How can a simple breathing technique help with insomnia and stress? The 4-7-8 breathing method has been really effective for many people – myself included – at helping relax the body and mind ready for sleep.
The first time I tried it I was genuinely surprised the next day at how quickly I’d fallen asleep! It’s also been successful for some sufferers of PTSD and anxiety at reducing their symptoms by stimulating the Vagus Nerve.
In this article I’ll explain what it does to relax the body, and why it is so effective.
How To Perform 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise
- Sit up straight in a relaxed position (or lie down comfortably, if you’re doing the exercise to fall into sleep),
- Keep your tongue loosely against your upper front teeth for the entire exercise,
- Inhale slowly through the nose (using the diaphragm rather than the chest) for 4 seconds (doesn’t need to be a full breath),
- Hold your breath at this position for 7 seconds,
- Release your breath through the mouth for a count of 8 seconds – the tongue position will help you extend the duration of the exhale and you should hear the sound of the air escaping,
- Repeat several times (until you fall asleep or feel calmer, better).
To understand why this breathing pattern is so effective, we need to look at the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the automatic functions of our body, such as heartrate, immune function and digestion.
Two Halves of the Autonomic Nervous System
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – activated when we perceive danger or need alertness:
- increased heartrate and blood pressure
- puts us in “fight or flight” mode, ready for action
- causes us to breathe shallow, from the chest
- keeps us awake
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – activated when our body feels that it’s safe to relax
- decreases heartrate and blood pressure
- puts us in “rest and digest” mode
- causes our muscles to relax
- allows us to sleep
The sympathetic nervous system is super important, but with the busy modern life that many of us lead, full of stimulus and stress, it is activated too much of the time. Our PNS rarely has a chance to take over, which causes problems for recovery and especially for sleep!
Using 4-7-8 Breathing to Regulate Your Nervous System
Effects of Deep Breathing
We have minimal direct control over what our autonomic nervous system does, but via specific breathwork exercises it is actually possible to switch its state between the SNS and PNS.
When we breathe deeply (i.e., from the diaphragm rather than from the chest) we activate stretch receptors around the diaphragm linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. Any deep breathing will have this effect, but it’s especially powerful in the 4-7-8 method as we pause for 7 seconds in the slightly stretched position for a stronger “rest and digest” effect.
For many people, the level of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is chronically high and this can hinder sleep. Deep breathing, such as in the 4-7-8 method, has been scientifically shown to reduce levels of cortisol.
Effects of Slow Breathing
Furthermore the rhythm of breathing affects our autonomic nervous system, with slow, controlled breathing activating the PNS. This should come as no surprise (given popular advice to “take a deep breath” when feeling overwhelmed) but it was only in 2016 that scientists first found the part of the brainstem that seems to cause this!
In the 4-7-8 pattern, each breath is very slow – around 19 seconds, so again it stimulates the part of the nervous system that allows us to sleep.
Reducing Effort for the Muscles
The last thing you need when trying to sleep is physical effort. It generates unnecessary heat, increases heart rate and generally prepares your body for sport rather than rest. Even something as simple as a breathing exercise can require some physical effort.
In particular, to extend the exhale for as long as 8 seconds, it is necessary to restrict the airflow out of the lungs. This would ordinarily be done by tensing up various muscles around the lungs and windpipe.
The 4-7-8 method avoids this by simply placing the tongue against the upper gums to restrict the airflow considerably. The muscles have minimal work to do and we can physically relax a lot faster.
If you’re like many people who have difficulty physically relaxing, this breathing technique may help you like it helped many before you. It quickly starts to activate the PNS and reduces cortisol, all while performing a meditative activity with minimal physical demands.
You can perform the 4-7-8 Breathing technique on Huma Breath. Simply go to the app’s exercise library, tap on the 4-7-8 Breathing exercise and you’re ready to go. The app tracks your progress and guides you through the exercise so you get out the most of each breath.
Here’s a Box Breathing Guide based on Huma Breath app for you to use: