Even if you’re not particularly excited by or interested in science, the science of the vagus nerve is simply fascinating and provides some great insights into how our bodies work. The vagus nerve is a long, thin nerve extending from the brainstem to the abdomen. It’s responsible for a variety of functions, including control of the heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
In recent years, scientists have begun to study the vagus nerve more closely in relation to sleep. They’ve found that it can play a critical role in regulating sleep patterns, and we will explore this role in greater detail today.
But first, let’s go back to basics.
How Does the Vagus Nerve Work?
So how does the vagus nerve work? This lengthy nerve is a starting player in many of the body’s involuntary functions. It’s also responsible for relaying information between the brain and the organs. In short, it helps regulate various important functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
The vagus nerve is controlled by the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord and is a core component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for rest and digest functions (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response). In other words, the vagus nerve helps to keep our bodies in a state of balance or homeostasis.
One of the ways that it does this is by sending signals to the brain that help to regulate the body’s stress response. For example, when stressed, our heart rate and blood pressure increase, and our digestive system slows down. The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain that help to offset these changes, keeping our body in a more relaxed state.
The vagus nerve is also thought to play a role in inflammation. It does this by sending signals to the immune system that help to modulate the inflammatory response. This is why vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is being studied as a possible treatment for various inflammatory conditions, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Now that we know a little bit more about how the vagus nerve works, let’s take a closer look at its role in sleep.
The Vagus Nerve and Sleep
There are a few different ways that the vagus nerve can affect sleep.
To begin, let’s look at its role in regulating the body’s stress response. As we mentioned earlier, when we’re stressed, our heart rate and blood pressure increase and our digestive system slows down. The vagus nerve sends signals to the brain that help to offset these changes, keeping our body in a more relaxed state.
This is important because when we’re stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps to keep us alert and focused. However, if cortisol levels are too high, it can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Stress and Sleep
So by helping to keep the body’s stress response in check, the vagus nerve can indirectly help to improve sleep. Additionally, the vagus nerve is also thought to play a direct role in promoting sleep. This is because it sends signals to the brain that help to promote relaxation and drowsiness.
Finally, the vagus nerve is also thought to regulate the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm. This is the 24-hour cycle that governs our sleep-wake cycles. The vagus nerve is thought to help synchronize this internal clock with the external environment, which can help to improve sleep.
To sum it up, the vagus nerve plays a role in regulating the body’s stress response, promoting relaxation and drowsiness, and regulating the body’s internal clock. All of these factors can contribute to improved sleep.
Get Better Sleep
Next, you might be wondering if there’s anything you can do to stimulate this vital nerve and other strategies to improve your sleep.
As it turns out, there are a few things that you can do to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve sleep.
First, consider trying some relaxation techniques before bed. This can include things like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing exercises. These activities can help to promote relaxation and reduce stress, both of which can be helpful for improving sleep.
Vagus Nerve Exercises for Sleep
You might also want to try some vagus nerve exercises for sleep. These are designed to help increase vagal tone, which is a measure of the strength and activity of the vagus nerve. Some examples of vagus nerve exercises include gargling, singing, and humming. Did you know cold water plunges are also great for stimulating the vagus nerve?
Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Finally, you could also try transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS). This is a therapy that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve. However, it’s done through the ear in a non-invasive way. tVNS is thought to be a safe and effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve and improve sleep.
One option is the Xen by Neuvana headphones. Users wear special headphones and listen to calming music or relaxing sounds while the headphones target the vagus nerve through the ear. Along with improving sleep, it’s thought to also boost mood, promote recovery from exercise, and relieve pain.
While vagus nerve stimulation is considered to be safe, it’s always important to speak with a doctor before starting any new therapy or treatment. This is especially true if you have a medical condition or are taking medication.
Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in trying tVNS for sleep. They can help you decide if tVNS is right for you and ensure you’re using it safely and effectively.
So there you have it, everything you need to know about the vagus nerve and how it can affect sleep. By understanding its role in sleep and trying some of the above techniques, you might be able to improve your sleep quality and get a better night’s rest.