3 deep breathing exercises for better sleep and quick relaxation

Breathing exercises are one of the best relaxation techniques. fizkes/Getty Images

One of the best ways to help yourself fall asleep is also one of the simplest: just breathe.

Most breathing exercises for sleeping involve some form of slow, deep breaths. This gives you something to focus on, which can be especially helpful for someone who has trouble falling asleep because of a wandering mind.

The rhythm of breathing can also help calm and relax your body. Essentially, breathing exercises are relaxation techniques, and they can be used to calm anxiety, manage stress, or prepare for sleep.

“Relaxation helps to reduce stress hormones, which block melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep,” says Claire Barker RPSGT, CCSH, a clinical sleep specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Centre’s Sleep Program.

Here are three breathing exercises that can help facilitate sleep:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Your diaphragm is the large muscle at the base of your lungs that is primarily responsible for breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing creates negative pressure in your pleural cavity, the space in the lining of the lungs. When this pressure is negative, it increases blood flow to the heart, decreasing your heart rate and helping you feel calm and relaxed.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Focus on your belly. To begin diaphragmatic breathing, focus on breathing into your belly, rather than your chest. It may be helpful to put your hand on your belly so you can feel it rise and fall. You can do this lying down or sitting up.
  2. Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds before releasing. Imagine the air filling up your abdomen, then travelling out your airways, over and over.
  3. Slowly repeat. Continue this pattern for 5 to 10 minutes, or however long it takes you to feel ready for sleep.

Barker says this exercise also helps reduce somatic tension – the physical symptoms of anxiety – which can interfere with sleep. This can include a racing heart rate, heavy breathing, or feelings of tension – which are also some of the symptoms associated with a panic attack or anxiety attack.

In a randomised, controlled trial published in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, adults who practiced diaphragmatic breathing for at least 10 minutes twice a day for 8 weeks reported lower anxiety levels, as measured by a common survey called the Beck Anxiety Inventory.

2. Body scan

A body scan is a type of mindfulness meditation that has been shown to improve sleep. The technique combines focusing on your breath with relaxing your muscles.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Get in position. If your goal is sleep, you may want to lay down in bed. However, there are many different postures for meditation, so choose what is most comfortable for you.
  2. Scan through your body, noticing how it feels.Traditionally, body scan meditations start from the head and work down toward the toes, or vice versa.
  3. When you notice an area of tension, direct your breath to that spot. See if you can feel the tension leave and the body part relax. If your attention wanders, just notice it and bring it back to the sensations in your body.

Researchers have found that body scans can reduce stress, promote relaxation, and improve sleep quality. For example, a 2020 study of 54 teenagers being treated for insomnia found that doing a 20-minute body scan before bed helped them sleep longer and wake less frequently during the night.

3. 4-7-8 breathing

Some medical experts attest to the relaxation benefits of 4-7-8 breathing, a technique that involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds.

In fact, it’s been called a “natural tranquilizer” by Andrew Weil, MD, the founder of the Andrew Weil Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. The method is also cited to help facilitate sleep by organisations like the Alaska Sleep Clinic and the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four. Weil says to keep your tongue against the top of your mouth, just behind your upper front teeth.
  2. Then, hold that breath for a count of seven.If seven seconds feels too long, you can cut it in half, as long as you keep the 4:7:8 ratio. You could breathe in for two seconds, hold for three and a half and breath out for four.
  3. Finally, exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. When you exhale, make a “whoosh” sound.

4-7-8 breathing is a type of pranayama, the term for the slow, controlled, deep breathing taught in yoga and other eastern traditions. Pranayama breathing can help lower both your blood pressure and your heart rate, which facilitates relaxation and can help you fall asleep.

In a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 39 adults were asked to do a pranayama technique similar to 4-7-8 breathing. While sitting, they breathed in through their nose for four seconds and then exhaled slowly for six seconds for a total of five minutes. Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure decreased significantly, and heart rate dropped slightly.

The bottom line

Slow, deep breaths calm both your body and mind, making it easier to fall and stay asleep. These breathing exercises are a good place to start.

You can do them right before bed, or when you wake up during the night. You can also do them during the day, to help relax and calm yourself. In addition, you may want to try one of the many types of meditation to promote even more relaxation throughout your day.

Lowering your stress level throughout the day, through breathing exercises or meditation, will lower your cortisol levels which will help you sleep.

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