The National Institutes of Health reports that people who get consistent, high-quality sleep are known to enjoy better overall health, moods and professional prosperity. But the Better Sleep Council states that a staggering 48 percent of Americans are sleep-deprived, with more women than men saying they don’t get enough nightly slumber. For those of you who are serial toss-and-turners, what if you could soothe yourself into a deep sleep in about a minute?
A 2010 article published in the neuroscience journal Progress in Brain Research links lack of sleep with negative temperament, work performance and mental conditions. The good news is that achieving better sleep may be attainable for everyone, thanks to a technique called “4-7-8 breathing,” based on Pranayama yoga practice (which focuses on controlling the breath): First, exhale through your mouth. Then inhale through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts and exhale through your mouth for eight counts. Repeat the process three more times, for a total of four breaths.
“Sit with your back straight or lie in a comfortable position, and place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth,” adds Andrew Weil, MD (“Dr. Weil”), founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona. “Keep your tongue there throughout the exercise—you will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue,” says Weil, who recommends 4-7-8 breathing for anyone suffering from stress or sleep issues.
“Always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth, with exhalation taking twice as long as inhalation,” Weil explains to LivingHealthy. “The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important, but the ratio of 4:7:8 is.” In Pranayama, 4-7-8 breathing is believed to bridge the body and mind. When practiced at bedtime, this calming exercise tells your mind that you’re in a relaxed state and ready for slumber. By tranquilizing the sympathetic nervous system, this breathing pattern is considered a natural sleep inducer.
If you find your mind is racing at Indy 500 speeds or you’re acutely stressed about, say, a career-changing work presentation, the 4-7-8 breathing technique may help. The goal of 4-7-8 breathing is to relieve you of stress and mental agitation, which are the most common triggers of sleep deprivation, explains Andrew J. Westwood, MD, assistant professor of Clinical Neurology (Division of Epilepsy and Sleep Disorders) at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “When our minds are racing or we have a lot to think about, our nervous system remains awake and hormones like cortisol and adrenaline remain high—this makes it harder to sleep,” he says.
Whether we’re just busier than usual or actively stressed about something that occurred during the day, we often tend to take our burdens with us to bed, which can affect how we breathe. “Most of us tend to breathe shallowly, especially when we’re under stress, and that shallow breathing reinforces to our subconscious [mind] that we have a reason to be stressed,” says Marisa Laursen, clinical Ayurvedic specialist, Sivananda certified yoga teacher and senior faculty member of the California College of Ayurveda in Nevada City. “By intentionally bringing calm to your breath and utilizing all parts of your lungs, you send the message to your mind and body to relax—there’s no bear chasing you.”
When it comes to sleeplessness, there are other factors to consider as well, such as your body’s internal clock (which determines when you wake up and sleep), light exposure and evening caffeine intake. That’s why the 4-7-8 breathing may not work for everyone, especially if you’re an extreme worrywart or severe insomniac. “Focusing on a breathing pattern can distract your mind from your worries to help you fall asleep. But sometimes, the worries are still ruminating in the heads of those who find the technique ineffective,” says Harold L. Pass, PhD, director of the Physicians Wellness Program at Stony Brook Medicine in New York.
Insomniacs are more likely to experience constant hyperarousal, higher metabolic rates, higher levels of cortisol and higher production of brain waves responsible for wakefulness, according to Robert S. Rosenberg, DO, FCCP, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, Ariz., and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night; Feel Fantastic Every Day. “This is a lot to overcome with a simple breathing technique. However, the breathing technique certainly can be one component in addressing the sleep problems of [insomniacs],” he says.
If you’re looking for a solution for the moment your head hits the pillow, the 4-7-8 breathing technique gives you another tool to attempt a good night’s rest.
There’s no harm in trying—and it’s faster than counting sheep.