You’ve followed the usual tips for getting enough sleep – sleeping on a regular schedule, skipping caffeine and daytime naps, exercising regularly, and avoiding screens before bed. Yet, Americans are still having trouble sleeping. Somewhere between 50 and 70 million Americans are currently not getting a full night of rest, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around 4 percent of adults use prescription medication to get a good night’s rest.
“You need as much sleep as it takes for you to stay awake and alert the next day, without caffeine,” says Nathaniel Watson, M.D., co-director of the University of Washington Sleep Center in Seattle and president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which last summer issued new sleep guidelines. It’s also okay if you wake up in the middle of the night, as long as you fall back asleep.
So now it’s the middle of the night, and after tossing and turning for long enough, you start calculating how much shut-eye you’ll be able to get in different scenarios: “If I fall asleep in the next 10 minutes, I’ll get five hours.”; “I’ll skip breakfast and sleep in an extra 30 minutes.”
Many have found that the key to a good night’s sleep is calming yourself down 30 minutes prior to bedtime. This can be done by activating the vagus nerve. through the parasympathetic nervous system,
The vagus nerve is a part of your parasympathetic nervous system and specifically targets the rest and digest functions of your body. Jolene Hart, a health coach and beauty writerstates that this “promotes calm, hormone balance, positive mood, anti-inflammatory effects, immunity, and benefits to so many wide-ranging aspects of your health.”
The International Alliance of Healthcare Educators (IAHE) recommends these six ways to stimulate or “hack” your vagus nerve.
1. Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing from your diaphragm, rather than shallowly from the top of the lungs stimulates and tones the vagus nerve.
2. Humming. Since the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords, humming mechanically stimulates it. You can hum a song, or even better repeat the sound ‘OM.’
3. Speaking. Similarly, speaking is helpful for vagal tone, due to the connection to the vocal cords.
4. Washing your face with cold water. The mechanism here is not known, but cold water on your face stimulates the vagus nerve.
5. Meditation, especially loving-kindness meditation which promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself and others. A 2010 study by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kik found that increasing positive emotions led to increased social closeness, and an improvement in vagal tone.
6. Balancing the gut microbiome. The presence of healthy bacteria in the gut creates a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone.
The implications of such simple and basic practices on your overall health are far-reaching. You can get the elusive sleep you’ve been striving for, which allows your brain and body time to recover from the stress of the day. With appropriate sleep, you’re likely to be less reactive to the stressors of your day and more pleasant to people around you. So, give vagus nerve stimulation a try…for better health, sleep and overall wellness.