There are many facets to getting a good night’s sleep. This article investigates the parasympathetic nervous system and its role in sleep health. We’ll also reveal the best ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to get your body into the relaxed state it needs to be in to sleep and recuperate.
What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
The nervous system is a complex network of nerves that keep your body moving, responding, sensing, and more. In simplest terms, the nervous system contains the central and peripheral nervous systems, and within the peripheral system is the autonomic nervous system, among others. The parasympathetic, sympathetic, and enteric nervous systems make up the autonomic nervous system.
You may have heard of the sympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response and is triggered in times of stress. You can think of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) as opposite or complementary to the sympathetic nervous system. Sweetwater Health describes the autonomic nervous system in this way, “The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems act like the accelerator and brakes on a car. The sympathetic system is the accelerator, always ready to rev up and take us out of danger. The parasympathetic system is the brakes, slowing us down when danger isn’t present.”
Doctors often refer to the PSNS as the ‘rest and digest’ state. When the PSNS is activated, it slows heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure, and encourages digestion. When we are in ‘rest and digest’ mode, our body is relaxed. This state of calm is needed for sleep, but it’s also the time when our body heals and regenerates. The more time a person spends in a PSNS state, the healthier they are – in mind and body.
What is the vagus nerve?
The nerve fibres of the parasympathetic nervous system are referred to as the cranial nerves, primarily the vagus and the lumbar spinal nerves. When stimulated, these nerves slow the heartbeat and increase digestive secretions. After our spinal cord, the vagus nerve is the largest and most complex nerve in the human body. The word ‘vagus’ comes from Latin and means wandering. This is because this nerve, which originates from the brain stem, ‘wanders’ around the body and reaches many organs and tissues, including; the face, heart, airways, liver, digestive system, reproductive system, and urinary system. The vagus nerve accounts for 80 percent of our parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system and sleep
As the phrase ‘rest and digest’ would indicate, being in a parasympathetic state is vital to getting a good night’s sleep. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, a person will feel calm and relaxed.
If the events of the day have caused your sympathetic nervous system to dominate, your muscles will be tight, and your mind will be busy. A racing mind and tense body cause sleeplessness and poor quality of sleep. Studies have shown that insomnia has been linked with low parasympathetic activity and/or high sympathetic activity. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain good PSNS health during the day to enable the body to rest and recover at night.
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system
Now you know how important it is to get into a parasympathetic state, we have compiled a list of the best ways to activate your PSNS. We have divided the list into two parts; hacks for your PSNS that can have an immediate effect and lifestyle tips for a healthy PSNS. Some of the PSNS activation tips are well researched and mainstream; others in our list are taken from alternative therapies. Although not all these techniques have been comprehensively studied yet, there is anecdotal evidence that they can work, even if science is unsure why.
As with all our articles, these are suggestions only and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a medical professional before trying the recommendations below or if you are worried about your PSNS.
Hack into a parasympathetic state
- Massage: A massage or self-massage can activate the vagus nerve by applying pressure to certain parts of the body. Massage areas around the neck, ears, wrist, hands, and feet. Acupuncture has a similar effect, especially using points in the head, ears, and neck, but should only be performed by a professional acupuncturist.
- Meditation: A calming meditation can activate a parasympathetic state. You can do this on your own or use a recording of a relaxation or sleep meditation. Prayer works in much the same way. If you choose prayer, repeat a phrase, prayer, or song rather than engaging in conversation, as repetitive prayer is best for engaging the PSNS. Affirmations can also work, just remember to speak in the positive (for instance, say ‘I will be calm’ not ‘I won’t be stressed’) and try to invoke feelings of gratitude.
- Deep Breathing: Connecting with your breath is crucial for stimulating the ventral vagal system. The vagus nerve passes directly through the vocal cords and research has proven that slow, mindful, deep breathing from the diaphragm lowers cortisol levels, reducing stress. Take a moment to concentrate on your breath. Slow your breathing down, take deep diaphragmatic breaths and exhale for a little longer than you inhale. You can also try the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
- Touch Your Lips: The lips have parasympathetic fibers throughout them, so touching them activates the PSNS. Run one or two clean fingers slowly and lightly over your lips a few times for the desired result.
