Having trouble falling asleep at night? You’re not alone. Approximately 50-70 million adults in the US have a sleep disorder (1). One simple technique that can help calm the mind and body before bedtime is the 4-7-8 breathing method.
What is the 4-7-8 breathing technique?
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a relaxation exercise that aims to reduce anxiety, manage stress, and improve sleep. It’s also known as “relaxing breath”. This breathing technique was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Andrew Weil, an American physician and pioneer in integrative medicine (2).
The technique involves breathing in through the nose for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth for 8 seconds. This controlled breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing down the heart rate and promoting feelings of calmness. The 4-7-8 pattern regulates the amount of carbon dioxide in the lungs, which can reduce anxiety and relax the body for sleep.
How to do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise
Follow these simple steps:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your upper front teeth.
- Breathe in quietly through your nose and count to 4 in your head.
- Hold your breath, closing your mouth, and mentally count to 7.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, and count to 8.
- Repeat for 4 full breath cycles. Do this routine 3-4 times per day for maximum benefit.
- Focus on breathing slowly and deeply from your diaphragm.
- The 4-7-8 counts can be adjusted as needed. Find timing that feels natural.
- Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth to relax before sleep.
- Perform after practicing 4-7-8 a few times, once comfortable with the counts.
What are the benefits of 4-7-8 breathing?
Studies show this simple breathing technique has many evidence-based benefits (3):
- Reduces anxiety: Calms the nervous system, giving a sense of relief from anxious thoughts and sensations.
- Lowers stress: Breathing exercises lower the stress hormone cortisol and increase relaxation.
- Promotes sleep: Helps overcome insomnia and improves sleep quality.
- Lowers blood pressure: Deep breathing was shown to reduce resting blood pressure.
- Slows heart rate: Stimulates the vagus nerve which regulates heart rate and calms the body.
Anxiety and Stress Relief
Many studies have found breathing techniques effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety (4, 5):
|Study||Results on Anxiety|
|2017 meta-analysis on breathing interventions||Significantly reduced anxiety scores on assessment scales|
|Clinical trial with nursing students||4 weeks of deep breathing reduced anxiety levels|
This simple practice helps activate the body’s relaxation response, bringing tranquility of mind and body. The focus on breathing distracts from worrying thoughts and shifts awareness to the present moment.
Better Sleep Quality
Research also supports using breathing techniques, including 4-7-8 breathing, for improving sleep troubles (6, 7):
|Study||Effects on Sleep|
|Meta-analysis on meditation programs||Reduced insomnia symptoms|
|Clinical trial on breast cancer survivors||Slow breathing increased deep sleep time|
By reducing anxiety and calming the nervous system before bed, breathwork can help initiate sleep and improve sleep quality.
How often should you practice 4-7-8 breathing?
For most benefits, aim to practice 4-7-8 breathing 3-4 times per day:
- Morning: Helps set intention and reduce anxiety to start the day
- Midday: Offers a reset during the workday and manages stress
- Evening: Use as part of bedtime routine to relax before sleep
- During panic or anxiety: Helps provide quick relief in the moment
It only takes a few minutes per session. Over time, the 4-7-8 technique becomes a helpful tool you can use anytime.
Here is one example daily schedule for incorporating 4-7-8 breathing:
|Time||4-7-8 Breathing Practice|
|Morning||After waking up, before getting out of bed|
|Midday||Take a few minutes during lunch break|
|Evening||Right before laying down to sleep|
Adjust as needed. The key is consistency in practicing at least 3 times a day.
Tips for using 4-7-8 breathing for sleep
Here are some tips to get the most out of 4-7-8 breathing before bedtime:
- Practice in a quiet, dark environment to signal rest for your body.
- Try a few rounds sitting up in bed before laying down.
- Visualize tension and stress leaving your body as you exhale.
- Use along with other relaxing nightly rituals like gentle stretching or meditation.
- Repeat if you wake up in the night and have trouble falling back asleep.
Be patient and persistent. With regular practice, 4-7-8 breathing can become an effective ritual for better sleep.
Is the 4-7-8 trick safe?
For most people, the 4-7-8 breathing technique is very safe when practiced gently. As with any breathing exercise, there are some important precautions (8):
- Avoid forceful breathing. Breathe naturally at your own pace.
- If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, return to normal breathing.
- People with respiratory disorders should check with a doctor first.
- Don’t use if you have a history of hyperventilation.
When practicing 4-7-8 breathing, listen to your body. Adjust or stop if you experience any discomfort or dizziness. Overall, this technique offers very low risk when used appropriately.
Who Should Avoid It?
While 4-7-8 breathing is gentle, certain conditions warrant caution or avoiding the practice (9):
- Severe asthma or COPD
- Recent heart attack or heart disease
- Pregnancy complications or history of preterm labor
- Hyperventilation syndrome
- Patients recovering from COVID-19
As always, discuss your medical history with your doctor before trying new breathing techniques.
The 4-7-8 breathing trick is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique requiring no equipment or special skills. This controlled breathing activates the body’s natural relaxation response, lowering stress, anxiety, and preparing the mind and body for restful sleep.
Research validates the many benefits of breathing exercises like 4-7-8. By practicing daily, you can reduce insomnia, improve sleep quality, lower blood pressure, and create a sense of calm.
Give the 4-7-8 breathing method a try! With consistency, this easy technique can become a healthy ritual for less stress and restful nights.