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Good sleep is a crucial part of overall health, but plenty of people struggle to get the recommended seven-plus hours a night. In fact, data suggests that one in four women has symptoms of insomnia, like trouble falling asleep, issues staying asleep, or both, leaving many searching for help for sleep problems.
One potential aid that’s now getting buzz 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 conk out. 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, M.D., who has videos online about how to do the breathing exercise.
In one video, Weil said he teaches this exercise to all of his patients, calling it “another yoga breathing technique.”
The name describes what you should actually do when you’re trying this technique: You breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and exhale for eight counts.
How to do the 4-7-8 breathing technique
Weil breaks down 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 the entire time).
Exhale through your mouth.
Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts.
Hold your breath for seven counts.
Exhale your breath through your mouth for eight counts, making a whooshing sound (if it’s tough 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 “is helping an individual focus on their breathing and the numbers require some concentration,” Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of the book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. That can actually be a welcome distraction from other things that may be keeping you awake, he says. “The individual is not sitting there focused on why they cannot sleep, which is probably the main value,” Dr. Winter says. “There are some who feel like the technique is unlocking some magical breathing combination lock of sleep, which I have never seen any real research to support.”
Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with the Penn Sleep Center and an associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry with the Perelman School of Medicine, agrees. “I’m not aware of any evidence demonstrating it is any better or worse than other approaches,” he says.
But doing something over and over again like breathing exercises can help set you up for good sleep, says Kelly Waters, M.D., a sleep medicine physician with Spectrum Health. “The repetitive nature of breathing techniques is great for the last steps of settling,” she explains. “The first stage of sleep is called the ‘hypnic’ 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., an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “It helps to regulate your physiology,” she says. “It can help slow you down, ground you, and bring you back to the present.”
This can be especially helpful if you feel like your mind starts to race when you try to settle down for sleep, Gallagher says. “It really allows you to come back to the moment, re-calibrate, reassess and pull you out of a mental spiral that you may be having,” 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 are releasing stress hormones, including cortisol,” she says. “These chemical changes are sending signals to your body that there is a threat in front of you, causing you to feel keyed up or restless.” The 4-7-8 technique helps your body get out of that fight-or-flight mode. “You are expelling more oxygen than you are taking in, signaling to your body that there is no threat and that it can go into a relaxed state,” Ammon says.
What to do if you’re struggling to sleep
Relaxing your mind is an important step toward helping you to go to sleep, Dr. Winter says. And, if the 4-7-8 technique helps you do that, he says you absolutely should use it—it’s just not the only method that can help.
“Anything can be used to calm people down—decorate your dream house in your mind, plan a trip, imagine sitting with a deceased person who is dear to you and the two of you having a conversation, or relive a memory you had with them,” he says. “I had a patient who went through the steps of making banana bread and her husband visualized playing his favorite golf course. There are lots of ways to relax and focus your mental energy elsewhere.”
You can also take a step-wise approach to falling asleep, Dr. Waters says, including turning off screens before bed, since bright lights can work against your mind’s ability to get ready for bed. Settling your thoughts can help, too, like journaling or making a to-do list to write down any thoughts that are swirling in your mind so you can leave them for the next day, she says.
Light reading or doing a puzzle can also help settle your mind, Dr. Waters says. “When your eyes are moving, but you stop processing what you are reading, it's time to shut off the lights and move to bed,” she says. Then, if you want to use breathing techniques, it can be helpful to use them here. If you happen to wake up in the middle of the night, Dr. Gehrman says you can also try the breathing technique at that point.
Dr. Winters just recommends not relying on the 4-7-8 technique alone to help you sleep. “It’s fine, but it's no miracle,” he says. “It’s just a way to be mindful of breathing which is relaxing and calming for some. “The miracle technique that will have you asleep in 60 seconds”? Probably not, but it’s certainly not harmful to try.”
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