- Visualisation: Use visualisation and imagery to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Picture yourself in a calm, peaceful place that means something to you. This could be a beach you went to as a child, an area of bush that you like to hike in, or any place where you feel relaxed. Progress through your five senses, imagining this special place’s smells, sounds, etc. After the senses, focus on how you feel emotionally when you are in this place. Concentrate on feelings of peace, contentment, and calm.
- Humming: Humming features an extended exhale, which assists with slow breathing. In addition, humming releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which stimulates the vagus nerve. Also, when we hum, the vibration oscillates the air and causes the nasal cavity to release nitric oxide, which increases vasodilation and circulation. This engages a relaxation response and sends cues to your PSNS that you are safe.
- Singing: Similar to humming, singing stimulates the muscles in the back of the throat where the vagus nerve passes through. Studies have also found that singing can create a feeling of happiness and connection. If you are trying to calm yourself, stick to joyful songs with a relaxing melody.
- Chanting: Chanting, particularly the OM chant, is another effective way to stimulate the vagus nerve and bring your body into a parasympathetic state. This can be done on its own or in conjunction what yoga, stretching, or meditation. If humming, singing, or chanting aren’t for you, then just speaking can trigger the vagus nerve. Try saying simple positive affirmations out loud.
- Gargling: Activating the throat muscles via gargling will stimulate the vagus nerve. Focus on your body and be mindful about gargling rather than seeing it as a chore.
- Sternal Release: The vagus nerve extends to the heart, lungs, and diaphragm and can induce a relaxation response when stimulated. To perform the sternal release, lay on your front, place a soft ball under your sternum (breastbone,) inhale through the nose, hold your breath briefly, and then exhale slowly. This process should not be painful; keep it slow and gentle.
- Neck Release: The carotid artery, which moves into the carotid sinus, is connected to the vagus nerve. As mentioned above, neck massage can induce a parasympathetic state. To do this specific neck release, use a small, soft ball, and, starting under your ear, gently compress and twist as you move it down your neck. Get the most out of this exercise by turning your head to the opposite side to the one you are working on, which will lengthen your neck. Check with your doctor before trying this if you have a preexisting cardiovascular condition.
- Be Present: Being mindful of your body and thoughts is a great way to invite calm. Try to avoid thoughts of things that have happened in the past or things that are coming in the future. Focusing on your breathing is a terrific way to get present. Another technique is using your five senses. Whether you are in your bed or out in nature, use your senses to truly experience the world around you. Sight can be a powerful sense, so try closing your eyes when connecting with the other senses.
- Cold Exposure: Trigger your PSNS with exposure to cold temperatures. Research shows that acute cold exposure activates the cholinergic neurons in your vagus nerve pathways, stimulating the nerve itself. Try splashing cold water on your face or, if you are feeling brave, take a cool shower or a quick dip in a cool pool. If the weather is cool, you can go outside for a short time. It might seem odd, but this is one of the most effective ways to calm your body quickly. Be cautious with this exercise and take your local weather into account.
- Laughter: Smiling and laughter is a quick way to brighten your mood and create a feeling of safety and relaxation in the body. Laughter is best when it’s genuine, but if nothing is funny, then fake it till you make it! Try remembering a humourous occasion, watching a comedy, or whatever makes you belly laugh. They do say ‘laughter is the best medicine.’
- Weighted Blanket: Weighted blankets are often used to treat anxiety and insomnia, due to their ability to activate the PSNS. Using deep pressure stimulation, weighted blankets induce a feeling of safety and calm in your body. They can be worn over your body while you sleep, but they can be hot, so users in warmer climates usually use them to relax and then remove them to sleep. We love Calming Blankets weighted blankets – read more about weighted blankets and sleep here or visit the Calming Blankets online store here.
- Hug: Since weighted blankets are designed to simulate the feeling of a hug, it is no surprise that a hug can also trigger a parasympathetic state. Skin-to-skin contact, as well as the gentle pressure of a hug, have a relaxing effect on the body and mind. The deep pressure signals to your nervous system that you are safe. So, give your loved ones (or pets) a big long cuddle, and you’ll be helping yourself, and them, get into a parasympathetic state.
