The 4-7-8 breathing technique could be your answer to better sleep

The 4-7-8 breathing technique could be your answer to better sleep

Good sleep is a crucial part of overall health, but many people struggle to get the recommended seven hours per night. In fact, data suggests that one in four women experience symptoms of insomnia, such as difficulty falling asleep, problems staying asleep, or both, leading many people to seek help for sleep problems.

A potential aid that is now making waves is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. While it won’t suddenly cure a person’s sleep problems, experts say it can help you relax enough to fall asleep. But what is the 4-7-8 breathing technique and how can it help?

What is the 4-7-8 breathing technique?

At its core, the 4-7-8 breathing technique is designed to relax you. It was popularized by integrative medicine specialist Andrew Weil, MD, who has videos online on how to do the breathing exercise.

In a video, Weil said he teaches this exercise to all of his patients, calling it “another yoga breathing technique.”

The name describes what you actually need to do when trying this technique: inhale for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and exhale for eight counts.

How to do the 4-7-8 breathing technique

Weil details the technique in a video on his website:

  • Sit with your back straight.
  • Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth (you’ll keep it there all the time).
  • Exhale through your mouth.
  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four beats.
  • Hold your breath for seven counts.
  • Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds, making a breath sound (if it’s hard to do this around your tongue, Weil suggests pursing your lips slightly).
  • Do this cycle four times.

How can the 4-7-8 breathing technique help with sleep?

In general, the technique “helps an individual focus on their breathing, and the numbers require some concentration,” Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of the book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Interrupted and How to Fix It. It can actually be a welcome distraction from other things that can keep you up at night, he says. “The individual is not sitting there focused on why they can’t sleep, which is probably the primary value,” says Dr. Winter. “Some feel like the technique unlocks a magical sleep breathing combination, which I’ve never seen any real research to support.”

Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Penn Sleep Center and an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, agrees. “I don’t know of any evidence showing that it is better or worse than other approaches,” he says.

But doing something over and over like breathing exercises can help you sleep well, says Kelly Waters, MD, sleep medicine physician at Spectrum Health. “The repetitive nature of the breathing techniques is ideal for the final stages of installation,” she explains. “The first stage of sleep is called the ‘hypnosis’ stage, and these types of breathing techniques allow for a type of self-hypnosis.”

Breathing exercises in general are known to help people relax, says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in sight podcast. “It helps regulate your physiology,” she says. “It can help you slow down, ground yourself, and bring you back to the present.”

This can be especially helpful if you feel your mind starting to race when you’re trying to settle in to sleep, says Gallagher. “It really allows you to come back to the present moment, recalibrate, reevaluate, and pull yourself out of any mental spiral that you might have,” she says.

Doing breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 technique can also facilitate chemical changes in your body, says Hillary Ammon, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women’s Emotional Wellness. “Often when people are experiencing anxiety, worry, or stress, they release stress hormones, including cortisol,” she says. “These chemical changes send signals to your body that there is a threat ahead of you, causing you to feel excited or agitated.” The 4-7-8 technique helps your body get out of this fight or flight mode. “You’re pushing out more oxygen than you’re taking in, signaling to your body that there’s no threat and it can enter a relaxed state,” Ammon says.

What to do if you have trouble sleeping

Relaxing your mind is an important step in helping you fall asleep, says Dr. Winter. And, if the 4-7-8 technique helps you do that, he says you absolutely have to use it — it’s just not the only method that can help you.

“Anything can be used to calm people down: Decorate your dream house in your mind, plan a trip, imagine yourself sitting with a dead person you care about and the two of you are chatting about, or reliving a memory you you had with her. ,” he says. “I had a patient who went through the steps of making banana bread and her husband visualized playing at his favorite golf course. There are many ways to relax and focus their mental energy elsewhere.

You can also take a staged approach to falling asleep, Dr. Waters says, including turning off screens before bed, as bright lights can interfere with your mind’s ability to prepare for bedtime. Calming your thoughts can also help, such as keeping a journal or making a to-do list to write down all the thoughts swirling around in your mind so you can leave them for the next day, she says.

Light reading or doing a puzzle can also help calm your mind, says Dr. Waters. “When your eyes are moving, but you stop processing what you’re reading, it’s time to turn off the lights and go to bed,” she says. Then, if you want to use breathing techniques, it can be useful to use them here. If you wake up in the middle of the night, Dr. Gehrman says you can also try the breathing technique at that time.

Dr. Winters simply recommends not relying solely on the 4-7-8 technique to help you sleep. “It’s good, but it’s not a miracle,” he said. “It’s just a way of being mindful of the breath, which is relaxing and calming for some. ‘The miracle technique that will put you to sleep in 60 seconds’? Probably not, but it’s definitely not dangerous to try .

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