I’ve recently taken a trip down a research rabbit hole into the human nervous system and how it impacts our overall wellbeing. As someone who is always looking to optimise health and longevity, I’ve become aware of what a huge role our autonomic nervous system plays in how we feel and function.
Sympathetic vs parasympathetic
If you’re new to this, putting it in the simplest terms, our autonomic nervous system includes our sympathetic nervous system (often called the “fight or flight” system – or the “accelerator” of your body) and our parasympathetic nervous system (often called our “rest and digest” system – or the “brakes” of your body).
The function and interplay between these two is incredibly complex, but the key difference is that when we’re stressed, anxious, suffering from insomnia or just can’t relax, that’s when we see the sympathetic nervous system activated. While that “fight or flight” mode is really helpful if you’re being chased by a bear, for most of us living modern lives, it’s activated far more than we need and it’s leaving us feel exhausted, stressed out and run down.
On the other hand, we see the parasympathetic nervous system activated when there are no bears chasing us and when we feel calm and relaxed. Meditation, massage, sleep and regular exercise all help to get us in this mode.
Switching on parasympathetic
I’m pretty sure I’ve spent a fair amount of my life in sympathetic bear-chasing mode (the main clue being the 3am insomnia I sometimes get, followed by brain fog and an afternoon slump the next day, plus I tend to be one of those never-stop-moving type people) so I started looking into what biohacks might be available to help.
After a research deep dive, I found the Apollo Neuro – a new invention that is unlike anything else on the market and designed precisely for this purpose.
It’s a wearable – you can pop it on your wrist or ankle – that uses gentle vibrations and inaudible sound waves to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Best bit, it works within a couple of minutes.
When I discovered it, the Apollo was not yet available in Australia (but it is now!), so I asked the clever folks at Apollo if I could try one early.
Receiving the Apollo – it’s quite similar in size to an Apple watch – I started by strapping it to my ankle because I had read that it can be even more effective there than on the wrist.
I downloaded the accompanying app and chose one of the seven mood modes that the device can be set to. Because it was the evening, I chose the “Relax and Unwind” mode and soon felt the gentle vibration on my ankle that I had read about.
It’s a difficult sensation to describe, but the closest fit would probably be that it’s a bit like having a softly purring cat sitting by your ankle. At first I was quite aware of it, but shortly I forgot about it and got on with my evening. I certainly began to feel relaxed, but the real test came that night.
Until I had my first child, I slept pretty well. Getting a full eight or nine hours sleep was rarely an issue for me and I tended to take good sleep for granted.
But for the last decade, I’ve had reasonably regular insomnia. Even though my kids rarely wake me now, my sleep is sometimes still very disrupted. I can fall asleep without any problem, but I often wake at 2am or 3am and lay awake for at least an hour or two. On my worst nights, I can’t fall back asleep at all and my day officially begins in the early hours of the morning.
I’ve been using the Apollo for a few months now and the impact it has had on my sleep has been absolutely incredible. I still stir during the night, but I immediately pop on either the “Sleep and Renew” setting or the “Relax and Unwind” and I fall back to sleep within a minute or two. I’m actually in shock at just how effective it is – it feels like a miracle.
Even on my worst nights when I wake up several times or I wake up feeling totally wide awake and with a million thoughts, it still works. And quickly.
One of the biggest tests for me was about a week after owning the Apollo when I woke at 4.30am. I had gone to bed at 9.30pm so it wasn’t an unreasonable wake-up time – I’d had seven hours sleep after all. And being a naturally early riser, I felt completely wide awake and alert and I had no expectation of any further sleep. But I thought it would be bliss if I could just get an extra two hours so I dubiously tried the Apollo sleep mode. Sure enough, I was sound asleep within minutes and woke at 7am.
Since using the device, I have been getting a minimum of 9 solid hours of sleep every night. So far, it hasn’t failed me once. I haven’t had this much sleep since I was a kid and the impact it’s had on my mood and productivity has been life changing.
When I eventually do wake up to start the day, I pop on the “Energy and Wake Up” mode before getting out of bed and instantly feel energised and alert – as though I’d had a strong coffee – my morning fog just completely lifts. Although I’m not opposed to coffee from a health perspective, I no longer feel the need for it. I’m awake and alert before I can make it to my kitchen.
I also used it earlier in the year on my son who was having trouble falling asleep on the night before his first day back at school for the term. I put in on his ankle and within a few minutes he was fast asleep.
So far, for me, the most noticeable change to my life has come from my dramatic sleep improvements. I’m a pretty upbeat person anyway, but tiredness can make me feel cranky or irritable. Since my sleep has improved, I just feel more chirpy and like my glass is always half full. It takes much bigger things to bother me than previously and I find I’m more fun and present with my children.
I’ve also found my work productivity improve out of sight. Especially in the afternoon, when I previously found it hard to concentrate and get anything done, I now use the “Clear and Focused” setting and I can get so much done – even research and written work that I would usually only attempt in the morning.
If I was someone who measured HRV (heart rate variability) I know I would have noticed an improvement in that too. In simple terms, HRV is an indicator of how stressed we are and how well we’re balancing our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If you want to nerd out on this stuff, you can use a chest strap or a different app to measure your HRV so you can see the change in numbers from using the Apollo.
It takes a lot for me to recommend any kind of device. I tend to be cynical about the extent to which most wellness products can actually improve our lives. But this is something I have been talking non-stop to my friends and family about and I now wouldn’t want to live without.
Apollo have shared a discount code with me to pass on. So if you’d like to try it out head here for a 15% discount: http://bit.ly/apolloneurolouise (or you can just use the code LOUISEKEATS15 at checkout).
And please let me know how you go – looking forward to hearing about all the extra sleep you’re getting!