4-7-8 breathing: How to use the technique for sleep or anxiety

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Falling asleep or letting go of anxiety may never be as easy as 1-2-3, but some experts believe a different set of numbers – 4-7-8 – comes much closer to doing the trick.

The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for four counts, holding the breath for seven counts and breathing out for eight counts, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. via e-mail.

Also known as “relaxing breath,” 4-7-8 has ancient roots in pranayama, the yogic practice of regulating the breath, but was popularized by integrative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015.

“What a lot of sleep difficulties are about are people who are struggling to fall asleep because their mind is buzzing,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham. and Boston Women’s Hospital. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you the opportunity to practice being at peace. And that’s exactly what we should do before we go to bed.”

“It doesn’t ‘put you to sleep,’ but rather it can reduce anxiety to increase the likelihood of falling asleep,” said Joshua Tal, a New York state-based clinical psychologist.

The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any equipment or specific setup, but when you first learn the exercise, you should sit with your back straight, according to Weil. Practicing in a quiet, peaceful place can help, Robbins said. Once mastered, you can use the technique while lying in bed.

Throughout the practice, place the tip of your tongue against the edge of the tissue behind the upper front teeth as you will be exhaling through your mouth around the tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whistling sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose, mentally counting to four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth making a whistling sound for a count of eight.
  • Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breathing cycles.

Sticking to the ratio of four, then seven, then eight is more important than the amount of time you spend on each phase, according to Weil.

“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise, but keep the ratio (constant) for the three phases. With practice, you can slow everything down and get used to breathing in and out more and more deeply,” advises its website.

When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system — responsible for your fight-or-flight response — is overactive, leaving you feeling overstimulated and not ready to relax and drift off to sleep, Dasgupta said. “An active sympathetic nervous system can cause a rapid heart rate as well as rapid and shallow breathing.”

The 4-7-8 breathing practice can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system—responsible for rest and digestion—which reduces sympathetic activity, he added, putting the body in a state more conducive to restful sleep. Activating the parasympathetic system also gives the anxious brain something to focus on besides “why can’t I sleep?” Tal said.

While proponents may swear by the method, more research is needed to establish clearer links between 4-7-8 and sleep and other health benefits, he added.

“There is some evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia when compared before and after the intervention, but to my knowledge there are no large randomized control trials specifically for 4-7-breathing. 8,” Tal said. “Research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms is generally spotty, with no clear link due to the poor quality of the research.”

A team of researchers based in Thailand examined the immediate effects of 4-7-8 breathing on heart rate and blood pressure among 43 healthy young adults. After participants received these health factors and measured their fasting blood glucose, they performed 4-7-8 breaths for six cycles per set for three sets, interspersed with one minute of normal breathing between each set. Researchers found that the technique improved participants’ heart rate and blood pressure, according to a study published in July.

When researchers looked at the effects of breathing techniques like 4-7-8 breathing, they saw an increase in theta and delta brain waves, which indicates someone is in a parasympathetic state, Robbins said. “Slow breathing like the 4-7-8 technique reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and improves lung function.”

The 4-7-8 technique is relatively safe, but if you’re a beginner, you might feel a little dizzy at first, Dasgupta said.

“Normal breathing is a balance between inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. When you disrupt that balance by exhaling more than you inhale, (it) causes a rapid decrease in carbon dioxide in the body,” he said. “Low levels of carbon dioxide cause the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain to narrow. This reduction in blood supply to the brain leads to symptoms such as dizziness. That’s why it’s often recommended to start slow and practice three to four cycles at a time until you feel comfortable with the technique.

The more you practice the 4-7-8 technique, the better you’ll get, and the more your body and mind will incorporate it into your regular list of tools for managing stress and anxiety, Dasgupta said. Some people combine this method with other relaxation practices, such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness, or meditation.

Uncontrolled stress can rear its head in the form of difficulty sleeping, Robbins said. “But when we can manage our stress during the day (and) apply some of these breathing techniques, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat instead of being a victim of events that happen in our lives.”

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