Sept. 19, 2022 — When you’re too stressed to sleep, taking the time to practice a breathing program with ancient roots could help you find your way to slumberland.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique was popularized by Andrew Weil, MD, founder of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, but it’s based on pranayama, the yogic practice of breathing regulation, CNN reported.
“A lot of sleep disorders are about people who have trouble falling asleep because their minds are buzzing,” says Rebecca Robbins, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in New York Boston, CNN said. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you an opportunity to practice peace. And that’s what we need to do before we go to bed.”
Weil’s website has these instructions: Place the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth and keep it there throughout the exercise. This causes you to breathe out through your mouth around your tongue and in through your nose. Exhale fully with a hissing sound, then breathe in through your nose for a mental count of four. Hold your breath to count seven. Exhale through your mouth with a sibilant count to eight.
Repeat this cycle three more times.
“If you’re having trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise, but maintain the 4:7:8 ratio for the three phases,” says Weil’s website. “This breathing exercise is a natural calming agent for the nervous system.”
Raj Dasgupta, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, told CNN that the 4-7-8 technique appears to activate a person’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion. The technique reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response.
While many people swear by the 4-7-8 technique, not much scientific research has backed its effectiveness.
Breathing exercises of all kinds help people relax and fall asleep, said Kelly Waters, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Spectrum Health prevention.
“The repetitive nature of the breathing techniques is great for the final steps of calming down,” she said. “The first phase of sleep is called the ‘hypnotic’ phase, and these types of breathing techniques allow for a form of self-hypnosis.”