagus nerve, resulting in a decrease in sympathetic (fight or flight) activity and an increase in parasympathetic (rest or digest) activity.
This can result in an overall decrease in stress and tension, as well as a feeling of warmth or tingling that spreads down from the head.
9. Sound Shapes
Sound shapes are audio-based techniques used to stimulate the vagus nerve, which can be beneficial for improving mood, reducing stress, and promoting better sleep.
Sound shapes are based on the principles of neuroplasticity, which states that the brain can adapt and re-wire itself in response to external stimuli.
Research has shown that sound shapes can effectively stimulate the vagus nerve, leading to improved mood, reduced stress, and improved sleep quality.
In a study involving 15 participants, the use of sound shapes was associated with a significant increase in vagal tone and a significant decrease in mood scores, indicating that sound shapes can be an effective intervention for improving mood and reducing stress.
10. Ice pack
Icing your vagus nerve is a technique that some TikTok users have adopted to help them fall asleep and beat back insomnia. The idea is that applying a cold compress to the chest stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the torso and helps regulate the body’s relaxation response.
This technique has been backed up by some scientific studies, which have found that the application of a cold thermode to the neck area leads to a reduction in stress levels.
Studies have found that applying something cold to the outside of the neck can slow down the heart rate and increase vagal nerve activation.
Jungmann M, Vencatachellum S, Van Ryckeghem D, Vögele C. Effects of Cold Stimulation on Cardiac-Vagal Activation in Healthy Participants: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Form Res. 2018 Oct 9;2(2):e10257. doi: 10.2196/10257. PMID: 30684416; PMCID: PMC6334714.
Can vagus nerve stimulation help with sleep?
Yes, vagus nerve stimulation can help with sleep. Studies have demonstrated that electrical impulses from vagus nerve stimulation can improve sleep quality, promoting deeper sleep and relaxation.
Research has also indicated that placing an ice pack on the neck or chest can stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a relaxing effect that can aid in better sleep. Therefore, it is possible that stimulating the vagus nerve can be an effective way to get more restful Zzz’s.
Ice pack on forehead for sleep
Placing an ice pack on your forehead or chest could lead to a more relaxed state that helps you drift off to sleep. Icing your vagus nerve may help improve sleep, as the cold temperature can stimulate the vagus nerve which could lead to potentially better sleep with the increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.
One study even found that applying something cold to the outside of the neck can slow down the heart rate and increase vagal nerve activation. Additionally, vagus stimulation may be directly linked to the sleep-wake regulation of the brain.
How effective is Vagus Nerve Stimulation for treating sleep apnea?
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) has been investigated as a potential treatment option for sleep apnea. A systematic review of published evidence examined the effects of VNS and other surgical interventions on sleep, finding that VNS therapy can produce central apneas, obstructive hypopneas, and obstructive apneas in both adults and children.
The results of a literature search found 15 studies with a total number of patients ranging from 1 to 60. While VNS can improve seizure control in some refractory epilepsy cases, the effectiveness of VNS in treating sleep apnea is still unclear. While VNS may reduce the number of apneas and hypopneas, more research is needed to determine the efficacy of VNS as an effective treatment for sleep apnea.
What is the best sleeping position for vagus nerve?
The best sleeping position for vagus nerve stimulation is one that supports the body’s alignment, encourages deep breathing, and relaxes the facial muscles.
Propping yourself up with pillows to support your neck and shoulders, sleeping on your side, or sleeping in the fetal position can all help to stimulate the vagus nerve while you sleep.
As with any sleep position, it is recommended to keep your spine in a neutral position. Additionally, using an eye mask, ear plugs, and a sleeping with a weighted blanket can all make a world of difference in aiding deeper sleep.
These methods help to reduce forward head posture, relieve pressure on nerves, and stimulate the large intestine meridian, providing a signal to the brain that it is safe to let go of the day.
Why do they put ice on fighters chest?
Ice is often used in combat sports, such as boxing or mixed martial arts, to help fighters recover between rounds or after a fight. In particular, ice may be applied to the chest area because it is in close proximity to the vagus nerve. Cooling the chest can stimulate the vagus nerve, which can help to promote relaxation and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. This can be especially helpful for fighters who may be experiencing a lot of stress or anxiety before or during a fight.
Is it ok to put an ice pack on your head?
No, it is not recommended to put an ice pack on your head. While placing something cold to the outside of the neck can stimulate the vagus nerve, which can help with sleep and relaxation, it is not as precise as direct nerve stimulation.
Putting an ice pack directly on the head could put you at risk for frostbite, which can cause permanent damage to the skin. Therefore, if you are looking for an alternative way to improve your sleep, you should focus on techniques like breathwork, energy work, and singing, which may be more effective.
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