young woman sleeping peacefully

Understanding Vagus Nerve Stimulation For Improving Sleep And Reducing Fatigue

We all have days when we're dragging our feet a little more than usual, it's harder to get out of bed, and your energy doesn't seem to kick in the way you want it to. But just because this happens to all of us doesn't mean there aren't steps we can take to limit the frequency of feeling fatigued and give ourselves a boost of energy simultaneously! The good news is there are plenty of ways to do this. And we aren't just talking about adding an extra cup of coffee in the morning. Today, we're going to explore the power of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) to improve your sleep, reduce fatigue, and boost energy levels.

What is VNS?

Before we get into some different facts about the vagus nerve as they relate to sleep and energy, let's go back to the beginning and introduce this nerve, as well as the effects and techniques of stimulating it.

The vagus nerve is the longest of all your cranial nerves (12 of them) and runs from the brain stem to your abdomen. It controls many of your body's involuntary functions, including regulating your heart rate and digestion and helping with immune response. Because this nerve connects to so many different parts of the body, it's been studied for its potential relationship with mental health disorders, digestion, and sleep disruption, among many other things.

Let's explore this idea in greater detail next.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

To understand why vagus nerve stimulation can be effective for so many things and why it works in the first place, we need to talk more about the nervous system, including its parasympathetic and sympathetic components.

Chances are, you're familiar with the "fight or flight" response already, but it's worth covering the basics for context. This is the body's reaction when it perceives danger and is a part of the sympathetic nervous system. It triggers various hormones, like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which can affect your overall energy levels. While this response serves an essential purpose when we're actively facing a threat, it often stays on longer than we need it to. Then, we're left feeling overstimulated, stressed, and a variety of other things.

On the opposite side of things, we have the parasympathetic nervous system - this is where vagus nerve stimulation comes in. This branch of the nervous system helps reduce stress hormones, lower heart rate, and blood pressure, and encourage relaxation—that's why this system is associated with the "rest and digest" response.

The idea behind vagus nerve stimulation (or VNS) is that by stimulating this particular nerve, you can reduce these negative reactions to stress and improve your body's ability to relax, leading to better sleep quality and increased energy levels overall...AKA: turning OFF fight or flight mode and kicking on rest and digest mode.

The method of VNS we'll be referring to in this article is known as tVNS or transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation. Rather than relying on invasive surgical measures, this uses low-intensity electrical impulses on a patch or electrode placed behind or in your ear or through the skin on your neck. When tVNS devices are turned on, they send electrical impulses to the nerve, resulting in several positive effects.

How is VNS Used to Improve Sleep

Now that we've covered the basics of vagus nerve stimulation, let's move on to its use in treating sleep issues. The electrical impulses from vagus nerve stimulation can target this nerve and promote a state of relaxation, improving sleep quality and promoting deeper sleep.

One way it helps treat sleep issues is by targeting the specific areas of the brain responsible for regulating sleep. For example, VNS has been studied for its effectiveness in helping people with insomnia. It works similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) by helping people to control their thought processes and behaviors related to sleep, like staying in bed longer after waking up too early or having difficulty falling asleep.

In addition, VNS can be used as part of a larger treatment plan with other therapies, such as sleep hygiene or CBT, to improve the quality and amount of sleep you get each night. And while it cannot eliminate all your fatigue, it can offer some relief from feeling constantly tired during the day.

VNS and melatonin

It's also interesting to note the connection between VNS and melatonin.

In one study from 2020, where the relationship between VNS and treating insomnia is explored, the findings explain:

"The mechanism of ta-VNS treatment for insomnia remains unclear. Insomnia is caused by dysregulation of the arousal system, cognitive system, and HPA axis, involving broad encephalic regions, such as the hypothalamus, pineal gland, amygdala, and ventral tegmental area [2, 25]. And, it is very sensitive to the neurotransmitters change, such as the decline of central melatonin [26]. The ta-VNS stimulates the afferent auricular branches of the vagus nerve, that project to the solitary nucleus and then to the limbic and the autonomic nervous system structures, including the pineal gland, ventral tegmental area, hypothalamus, amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, nucleus accumbens, and lateral prefrontal cortex [27]. Moreover, the ta-VNS triggers a tidal release of melatonin and enhances its production [28]. Thus, ta-VNS treatment probably regulates neural circuits that govern sleep and melatonin secretion to alleviate insomnia." 

