The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for four counts, holding that breath for seven counts and exhaling for eight counts, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, via email.
Also known as the “relaxing breath,” 4-7-8 has ancient roots in pranayama, which is the yogic practice of breath regulation, but was popularized by integrative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015.
“What a lot of sleep difficulties are all about is people who struggle to fall asleep because their mind is buzzing,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist in the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you the opportunity to practice being at peace. And that’s exactly what we need to do before we go to bed.”
“It does not ‘put you to sleep,’ but rather it may reduce anxiety to increase likelihood of falling asleep,” said Joshua Tal, a New York state-based clinical psychologist.
How 4-7-8 works
The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any equipment or specific setting, but when you’re initially learning the exercise, you should sit with your back straight, according to Weil. Practicing in a calm, quiet place could help, said Robbins. Once you get the hang of it, you can use the technique while lying in bed.
During the entire practice, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth, as you’ll be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:
- Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and quietly inhale through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth, making a whoosh sound for a count of eight.
- Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breath cycles.
“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep the ratio (consistent) for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply,” his website advised.
When you’re stressed out, your sympathetic nervous system – responsible for your fight-or-flight response – is overly active, which makes you feel overstimulated and not ready to relax and transition into sleep, Dasgupta said. “An active sympathetic nervous system can cause a fast heart rate as well as rapid and shallow breathing.”
The 4-7-8 breathing practice can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for resting and digesting – which reduces sympathetic activity, he added, putting the body in a state more conducive to restful sleep. Activating the parasympathetic system also gives an anxious brain something to focus on besides “why am I not sleeping?” 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 anxious, depressive and insomniac symptoms when comparing pre- and post-intervention, however, there are no large randomized control trials specifically on 4-7-8 breathing to my knowledge,” Tal said. “The research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms in general is spotty, with no clear connection due to the poor quality of the studies.”
“If you’re practicing some of these activities, what we do see is (an) increase in the amplitude of theta and delta (brain) waves, which indicate one is in the parasympathetic state,” Robbins said. “Slow breathing like the 4-7-8 technique reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and improves pulmonary function.”
The 4-7-8 technique is relatively safe, but if you’re a beginner, you could feel a little lightheaded at first, Dasgupta said.
“Normal breathing is a balance between breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. When you upset this balance by exhaling more than you inhale, (it) causes a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body,” he said. “Low carbon dioxide levels lead to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduction in blood supply to the brain leads to symptoms like lightheadedness. This is why it is often recommended to start slowly and practice three to four cycles at a time until you are comfortable with the technique.”
The more you practice the 4-7-8 technique, the better you’ll become, and the more your body and mind will incorporate it into your usual roster 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.
Critics by Daily Health Wire
Most people experience short term insomnia at some time. Insomnia includes having trouble falling asleep, having trouble getting back to sleep, and waking up too early. Insomnia is more common in females, people with a history of depression, and in people older than 60. Temporary insomnia can be caused by:
- Hearing a noise
- A stressful event like the loss of a job or a death in the family or even catastrophic world events
- Certain medications could keep you awake, particularly those that treat colds and allergies, heart disease, high blood pressure, and pain
- Bad habits that sabotage our sleep including drinking alcohol and eating too close to bedtime
Feeling tired every now and then during the day is normal. But it is not normal for sleepiness to interfere with your routine activities. For example, you shouldn’t be dozing off while reading the newspaper, during business meetings, or while sitting at a red light. Slowed thinking, trouble paying attention, heavy eyelids, and feeling irritable are other warning signs.
If you’re feeling sleepy frequently during the day, you might simply need to make more time to sleep. Experts say that most adults need at least eight hours of sleep every night to be well rested, but this varies from person to person. The bottom line is that you should sleep for the number of hours it takes for you to feel rested, refreshed, and fully alert the next day. If you’ve had a good sleep, you shouldn’t feel drowsy during the day. Naps can be good, but the American
Snoring is noisy breathing during sleep that occurs when relaxed structures in the throat vibrate and make noise. Most snoring is harmless, though it can be a nuisance that interferes with the sleep of others. Some snoring can be stopped with lifestyle changes such as:
- Losing weight
- Cutting down on smoking and alcohol
- Changing sleeping positions. This generally means keeping snorers off their backs and on their sides as a way to keep the airway more open during sleep.
There are over the counter nasal strips that are placed over the nose to widen the space in the nose and make breathing easier. Read labels carefully because these strips are only intended to treat snoring. The labels point out certain symptoms that require a doctor’s care.
First, is it helpful to understand the stages of sleep. We usually pass through five stages of sleep.
- Stage 1: Light sleep. We drift in and out and can be awakened easily. Our eyes move slowly and muscle activity slows.
- Stage 2: Our eye movements stop and our brain waves become slower with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles.
- Stage 3: Deep sleep. Extremely slow brain waves called delta waves appear, interspersed with smaller, faster waves.
- Stage 4: Deep sleep. The brain produces mostly delta waves. There are no eye movements and no muscle activity.
- Stage 5: REM sleep. Breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow. Eyes jerk rapidly, limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Dreams almost always happen in this stage, but may occur in other sleep stages as well.
If consistently applying these tips doesn’t work, see your health care professional and discuss your sleep problems. It is important to make sure that your sleep problems are not caused by a serious physical illness. You should also review the medications you are taking to make sure that they are not causing your sleep problems. Last, but not least, there are medications that can help you sleep that are safe when prescribed by a physician and taken as directed.