4-7-8 Breathing: How to Use the Technique for Sleep or Anxiety

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

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

“Most sleep difficulties are people who have trouble falling asleep because their mind is buzzing,” said Rebecca Robbins, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in the division of sleep and circadian disorders. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Boston. “But drills like the 4-7-8 technique give you an opportunity to practice being at peace. And that’s exactly what we need to do before we go to bed.”

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

How 4-7-8 works

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

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

  • Exhale completely through your mouth making a breath sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose for a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth making a breath sound for a count of eight.
  • Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breath cycles.

According to Weil, sticking to the ratio of four, then seven, then eight counts is more important than how much time you spend on each phase.

“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise but keep the ratio (consistent) for all three phases. With practice, you can slow everything down and get used to inhaling and exhaling deeper and deeper,” recommends its website.

What the research shows

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

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

Although 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 evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia symptoms when compared before and after the intervention, however, there are no large randomized controlled trials specifically on the breathing 4-7-8 to my knowledge,” Tal said. “Research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms in general is patchy, with no clear link due to the poor quality of studies.”

A team of researchers based in Thailand studied the immediate effects of 4-7-8 breathing on heart rate and blood pressure in 43 healthy young adults. Once participants had these health factors and their fasting blood sugar levels measured, they performed 4-7-8 breathing 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.
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“If you do some of these activities, what we see is (an) increase in theta and delta (brain) wave amplitude, which indicates that 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 lung function.”

What to expect

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

“Normal breathing is a balance between breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. When you upset this balance by exhaling more than you inhale, (it) causes a rapid reduction of carbon dioxide in the body,” did he declare. “Low levels of carbon dioxide lead to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduced blood supply to the brain leads to symptoms such as dizziness. 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 will become, and the more your body and mind will incorporate it into your regular list of stress and anxiety management tools, Dasgupta says. Some people combine this method with other relaxation practices such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness, or meditation.
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Unmanaged stress can show up in the form of difficulty sleeping, Robbins said. “But when we can manage our stresses throughout the day (and) implement some of these breathing techniques, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat instead of being a victim of events happening in our lives. .”


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