This study outlines the fact that VNS can help stimulate melatonin production in the body, which is essential for sleep regulation. Melatonin helps regulate your internal clock, and when it's low, your sleep-wake cycle can be disrupted—leading to feelings of fatigue and poor-quality sleep.

Therefore, VNS can help increase melatonin levels so that your natural circadian rhythm is better regulated, leading to more restful sleep and overall better energy levels throughout the day.

VNS and Fatigue

Poor sleep and fatigue often go hand in hand. After all, it's hard to feel rested and energized the next day if you're not getting enough quality sleep.

One of the ways VNS helps with fatigue is by targeting the areas of the brain that regulate stress levels. It can help reduce cortisol (the primary stress hormone) levels in the body, which can reduce overall feelings of stress and anxiety. This, in turn, can improve fatigue by helping you relax more deeply and improving your sleep quality.

In addition, VNS has been shown to impact other hormones that affect energy levels, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are important for feeling alert and energetic. By stimulating these hormones through vagus nerve stimulation, your energy levels can be improved, and fatigue can be reduced.

Ultimately, vagus nerve stimulation is a promising treatment option for those looking to reduce fatigue and improve sleep quality. Targeting specific areas of the brain that regulate stress and hormones can help reduce fatigue symptoms while also improving overall energy levels throughout the day. Additionally, stimulating melatonin production can help you better regulate your natural circadian rhythm—leading to more restful sleep and better energy during the day.

Other Facts About the Vagus Nerve

There's plenty more to share and know about the vagus nerve beyond how it relates to sleep. So, let's look at how it can also be used to reduce inflammation, treat some medical conditions, and improve overall wellness.

The vagus nerve and inflammation

Inflammation is the body's natural way of responding to injury or illness. It helps fight off foreign substances, but it can also cause various health problems if left unchecked.

Vagus nerve stimulation has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body by sending signals that block pro-inflammatory molecules. This can help with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's Disease, and asthma. As such, VNS can be a valuable tool for those looking to reduce inflammation and improve their overall health.

Epilepsy

One of the first FDA-approved uses for VNS was to treat epilepsy. VNS works by sending regular signals to the brain in order to reduce seizure activity. 

Consider the conclusion from this study that took place between 1995 and 1998:

"Long-term, open-label vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) provided seizure reduction similar to or greater than acute studies, for median reductions and for those reaching a > or =50% seizure reduction. VNS remained safe and well tolerated, with nearly three-quarters of the patients choosing to continue therapy."

Depression

Another common use of vagus nerve stimulation is to treat depression. In this case, it works by stimulating specific areas of the brain believed to influence mood and behavior. It's particularly effective in patients with treatment-resistant depression—those whose depression doesn't respond to traditional treatments like medication or therapy.

Digestion

For many people, the vagus nerve plays a role in regulating digestion. It sends signals to the digestive organs that help control stomach acidity and other processes related to digestion. As such, VNS can be used to help with conditions like gastroparesis—a condition where the stomach muscles don't contract and relax properly, leading to slow or delayed digestion.

Other Benefits of VNS

Even if you don't suffer from conditions such as gastroparesis or treatment-resistant depression, VNS could still be incredibly beneficial for you.

Here are some of the other potential benefits of VNS:

  • Improved mental clarity and focus
  • Less anxiety and stress
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Faster recovery
  • Increased energy levels
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Improved cognition (including memory)

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve

Suppose all of these benefits and uses for vagus nerve stimulation have you excited about the possibilities of trying it yourself. In that case, it's time to learn more about different methods for stimulating the vagus nerve.

tVNS

We mentioned earlier that VNS is typically done through an implanted device, but this isn't the only way to do it. Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) can be done at home in an entirely non-invasive and accessible manner. Xen by Neuvana, for example! With vagus nerve-stimulating headphones that connect to a handheld device, users control their VNS sessions through an app on their phone.

