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Music, Relaxation, and the Vagus Nerve: Learning to De-stress and Sleep Better

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Updated on January 17, 2022
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Have you ever felt so stressed out that coming down from that tense state becomes difficult? Our body is naturally equipped to understand when to stay alert and ready to fight, and when to tone it down and become calm. 

However, too much stress can make it hard for our bodies to cope and change according to our physical and psychological needs. So how can we help our body to manage stress better and ensure that we can relax when we need to?

As mentioned before, our body is well prepared to handle physically and mentally strenuous situations. All it needs is a little push.

All About the Nerves

If you want to help your body relax and sleep better, you need to learn more about how it works. Thanks to our nerves, our brain can send commands to and receive messages from the body.

One particular nerve that can help us manage and deal with stress is the vagus nerve. But to fully understand and appreciate the role of the vagus nerve in stress management and well-being, we must first understand how our nervous system works.

Our complex nervous system is the communication hub of our body. It manages our senses, emotions, and bodily functions by connecting the rest of our body to our brain. These branches of nerves can be separated from each other by region and function. The nervous system can be divided into two parts:

Central Nervous System

You could call the central nervous system (or the CNS) the main headquarters of the nerves. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. While most of the body's systems and organs are responsible for a single function, the central nervous system performs multiple tasks at once.

The CNS is in charge of all intentional and involuntary motions, including speech and walking, as well as blinking and breathing. It also serves as the foundation for our thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. 

The Role of the Spinal Cord

While most of these actions are controlled by the brain, some reflexive movements can take place without the involvement of the brain, thanks to the spinal cord nerve network.

The spinal cord runs through the spinal canal and is connected to a portion of the brain called the brainstem. Nerve roots emerge from both sides of the body and run through to the far reaches of our body.

The spinal cord sends and receives signals from the brain to the peripheral nerves. However, some main nerves originate directly from the brain and branch out directly through the brainstem. These crucial nerves are called cranial nerves, and they help the brain carry out various motor and sensory functions.

Peripheral Nervous System

The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is a part of the nervous system that includes all nerves that are not located within the central nervous system (CNS). The PNS is responsible for connecting the CNS to the organs, limbs, and skin, and it does so by way of its numerous branches of nerves.

These nerves run from the brain to the extremities of the body. The peripheral nervous system permits the brain and spinal cord to receive and transmit information to different parts of the body, helping us respond to stimuli in our surroundings. The PNS can be divided into two parts:

Somatic Nervous System

The somatic system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that transports sensory and motor information to and from the brain. The somatic system is in charge of both sensory information exchange and voluntary movement.

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system of the PNS regulates involuntary physiological activities such as blood flow, heartbeat, digestion, breathing, etc. The ANS enables various body functions to take place without us thinking about or consciously controlling it. This system has two segments:

Sympathetic System

The sympathetic system energizes the body to prepare it for outer threats by regulating the flight-or-fight response. When action is required, the sympathetic system responds by speeding up the heart rate, dilating the pupils breathing faster, increasing blood supply to muscles, and triggering perspiration secretion.

Parasympathetic System

The parasympathetic system maintains normal physiological functions by saving energy and other physical resources. When we are going through our fight or flight response, the body uses up more resources.

After the perceived threat is gone, the parasympathetic system brings the body to a natural resting condition. For example, your heart rate will drop, you will breathe slower, and the blood flow to your muscles will reduce.

What Does Stress Do to Nerves?

When we are stressed, our autonomic nervous system makes all the decisions of how our body reacts. The following process occurs:

