When we find ourselves ruminating at night distracted by our anxieties and worries, it can be difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Breathing techniques for sleep can help quiet our body and mind while also enhancing inner peace and balance.
In order to fall asleep, our body and mind need to calm down and relax. Here are some different breathing exercises for sleep that allow our body to replenish its oxygen, regulating the fight-or-flight response we feel when we’re stressed.
How Can Breathing Techniques Help Us Sleep?
The muscles responsible for breathing belong to the category of striated muscles (voluntary muscles). However, there is a significant part of them for which contraction is dictated not only by voluntary nervous activity (just like all other skeletal muscles) but also by involuntary nervous activity (like smooth muscles). This automatic activity is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. When practised regularly, breathing techniques can lower the heart rate and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This suppresses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response.
In turn, the PSNS counteracts physical stress reactions like muscle tension and relaxes the mind through the neurotransmitter gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the brain’s own tranquillizer that reduces neuronal excitability and increases slow theta brain waves.
This reduces the release of stress chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. It also increases the concentration of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone that increases sleep pressure and supports a good night’s rest.
Breathing Techniques for Sleep
In order to reap these benefits, here are some techniques that are scientifically proven and well-studied to enhance one’s sleep quality. For all these exercises, be sure to comfortably lie or sit down and maintain proper posture to support your lungs.
The first exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing pattern, which Dr. Andrew Weil developed. This technique is based on pranayama, an ancient yoga practice that allows yogis to gain control over their breathing. This technique gives your organs and tissues an oxygen boost by regulating your breath and relaxing your body.
Before you begin, rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. Be sure to keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. While this may take some effort to get used to, the technique can put you in a state of deep relaxation when done correctly.
It is recommended to only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths as a beginner, before gradually working your way up to eight full breaths.
Here’s how to practice 4-7-8 breathing:
- Allow your lips to part gently.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Press your lips together as you silently inhale through your nose for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds, making a whooshing sound all throughout.
- Repeat this pattern for four full breaths.
Another technique that can help you calm down and relax is the three-part breathing exercise. This can help ease anxiety as it requires long, deep breaths and can slow down the heart rate.
Here’s how to practice three-part breathing:
- Take one long, deep breath in.
- Fully exhale while paying attention to the feelings in your body.
- Continue deeply breathing until you can slow down your exhale so that it is twice as long as your inhale.
Another technique that is commonly used for meditation is box or four-square breathing. This exercise helps you relax, improves your concentration, and relieves feelings of stress. It is particularly beneficial for those with breathing difficulties or lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Here’s how to practice box breathing:
- Slowly exhale through your mouth, pushing all the air out of your lungs. Focus intently on the oxygen you’re bringing in and pushing out.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to four. Fill your lungs with more air with each count, until your lungs are completely full, and the air moves to your abdomen.
- Hold your breath for another slow count of four.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth for a slow count of four, expelling all the oxygen out of your lungs and abdomen.
Bhramari Pranayama Breathing
This next breathing exercise has been shown to quickly reduce your heart rate and breathing, preparing your body for sleep. It can also effectively relieve tension, anger, and anxiety, calming down an agitated mind.
Here’s how to practice Bhramari pranayama breathing:
- Close your eyes and deeply breathe in and out.
- Place your index fingers on your ears right at the cartilage.
- Keep your mouth closed and breathe slowly through your nose, pressing the cartilage of your ears and making a humming om sound.
- Repeat this exercise six to seven times.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Another technique based on yogic breath control practice is alternate nostril breathing, also called nadi shodhana pranayama. This translates to a subtle energy-clearing breathing technique.
Alternate nostril breathing can help relax your body and mind, reduce your anxiety, and promote overall well-being. For example, a 2013 study reported that those who tried nasal breathing exercises felt less stressed afterward.
To practice this exercise, be sure to keep your breath slow, smooth, and continuous. This will help you remember where you are in the cycle and assist you in breathing easily throughout the practice.
Here’s how to practice alternate nostril breathing:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your left hand on your left knee.
- Exhale fully then close your right nostril with your right thumb.
- Inhale through your left nostril, then close it with your fingers.
- Open your right nostril and exhale through this side.
- Inhale through your right nostril before closing it with your fingers.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through this side.
- Continue this rotation for five minutes, completing the practice by finishing up with an exhale on the left side.
Studies have shown that breathing and relaxation techniques can significantly improve sleep quality and mitigate the secondary health outcomes of insomnia symptoms, depression, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity.
While everyone has different needs and preferences, it may take some time to find the proper exercise or approach that works best for you. However, don’t put too much pressure on yourself as focusing too much on sleep only leads to further mental and physical distress. Instead, don’t panic and allow yourself the time and space to adopt different approaches. These may take some practice, but in time, they can bring wonderous benefits to your health and overall well-being.
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