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Parasympathetic for Sleep Apnea

By Jodi Cohen

A woman with light brown hair is peacefully sleeping on a bed with white sheets. She is lying on her side, holding a white pillow close to her head, and dressed in a white tank top. The room is softly lit and appears to be bright and airy.

Sleep apnea – a condition in which pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing occur during sleep –  can negatively impact the quality of your sleep.

The pauses in breathing limit oxygen flow to your brain, which causes you to wake up enough for you to breathe again. The cycle often repeats throughout the night. ‌

Essential oils may help support the two different types of sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea happens when a blockage in your throat prevents air from entering your lungs.  Obstructive sleep apnea has four key contributors – (1) a narrow, crowded, or collapsible upper airway, (2) an ineffective pharyngeal dilator muscle function during sleep, (3) airway narrowing during sleep and/or (4) unstable control of breathing.
  • Central sleep apnea occurs when there’s a problem with the brain signals that communicate with the respiratory muscles involved in breathing while you sleep.

In central sleep apnea, the basic neurological controls for breathing rate – like your vagus nerve – malfunction and fail to give the signal to inhale, causing you to miss one or more cycles of breathing. If the pause in breathing is long enough, the percentage of oxygen in the circulation will drop to a lower than normal level (hypoxaemia) and the concentration of carbon dioxide will build to a higher than normal level (hypercapnia).

In turn, these conditions of hypoxia and hypercapnia will trigger additional effects on the body. Brain cells need constant oxygen to live, and if the level of blood oxygen goes low enough for long enough, brain damage and even death will occur.


Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

If you suffer from sleep apnea, you could sleep for the recommended eight hours per night and still wake up feeling unrested.  Other common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring.
  • Waking abruptly feeling short of breath.
  • Waking up with a headache, dry mouth or a sore throat.
  • Excessive irritability during the day.
  • Problems with attention and concentration.
  • Interrupted breathing throughout the night, or long periods without taking a breath
  • Fatigue during the day


Vagus Nerve Support for Sleep Apnea

The vagus nerve is involved in both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Research explains that “breathing is a complex process that relies heavily on the coordinated action of the muscles of respiration and the control center in the brain. Central and peripheral chemoreceptors, as well as mechanoreceptors in the lungs, mechanoreceptors transmit neural and sensory information to the respiratory center via cranial nerve X (the vagus nerve) to increase the breathing rate, the volume of breathing, or to stimulate cough.”

In other words, the vagus nerve controls the muscles in the upper respiratory tract, so when toned, the vagus nerve can support healthy respiratory function.

Your vagus nerve balances the nervous system by promoting the parasympathetic relaxation response, which is a critical component of restful sleep.  Your vagus nerve is also responsible for regulating breathing by sending messages from the brain to the respiratory muscles to modulate inhalation and exhalation both during waking hours and during sleep.

The health of the vagus nerve – known as vagal tone – is reflected in the health of the signals sent to the respiratory system.  Enhancing vagal tone during waking hours may enhance vagal communication during rest and help alleviate central sleep apnea.  The health of the vagus nerve determines the health of your respiratory function.  Yet, there is not a lot of research correlating vagal tone with healthy night time breathing patterns.  A small research study did find reduced daytime vagal tone in sleep apnea subjects.

Similarly, research on Increased Vagal Tone and Sleep Apnea Syndrome published in the American Journal of Therapeutics observed that atrial overdrive pacing abolishes sleep apnea syndrome, noting that “it sends a retrograde inhibitory impulse to the vagal center in the brainstem, which in turn improves vagal tone, and thus prevents sleep apnea.”


Concerns about Vagus Nerve Stimulation and Sleep Apnea

While healthy vagal tone can support healthy sleep habits, over stimulation during night-time sleeping hours can affect respiration during sleep and, potentially worsen pre-existing obstructive sleep apnea/hypopnea by increasing the number of apneas and hypopneas.

In particular, apneas and hypopneas recorded during vagus nerve stimulation activation are predominantly obstructive and related to frequency during the night.

The research on Vagus Nerve Stimulation, Sleep Apnea, and CPAP Titration found specifically that “apneas and sleep related decreases in airflow coincide with vagus nerve activation during sleep.”  Reading further, it was discovered that “they found a decrease in apneas and hypopneas when the stimulus frequency was decreased. . .  Changing the VNS parameters resulted in resolution of these central breathing events and return of the sleep study back to normal.”

Research on Vagus Nerve Stimulation, Sleep Apnea, and CPAP Titration finds that when over stimulated, the vagus nerve activates respiratory muscles and can cause obstruction of the upper airway.

I was curious as to why and found this rather complicated explanation:  “Stimulation of peripheral vagal afferents activates motor efferents with cell bodies that may alter neuromuscular transmission to the upper airway muscles of the pharynx and larynx producing upper airway narrowing and obstruction.”

“Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) therapy affects respiration during sleep and can interrupt sleep. VNS has also been noted to improve excessive daytime sleepiness. The authors present a patient who developed excessive daytime sleepiness after VNS placement, as a consequence of apneas and arousals associated with intermittent electrical stimulation of the left vagus nerve during sleep.” (Research)

Vagus Nerve Stimulation “may modulate central projections to the brainstem reticular formation altering the rate and depth of respiration. At relatively low current and frequency settings, VNS increases REM sleep.”


Essential Oils for Sleep Apnea

Essential oils have become popular as a natural remedy for sleep issues including sleep apnea.


Your parasympathetic nervous system helps regulate your circadian rhythms to promote restful sleep.  As you may know, the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) serves as an internal “gear shift” that helps regulate when you eat and sleep, and even how you feel. To help improve your sleep, topically apply the Parasympathetic® oil on the vagus nerve (behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone) 3 times daily.

READ THIS NEXT: Parasympathetic for Sleep 



A small study on the Effect of Peppermint Oil among Sleep Apnea Individuals published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Research International showed that peppermint oil can help people with sleep apnea get more restful sleep and lessen sleep disturbances.

Topically applying Peppermint oil on the forehead before sleeping increased restful sleeping hours  from an average of 6.4 hours to an average of 7.1 hours.  Before the use of peppermint oil, sleep disturbances were of average 3.3 hours and after the use of peppermint oil the sleeping disturbances have been decreased to an average of 2.1 hour.

If your sleep apnea is caused by nasal congestion, peppermint essential oil can help relieve the inflammation and irritation in the lining of your nasal passage.



Lavender oil has a positive effect on sleep, but its sleep enhancing effects are significantly enhanced when combined with other essential oils part of a blend.

Lavender is known for its sedative, anxiety relieving and calming properties that help your body relax into restful sleep.  Similarly, its key constituent Linalool, helps activate your calming neurotransmitter GABA, which helps calm your mind and body.  Study participants who used it before bed reported a more restful sleep and fewer disturbances during the night. ‌

READ THIS NEXT: Can Lavender Help You Sleep?



Breathe™ contains two powerful Eucalyptus oils – Eucalyptus citriodora and Eucalyptus radiata, along with Peppermint, Spruce, and Basil in a base of fractionated coconut oil.

Eucalyptus oil has been shown to reduce mucus in your sinuses and airways, which could help you to breathe easier while sleeping.  One study also showed that when using an essential oil spray for sleep apnea, snoring decreased.

If using topically, we recommend diluting with either castor oil, coconut oil or olive oil and rubbing 1- 2 drops  topically on throat and upper chest.   You can also put a few drops on the pillowcase for respiratory conditions or apply a hot wet towel compress to the lungs and throat areas and keep it on for about 15 minutes. Put a few drops on the pillowcase at night.  This oil can feel hot, so we do not recommend applying it undiluted to the skin.


Histamine Balance™

Helps reduce over-active histamine reactions and modulate the immune response, including sleep related respiratory issues

Histamine is a chemical substance that can be released in the lungs to cause narrowing of the bronchial tubes and difficulty breathing. Airway smooth muscle cells in the bronchioles (small airways) of the lung can contract or relax to control the extent of airway opening and the resistance to air flow during breathing.

Histamine Balance™ is formulated with several oils known to support sleep apnea symptoms,  including Blue Tansy, Roman Chamomile, Lavender, Manuka, Rosemary, Peppermint, Spruce, Ravensara, and Vetiver.

Apply 1 -2 drops behind your ears, on the back of your neck, or on your sternum to open airways.  You can also apply on the bottom of the feet.


Sinus Support™

Helps to clear and open the nasal passages and supports the relief of sinus pressure from chronic sinus infections and/or sinus issues related to allergies.

Formulated with Eucalyptus, Peppermint, Thyme and Lavender essentials oils that can easily travel into the small holes to loosen mucous and promote drainage. Sinus Support works as local decongestants that break up mucus and improve breathing during sleep.

Apply 2 – 3 drops of Sinus Support™ to a Q-tip and swabbing the inside of the nasal passages 2 – 6 times daily.  For optimal effectiveness, you can leave the Q-tip in the nasal passage for up to 20 minutes. Try to relax and focus on breathing through the nose.

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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.