- Yoga: Yoga is a very effective way to centre yourself and switch on the PSNS. To aid with relaxation and sleep, use gentle slow yoga poses such as the ones in our article on Yoga for Sleep, Yin Yoga, or Yoga Nidra. If you only have time for one pose, we recommend ‘legs up the wall.‘
- Yawning: Triggering your vagus nerve by opening up your soft palate is a great way to calm yourself instantly. This can be done by yawning or making a long ‘R’ sound with your mouth. Yawning is a built-in repair circuit that activates the parasympathetic nervous system and signals rest/digest processes for the body. Yawning is a social cue and can be triggered by seeing images or watching videos of people yawning.
- The Basic Exercise: Stanley Rosenberg’s Basic Exercise from his book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve is an easy way of bringing blood flow to the brain stem, where the vagus nerve originates. To perform this exercise, lay down comfortably on your back and interlace your fingers behind your head, at the base of the skull. Keeping your head centred, move your eyes all the way to the right, and stay in this position until you sigh, yawn, swallow or exhale deeper than usual. If you haven’t felt the trigger after about a minute (according to Rosenburg – it can be very subtle,) return your eyes to the centre. Repeat with the other side.
Keeping your parasympathetic nervous system healthy
- The Great Outdoors: Spending time in nature has a myriad of health benefits, including for the PSNS. Plus, this therapy is free and easy. Whether it’s the beach, the bush, a park, or your own garden, grounding yourself in nature is perfect for practicing some of the tips above and below.
- Animals or Children: Playing with animals and children is good for the soul and the PSNS.
- Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, or Qi Gong: Regularly engaging in a mind-body practice, such as yoga, is an effective tool to stimulate and train the vagus nerve. Research has shown that people who practice yoga daily have higher heart rate variability, a higher quality of life, and can recover from a stressful occurrence sooner. Check out our article on Restorative Yoga Poses.
- Exercise: Regular exercise keeps the body and mind healthy. Exercise is one of the best ways to quickly improve your heart rate variability. Movement is a powerful way to improve your vagal tone and overall health.
- Favourite Hobby: Depending on your chosen hobby, doing something you enjoy can be powerful for your parasympathetic health. If your favourite hobby is something more adrenaline-pumping – you don’t have to give it up. Look for things you can do to support your interests that bring you joy and relaxation. For example, if you love dirt bike riding, build your own bike.
- Be Mindful – Don’t Multitask: This is not an easy task in the modern world. If doing ten things at once is usual for you, start small; take a proper lunch break, turn the TV off during dinner, or turn your phone off in the evening. Focus on what you are doing, not what you could/should/will/might be doing. Being in a constant state of high alert keeps us in ‘fight or flight’ mode and puts strain on the body and mind.
- Probiotics: The nerves in the PSNS, including the vagus nerve, connect the gut and the brain. More and more evidence is emerging about gut bacteria and physical and mental health. Healthy bacteria in the gut create a positive feedback loop through the vagus nerve, increasing its tone. Two primary strains of bacteria that have been shown to impact mood and behavior, are lactobacillus rhamnosus and bifidobacterium longum and are found naturally in fermented vegetables. These particular strains are believed to ease anxiety and depression and also impact GABA, which inhibits feelings of fear and anxiety. Probiotics can be taken as a supplement but can also be found in kombucha, kimchi, and yoghurt. Talk to your doctor before you start taking anything.
- Diet: Very closely related to the point above, a balanced and nutrient-rich diet keeps your vagus nerve healthy. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in trans fats are linked to better vagal tone. Food rich in polyphenols, minerals, and vitamins (particularly B12) may also help to improve vagus nerve health. Boost your polyphenol levels with leafy greens, fresh fruit, tea, dark chocolate, or red wine. Foods high in B12 include hormone-free meat, seafood, and eggs.
- Gratitude: Letting go of negative thoughts and embracing gratitude is another way to nurture your parasympathetic nervous system. Your internal self-talk impacts the physical body. If you are unsure where to start, make a list of the things you’re thankful for.
- Connection: Love and connection are powerful tools to help stimulate the ventral vagal network. A hug, a smile, eye contact, or an act of self-care are all great ways to stimulate your vagus nerve. Socialising and connecting with others, in a safe way, enhances vagal activity and brings about a co-regulation that science is yet to fully understand.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you have any questions about your sleep health, speak to your doctor. This post may contain affiliate links.