As they listen to sounds, songs, or even complete silence, their vagus nerve is targeted through their ear...without turning to surgery or other invasive methods. Xen by Neuvana has become the market's top vagus nerve stimulation device for many reasons.

To name a few, ease of use, portability, and effectiveness are some of the lauded aspects of this device. Not only is it designed to be used in the comfort of your own home—but it's also backed by extensive research and was developed by a surgeon, Dr. Richard Cartledge, MD.

Cold exposure

Another option for stimulating the vagus nerve is cold exposure. This can be done through activities like taking a cold shower or even immersing yourself in ice water for short periods of time. Perhaps you've heard of the Wim Hof Method. 

As part of this method:

"You gradually expose yourself to the cold by ending your daily showers with cold water. After practicing the method for some weeks, most are able to withstand the cold for longer periods of time, and are able to take their showers using cold water only."

The idea behind this practice is that it stimulates the vagus nerve when you expose yourself to these cold conditions, whether it's taking a chilly shower or splashing your face with cold water. Then, as your body adjusts to these sensations, your sympathetic (fight or flight) activity declines as rest or digest (parasympathetic activity) increases.

Relaxation and breathing exercises

Relaxation and breathing exercises are also effective methods for stimulating the vagus nerve. Generally speaking, relaxation techniques involve deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

When done correctly, these exercises can help your body switch from a sympathetic (fight or flight) response to a parasympathetic one, stimulating the vagus nerve in the process. And when this happens, the blood vessels relax and dilate, allowing for better circulation throughout your body.

Chanting, singing, and humming

Interestingly, other ways to stimulate the vagus nerve don't involve exercise or extreme temperatures. Chanting, singing, and humming can all help in vagal activation.

When you hum or sing your favorite tune, it increases parasympathetic activity, leading to a decrease in overall stress and tension. And because singing is also incredibly soothing—you get two positive effects for the price of one!

Because the vocal cords intersect with the vagus nerve, when they vibrate from chanting, singing, or humming—so does the nerve itself. In other words, when you make vocal noises, you stimulate the vagus nerve and contribute to improved health and wellness.

Meditation

Finally, you might also try meditating to stimulate the vagus nerve and trigger your relaxation response. As you practice mindfulness, you become aware of your body and its sensations. This awareness then allows you to monitor your stress levels—and, more importantly, manage them.

Meditating for a few minutes each day can help balance autonomic activity, allowing for improved vagal tone and overall relaxation—a good thing when it comes to improving sleep!

Vagus Nerve: FAQs You Can't-Miss

We've taken a deep dive into the basics of the vagus nerve today and some of its specific uses, including improving sleep quality and reducing fatigue. If you have more questions about this incredible nerve, you might find their answers below:

Are there any dangers associated with stimulating the vagus nerve?

Stimulating the vagus nerve is considered safe and widely used to treat conditions like depression and anxiety. However, speaking with your doctor before trying anything new is always the best plan.

Are there any side effects associated with stimulating the vagus nerve?

In general, stimulating the vagus nerve with non-invasive methods has no serious side effects. However, after treatment, some people may experience transient symptoms like nausea or dizziness. If these symptoms occur or worsen over time, it is important to speak with your doctor.

What does vagus nerve stimulation feel like?

It is difficult to describe the feeling of stimulating the vagus nerve, but typically it involves a sensation of warmth or tingling that spreads down from the head. Some people also feel more relaxed and calm after stimulation.

What is the best vagus nerve stimulation device?

The best VNS device is the one that works for you! That being said, Xen by Neuvana is widely recognized as one of the best devices on the market thanks to its efficacy and ease of use.

Conclusion

The vagus nerve is incredibly important and influential in our bodies. Stimulating it can help reduce fatigue and improve sleep quality—not to mention, provide a host of other health benefits as well, including the ones we've covered today and many more.

Fortunately, there are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve—from cold showers to relaxation exercises and beyond. And for those who want something a bit more targeted and precise, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices like Xen by Neuvana offer another way to enjoy the positive effects of the vagus nerve.

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