The Vagus Nerve Sleep Connection

Man sleeping

“The Vagus Nerve Sleep Connection” was written by Fara Kwok & edited/reviewed by Sadie Hitsky, RD. Fara is a graduate student studying Nutrition and Dietetics at Bastyr University. 

Social media suggests that stimulating the vagus nerve promotes better sleep quality and refers to it as vagus nerve sleep.  Some health gurus suggests we can implement vagus nerve sleep through breathing techniques, simple exercise, and massages.

This article explores the vagus nerve, its role in sleep regulation, and healthy sleep habits to understand the idea of ‘vagus nerve sleep’.

Facts about the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It originates in the brainstem inside the skull.  From there, it extends down through the neck and into the chest and abdomen.

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system that is known as the rest and digest system.  While the fight or flight nervous system prepares us to to flee stressful situations, the rest and digest system signals the body to lower our heart rate and promote rest, relaxation, and digestion. 

The vagus nerve orchestrates the body’s relaxation and restoration processes.  It acts as a superhighway that carries messages between our brain and different parts of our body.

  • Sending messages: Some parts of the vagus nerve tell our muscles to do things like swallow and talk. These messages come from a place in the brain called the nucleus ambiguous.
  • Controlling organs: The vagus nerve helps control organs we don’t consciously control, like our heart, lungs, and gut. They tell these organs what to do so we don’t have to think about it.
  • Feeling sensations: The vagus nerve also sends messages to our brain about what’s happening in our body. For example, it lets us know if we taste something delicious or when we feel something touching our ear.
  • Branches everywhere: As it travels down the body, the vagus nerve splits into smaller parts called branches. These branches go to different places. Some go to the throat and voice box, others to the heart and lungs, and even more to the stomach and intestines.

To conclude, even though we might not think about it, the vagus nerve is always busy helping our body do what it needs to do to keep us healthy and alive.

What Promotes Sleep

Humans are hard-wired to sleep at night and stay awake and active during the day.  Two components regulate sleep:

Build-up of sleep pressure (homeostatic sleep drive)

The longer we stay awake, the stronger the sleep pressure gets.  Other factors such as physical activity and infection or sickness can increase sleep pressure.

Circadian rhythm

Controlled by the circadian pacemaker inside the brain, circadian rhythm promotes sleepiness and wakefulness based on our usual bedtime. The circadian rhythm is affected by light, food intake, and genetics.

Vagus Nerve Sleep 

It seems logical that stimulation of the vagus nerve could induce vagus nerve sleep since the vagus nerve signals the body to rest.  However, more research is still needed to support the vagus nerve sleep.  

Better Sleep Checklist

Here are some simple tips to help you improve sleep quality and quantity:

Keep your room dark

Control light exposure and other alerting cues, especially at bedtime, could improve your sleep quality. 

Avoid substances that disturb sleep

Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can disrupt sleep quality. Try to avoid them for several hours before bedtime.

Create a sleep-friendly environment

Make your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. Use earplugs, blackout curtains, and a comfortable mattress to promote good sleep. If you live near a noisy street, consider a noise machine or fan to drown out inconsistent noises that could wake you up. 

Establish a relaxing bedtime routine

Wind down before bed with calming activities like reading or taking a warm bath. Avoid stressful tasks that can increase alertness. Aim to begin your wind-down routine at the same time each evening.

Listen to your body

Go to bed when you feel tired, and if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, try a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.

Don’t watch the clock

Staring at the clock can increase stress and make it harder to fall asleep. Turn your clock away from you and engage in a quiet activity like journaling or reading if you wake up at night.

Use light to your advantage

Natural light during the day helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Get sunlight first in the morning and afternoon to support circadian rhythm. Avoid bright light at night before bedtime (think screens like your phone, TV, or computer).  

Stick to a consistent sleep schedule

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends, to regulate your body’s internal clock.

Limit naps

Avoid long naps, especially late in the day, as they may interfere with nighttime sleep.

Avoid overeating at dinner

Aim to finish dinner 2-3 hours before you wind down for the evening. Avoid heavy or spicy foods that may cause indigestion.

Stay hydrated but not too close to bedtime

Drink enough fluids during the day, but avoid drinking too much right before bed to prevent waking up to use the bathroom.

Exercise early

Exercise can help you sleep better but do it earlier in the day, as it can increase alertness if done close to bedtime.

Better Sleep Checklist

Stay consistent

Incorporate these tips into your daily routine for better sleep. If you still have trouble sleeping, consult a healthcare professional for further guidance.

By following these tips, you can improve your sleep and wake up feeling more refreshed each day.

What about Food? 

Certain foods contain compounds that can promote relaxation and encourage the production of sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin. 

Foods rich in tryptophan

Turkey, nuts, and seeds can help produce serotonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. 

Additionally, potassium and magnesium promote muscle relaxation, which can improve sleep quality. Magnesium Glycinate is a well-studied form of magnesium that promotes rest and relaxation for a better night’s rest. Get medicalgrade Magnesium Glycinate at a discount through FullScript. 

Eat a balanced diet that includes these sleep-promoting foods, in addition to avoiding heavy or spicy meals close to bedtime for better sleep quality and overall well-being. 

Foods that support better sleep

Tart Cherry Juice

Tart cherry juice contains tryptophan and melatonin, which can help regulate sleep.  Try drinking a small glass of tart cherry about an hour before bed to prevent having to use the restroom during the night. 

Or, consider making a mineral mocktail with magnesium glycinate and tart cherry juice

Herbal teas

Certain herbal teas, such as chamomile, valerian root, and passionflower, have been traditionally used to promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.

For more ways to support digestion through the vagus nerve, read this article from Digested Wellness on Vagus Nerve and Digestion.

References:

  • Penn Study Finds Serotonin Reduction Causes Long COVID Symptoms. www.pennmedicine.org. Accessed May 8, 2024. https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2023/october/penn-study-finds-serotonin-reduction-causes-long-covid-symptoms#:~:text=It%20plays%20a%20key%20role

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