  • As mentioned before, the sympathetic nervous system plays a role in the "fight or flight" response. When the body is under stress, it devotes its energy resources to fending off a life-threatening situation or fleeing from an opponent.
  • The system causes the adrenal glands to release the two stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol chemicals. To deal with the emergency, these hormones drive the heart to beat faster, the respiration rate to increase, the blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, the digestive process to shift, and glucose levels in the bloodstream to rise.
  • To prepare the body to respond to an emergency scenario or acute stress—short-term stresses—the SNS response is quite rapid. Once the crisis has passed, the body usually returns to its pre-emergency, stress-free state. The parasympathetic system has opposing effects to the sympathetic system and aids in this recuperation. However, excessive parasympathetic nervous system activity can exacerbate stress reactions by encouraging respiratory issues like asthma, increased vasodilation, and poor blood circulation.
  • All components of the autonomic nervous system have strong connections with the immune system, which can regulate stress responses as well. Because it manages the autonomic nervous system and plays a crucial role in evaluating settings as potentially hazardous, the central nervous system is particularly important in activating stress reactions.
  • Experiencing stress frequently can drain the body. This is especially hazardous when the body perceives certain everyday stressors as a reason to trigger that fight or flight response. As the ANS keeps pushing physical reactions, it tears up the body and continually depletes its natural ability to recover from stressors.
  • More than stress, continually driving the nervous system to act on the reaction is what causes the real damage. After a certain point, the body fails to manage the stress hormones, staying hyped up long after the trouble has passed. This is what leads to many long-term health problems including diabetes, heart disease, etc.
  • Cytokines are a type of protein that is released to signal the immune system to do its work. However, a study has shown that chronic stress triggers the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. This release causes chronic inflammation that leads to not only physical disorders like cardiovascular problems, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disorders but also a wide variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, etc.

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a complicated cranial nerve that stems directly from the brain. This nerve is in charge of some sensory processes as well as motor information for movement throughout the body. It communicates information back and forth from the surface of the brain to the body's tissues and organs.

Two sensory nerve cell clusters are found in the vagus nerve, which connects the brainstem to the rest of the body. It allows the brain to monitor and receive data on a wide range of bodily functions. It is responsible for both sensation and actions of many vital internal organs including digestive organs, heart, lungs, etc.

The vagus nerve assists the autonomic nervous system, for both sympathetic and parasympathetic processes.

Some functions the vagus nerve carries out include:

  1. Regulation of heart rate and blood pressure
  2. Rate of respiration
  3. Balancing the gastrointestinal system
  4. Vasomotor activities: dilation and constriction of blood vessels
  5. Reflex responses like sneezing, coughing, vomiting, gag reflex, swallowing, etc.
  6. Some muscle control, mostly in the neck, throat, and mouth region

As it plays some crucial roles in the PNS response, stimulation of the vagus nerve can help people bring their bodies to a state of balance.

Stress, Relaxation, & the Vagus Nerve

By now we know that the sympathetic nervous system puts our body in a tense state when we are in a stressful situation. Our hearts start racing, and our body is on overdrive, just to stay prepared for a perceived attack.

Even though the vagus nerve does not play a part in the sympathetic nervous system, it does work to tone it down. This is because it works with the parasympathetic nervous system and helps the body de-stress.

By increasing some autonomic parasympathetic responses, the vagus nerve helps ease the harmful aspects of stress from our body. Hence, you automatically go into a more relaxed and peaceful state.

Any person aware of the connection between their body and mind might notice the deep connection that exists between our mental and gut health. Ask anyone with gut-related inflammatory disease, and they will tell you how mental stress can trigger a bad gastro-intestinal response.

If you want to keep your immune system healthy, you cannot ignore the vagus nerve. Recent research has shown that the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in this brain-gut connection, which puts further emphasis on its importance regarding stress management.

How Does the Vagus Nerve Affect Sleep?

A study has shown that vagus nerve stimulation can cause changes in sleep patterns. It is not surprising that the vagus nerve can affect our sleep, as it is in charge of regulating breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.

 

Being able to aid the parasympathetic side of autonomic responses, the vagus nerve can pull our body from that stressed state into a more peaceful condition.

 

By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can manipulate it to turn up its relaxation response. Once you are relaxed and not keyed up, your body will automatically be more susceptible to falling asleep.

 

The vagus nerve helps to regulate the nervous system by increasing the relaxation response, which is an important part of getting a good night's sleep.

 

Your nerves prepare your body for sleep by transmitting autonomic signals and increasing the parasympathetic activities in your body and toning down any sympathetic response. As your heart rate falls and you start taking slow, deep breaths, you will drop into a state of relaxation that will lead to a night of deep and efficient sleep.

 

If your vagus nerve does not receive the right kind of stimulation, it can lead to a series of problems regarding sleep. Some nights you will not get much sleep, and other nights you might not sleep at all.

