Nowadays, it seems like everyone is having trouble sleeping. In fact, if it feels like everyone around you consistently gripes about how tired they are, they’re probably not exaggerating. Statistics show that most American adults are only getting about 6.8 hours of sleep each night, when the recommended amount is anywhere between seven to eight hours. Add up all those lost hours over the course of any given week, and the average person could be missing out on about a full night of rest. No wonder getting through the workday feels like such a struggle!
Why can’t anyone get any shut eye? Today, there are a number of factors that are keeping us up at night. First of all, almost all of us are being exposed to blue light from our laptops, phones, and tablets right up until bedtime. Blue light tricks our brains into thinking that it’s still daytime, which inhibits melatonin production (aka “the sleep hormone”). Melatonin is supposed to make you feel sleepy at the end of the day, but if your brain is not producing enough melatonin because of blue light exposure, you’re going to feel wired when your head hits the pillow and end up tossing and turning.
Plus, let’s be real: our work schedules are more intense, everyone’s got a side hustle, and many of us don’t have much time to exercise after work or even wind down with a relaxing activity, like yoga or a hot bath. Our modern society seems to be set up to cause chronic stress, and when anxious thoughts keep us up at night, we turn to caffeine throughout the day for energy—which only keeps us up again the following night. It’s a vicious cycle that wrecks our cortisol production and throws off our circadian rhythm—the natural cycle in your body that governs your energy levels in tune with sunrise and sunset.
Sure, there is plenty of advice out there instructing us on how to improve our sleep routines. Yoga and meditation are great for relaxing, some people swear by essential oils like lavender or drinking sleepy-time teas, and of course, shutting down all of your screens an hour before bed can work wonders. However, sometimes all you need is a simple breathing trick to help you doze off.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, who calls is “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” This breathing technique regulates the body’s fight or flight response, which is often in overdrive these days because of our exposure to so many stressors. Why does it work? Because the technique essentially forces you to focus solely on your breathing instead of worrying about anything going on in your life (or hypothetical situations that may or may not occur in the future). Plus, the emphasis on deep breathing gives you an extra boost of oxygen. It actually has a similar effect to pranayama breathing—the alternate-nostril breathing method that is often incorporated into yoga practices.
How To Practice the 4-7-8 Technique
- Get started by lying down in a comfortable position.
- Rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, directly behind your two front teeth. It will take a little while to get used to the feeling of keeping it there while you exhale, but try your best.
- Part your lips, and then exhale completely through your mouth.
- Close your lips and inhale through your nose while counting to four in your head.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds, and then exhale through your mouth again for eight seconds. Your next inhale begins a new cycle of breath. Dr. Weil recommends continuing with this pattern for four full breath cycles.
Since I’ve been trying to adjust my own sleep schedule recently and go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier, I decided to give this technique a try. I’ve never had the easiest time falling asleep, so I was curious to see if it would have any effect. I got cozy in bed, set my alarm, closed my eyes, and began the breathing practice. My eyelids felt heavier within seconds, and it seemed like the tension was leaving my body. Overall, I absolutely felt more relaxed and comfortably sleepy after a couple breaths. Full disclosure: since I do usually have trouble falling asleep, I stuck with the technique for a little longer than four breaths. I figured I might need a little extra time to totally relax.
While this one breathing technique probably won’t be the cure to all of my sleep woes, it was definitely helpful. Combined with screen time limits after dark and a few minutes of meditation before bed, I think it could be a helpful addition to any healthy sleep routine.
Have you tried the 4-7-8 technique? And did it work for you?
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