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Breathing Techniques for Sleep

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Insomnia is a common problem. You may find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep, or you may wake up too early and not be able to go back to sleep.

Certain breathing techniques can help you relax and sleep better throughout the night.

Sleep Problems

Many things can keep you awake at night. It could be jet lag, stress over work or school, or worries about finances, family, or relationships.  

Insomnia can also have daytime effects. Some of these include:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Problems concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor work performance

Adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep per night are more likely to have heart disease, depression, diabetes, asthma, and other illnesses.

An estimated 4% of Americans take prescription sleep aids like benzodiazepines. These types of drugs are habit-forming and often abused.

Some research has found that concentrating on your breathing can ease anxiety and maybe help you sleep better. Slow, deep breathing can have several benefits for your mind and body, including:

  • Less stress
  • More melatonin production. Levels of this sleep-inducing hormone are often lower in insomniacs.
  • Improved asthma symptoms
  • Calmed nervous system

Breathing Techniques for Sleep

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try one of these breathing techniques:

4-7-8 Breathing

  • Start by sitting with your back straight.
  • Place the tip of your tongue on the tissue just behind your upper front teeth. Keep your tongue there throughout the exercise.
  • Breathe out through your mouth.
  • Close your mouth. Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4. 
  • Hold your breath and count to 7. 
  • Breathe out through your mouth and count to 8. 

Repeat these steps three more times. Practice this exercise at least twice a day. 

The ratio of 4:7:8 is important. Keep to this ratio throughout the exercise. Count faster if you can’t hold your breath for the full spans.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Your diaphragm is at the base of your lungs. It’s a muscle that plays a key role in breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as belly breathing and abdominal breathing.

It might be easier to lie down when you try this exercise for the first time:

  • Lie on a flat surface, such as your bed, with your knees bent. 
  • Place a pillow under your head and pillows under your knees. 
  • Put one hand on your upper chest. Put your other hand on your stomach just below your rib cage. 
  • Breathe in through your nose. Concentrate on your breathing and draw the breath down to your stomach. The hand on your stomach will rise with your breath. Your chest should remain still. 
  • Slowly exhale. Your stomach should fall back down. Your hand on your upper chest should remain still. 

Practice this breathing method for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times per day. You can slowly raise the amount of time you spend on this. Once you get used to this breathing technique, try it sitting in a chair.

Buteyko Breathing Technique

This method uses breath control and breath-holding exercises. Trained instructors can help you get the best out of this technique. 

Here is one type of Buteyko exercise, known as relaxed breathing:

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight, legs uncrossed. You can look upward slightly or close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your upper and lower chest. Breathe quietly through your nose.
  • Focus on the areas of your body that move when you breathe. Concentrate on your lower chest.
  • After a few minutes, let your top hand rest on your lap. 
  • Slowly relax the muscles in your face, jaw, neck, shoulders, abdomen, hips, and legs. 

Keep going with your relaxed breathing for about 3 minutes, and then let your breathing return to normal.

Box Breathing 

Box breathing is also known as square breathing. It’s a method that can help you slow your breathing. This exercise can be done anywhere. It’s usually easier to relax when you’re in a comfortable position away from distractions:

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds.
  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  • Breathe out for 4 seconds.
  • Wait 4 seconds and repeat. 

Do this every day for a few minutes.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is a yoga technique:

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. 
  • Relax your left hand in your lap. 
  • Raise your right hand in front of your face.
  • Let your index and middle fingers rest between your eyebrows. You’ll be actively using your thumb and ring finger.
  • Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
  • Use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
  • Breath in slowly through your left nostril.
  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger. Both nostrils are now held close. Hold your breath briefly.
  • Open your right nostril. Breathe out slowly through your right nostril. Pause at the end of the exhale.
  • Inhale slowly through the right nostril.
  • Hold both nostrils closed.
  • Open your left nostril. Breathe out slowly. Pause briefly at the end of your exhale. 

Repeat 5 to 10 times. 

Set a Breathing Exercise Routine

Try a few kinds of breathing exercises to see which one works for you. These tips may help:

  • Don’t try too hard. This can raise tension and stress.
  • Don’t be too passive. It’s important to have a focal point. This lets you shift your focus away from stressful things to a rhythm that calms you.
  • Try to practice your breathing exercises at the same time every day. This will make it easier to get into a habit.
  • Try to practice your breathing exercises for 10 to 20 minutes per day.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Biofeedback: “Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method.”

Buteyko Breathing Association: “Buteyko Practice Diary and Quick Reference Guide.”

Carleton: “Breathing Exercises.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Diaphragmatic Breathing.”

Frontiers in Psychiatry: “Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response.”

Mayo Clinic: “Insomnia.”

University of Florida and UF Health: “Box Breathing.”

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