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If you’ve been reading the articles in our blog, or any social media, you’re well-aware of the need for sleep and the negative effects of a lack of sufficient quality sleep. Adults typically need seven or more hours of sleep per night to maintain optimal health and well-being. Insufficient quality sleep can result in weight gain, chronic illnesses, and depression.  The large number of Americans who suffer from insufficient quality sleep/sleep deprivation makes it a public health epidemic. That’s why we try to share information on ways to help you reach the goal of having a great night’s sleep. Focused breathing is one of the practices that we use to prepare ourselves for sleep.

When you lie down at night, you take your anxiety and stress with you. If you’re not one of those unicorns we hear about who falls asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, it’s possible your mind and body are not quite ready to make the leap from wake to sleep. One way to get you to that point is through focusing on your breathing to quiet your mind and calm your body so you are prepared for sleep. Following are the 5Ws and H of a breathing technique called the 4-7-8 method that can help you get to sleep.

1. The What

The 4-7-8 method, in the simplest terms, involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. This technique, also known as the “relaxing breath,” has ancient roots in the yogic practice of pranayama or focusing on the breath. It was made popular in recent years by integrative medicine specialist Andrew Weil, MD. You can view Dr. Weil’s video in which he teaches the technique in a couple of minutes.

2. The How

a.  Place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth, touching your two front teeth, where it will remain for the entire exercise and expel any air to prepare for the exercise.

b.  Inhale through your nose to the count of four.

c.  Hold your breath for the count of seven.

d.  Exhale slowly through your mouth for the count of eight. You will hear a whooshing sound due to the positioning of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. The counting and the ratio of 4-7-8 will remain constant, but you will adjust the pace of your inhaling and exhaling to the count as you will be exhaling for twice as long as you are inhaling.

e.  Repeat the process for a total of up to four breath cycles.

3. The Why

Breathing techniques like 4-7-8 breathing can help you tap into your inner calm, benefitting everything from your stressed-out nervous system to how well you sleep at night.”  They activate your parasympathetic nervous system to relax your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s flight-or-fight response. In simpler terms, counting focuses your mind on something other than whatever worries you’ve taken to bed, and exhaling for an extended period has a quieting effect on the body.

We have found that reducing anxiety and quieting our minds and bodies with breathing makes it easier to fall asleep. Breathing has no cost and requires no equipment, and, unlike sleep aids, becomes more effective with continued use.

4. The Where 

Sit or lie down when you begin the practice to prevent getting dizzy and falling. Other than that, relaxing breath can be done wherever you are.

5. The When 

Start whenever you’re ready. You don’t need to wait until you are anxious. In fact, practicing when you’re not stressed will make you more prepared to apply the technique when you are. Twice a day is a good way to begin the practice of 4-7-8 breathing. We think focused breathing in the morning before getting out of bed and at night when lying down are perfect times. Make it a habit.

Feel free to increase the number of times a day you do a set of 4-7-8 breathing beyond twice a day. However, limit each set to four breath cycles until you’ve practiced for a month after which you can increase the 4-7-8 breaths to eight breath cycles per set. Dr. Weil advises eight breath cycles is the “absolute maximum.” He also notes it may take four to six weeks to notice physiological changes from the breathing method.

6. The Who

The efficacy of slow breathing techniques has been recognized by the military which use such techniques during combat situations to regain composure and reduce stress.” You don’t, however, need to be preparing for battle to benefit from 4-7-8 breathing. These techniques can be used by anyone to calm their breathing and reduce stress and anxiety.

Focused breathing should be incorporated as part of a healthy sleep routine that includes restricting caffeine to the early part of the day, avoiding heavy meals and alcohol immediately before bed, creating a dark, quiet and cool sleep environment, and building a comfortable and hygienic bed.

If you’re interested in reading more on the mind-body connection, check out these earlier articles:

  1. Embrace Yoga for a Better Night’s Sleep
  2. How to Become a Relaxation Expert (5 ways to lessen stress)   

As always, we wish you a great night's sleep.

-The Team at Down Etc

Photo by Ksu&Eli

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