 

If your vagus nerve isn't appropriately activated, you may have a range of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation. Perhaps you don't get enough sleep, or you wake up periodically, or you can't fall asleep at all. The solution to all of these issues lies in the activation of the vagus nerve.

 

Vagus Nerve Stimulation

A few studies have observed the efficacy of vagus nerve stimulation for its proper activation. Researchers and doctors alike have looked for ways in which one can stimulate the vagus nerve, as stimulation triggers it to perform better when it is assisting in the parasympathetic autonomic nervous response.

 

Here are a handful of ways of stimulating your vagus nerve:

 

  • tVNS: Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) is a method that is used to stimulate the vagus nerve. This method is implemented by a non-invasive tVNS device that generates electrical impulses. This device is connected to the nerve through electrodes by which mild electrical pulses are sent to the nerve that stimulates its natural vagal responses.

 

  • State of Homeostasis: Homeostasis is the body’s capability to bring itself to a state of stability by regulating its internal environment. Achieving homeostasis can help stimulate the vagus nerve. A few ways of triggering this state includes:

 

  1. Exercise: Elevating the heart rate can elevate the body’s sympathetic nervous response. However, once you stop, it will be followed by an immediate message from the brain to increase parasympathetic activity that will push the vagus nerve to react.

 

  1. Breathing in and out: This is the ultimate autonomic balance. When you breathe in, you trigger your body’s sympathetic nervous response. When you breathe out, you encourage it to return to a peaceful state. This is why taking slow, deep breaths can help you stimulate your vagus nerve.

 

  1. Meditation: When you meditate, you encourage your body to come to a state of relaxation and trigger its parasympathetic response. You might include humming and chanting into your meditation routine, which uses the throat muscles and vocal cords. These muscles' motor activities are triggered by the vagus nerve, so it will get automatically stimulated.

 

  1. Massages: Massages are a great way to relieve stress. It puts your body in a state of relaxation and encourages homeostasis. A full-body massage can help stimulate multiple nerves at the same time.

Using Music to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve: How Does Music Help Relieve Stress?

  • A recent study has shown that listening to music while exercising can reduce the effects of the increase in sympathetic activities during workouts while significantly improving parasympathetic nervous response post-exercise.

 

  • The vibration of sounds stimulates the vagus nerve and encourages parasympathetic response.

 

  • Particular types of music, especially those which are soothing and have a slow tempo, can help put you in a state of wellness and relaxation.

 

  • When we are stressed, our brain is in overload. Sometimes focusing on one particular thing that can take our attention away from the stressors can help, and music is one such effective distraction.

 

  • Due to the vibrations and sounds that soothe us, our body goes into a parasympathetic state where the heart rate decreases, our blood pressure falls, and our respiration rate becomes slower.

 

  • Hence, music relieves stress by triggering a lot of physical responses, which includes an automatic stimulation of the vagus nerve.

 

  • If you are singing to music, this will also increase your vagal response. This happens because when you sing, you stimulate the throat muscles and regulate your breathing, which also encourages the vagus nerve.

Conclusion

When trying to relieve stress and sleep better, you cannot discount the effect of the vagus nerve. Practice stimulation of the vagus nerve to help your body achieve frequent homeostasis and encourage well-being. Try listening to soothing, sedative music when going to bed. It will help you relax, relieve stress, and fall asleep faster.

References

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). What are the parts of the nervous system? Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/neuro/conditioninfo/parts 
  2. Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23. Published 2015 Nov 1. doi:10.4155/fso.15.21
  3. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9. Published 2018. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044
  4. Romero-Osorio, Ó., Gil-Tamayo, S., Nariño, D., & Rosselli, D. (2018). Changes in sleep patterns after vagus nerve stimulation, deep brain stimulation or epilepsy surgery: Systematic review of the literature. Seizure, 56, 4–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.seizure.2018.01.022
  5. Howland, Robert H. “Vagus Nerve Stimulation.” Current behavioral neuroscience reports vol. 1,2 (2014): 64-73. doi:10.1007/s40473-014-0010-5
  6. Jia, Tiantian et al. “Music Attenuated a Decrease in Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity after Exercise.” PloS one vol. 11,2 e0148648. 3 Feb. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148648

 

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