Breathing Key to Falling Asleep Faster

The link between sleep deprivation and overall health has been widely reported. Sleeping consistently makes your immune system function better, helps prevent unhealthy habits like mindless snacking and even aids in better memory. If you have trouble falling asleep, it can hinder your physical and psychological health, but a doctor in Arizona claims that you can breathe your way to better sleep. Dr. Andrew Weil recently touted his 4-7-8 breathing technique, which he says calms the nervous system. Weil claims that the exercise will have you snoozing in 60 seconds or less, but how well does it work in practice? 

The Technique

Inspired by yoga, Dr. Weil’s technique is called 4-7-8 because that is how many seconds you have to perform each step. A video posted to the Dr.’s YouTube page describes the exercise in detail. Essentially, it is done by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and inhaling for 4 seconds while making a “whoosh” sound. Step 2 entails holding that breath for 7 seconds, and Step 3 is to exhale for 8 seconds while continuing to make the “whoosh” sound. Dr. Weil believes that the technique works, because holding your breath allows oxygen to be dispersed in the body, calming the central nervous system and helping you to fall asleep.

Deep Breathing

This technique is not far fetched, since many doctors have suggested deep breathing exercises for insomnia. The Sleep Foundation recommends breathing exercises frequently on its website. According to Livestrong, “Deep breathing exercises serve two purposes: They calm the central nervous system and act as a meditation to quiet the mind.” Breathing techniques are central to meditative practices and other mindfullness practices such as yoga and Pilates as well. The science behind the 4-7-8 technique is sound, and Dr. Weil has spent much of his career touting an integrated medical approach, which combines traditional medicine with more non-traditional practices. 

4-7-8 in Practice

There are many medications on the market to treat insomnia, including Doxylamine and Pentobarbital, which have proven effective in helping people fall and stay asleep. However, there are side effects and risks associated with any medication, and people who are taking more than one medication are often concerned about interactions. In this respect, the 4-7-8 Technique makes perfect sense. It is free, and it relies on your body’s own natural processes, so there is no risk of side effects, except maybe feeling dizzy for a few seconds. 

Although Dr. Weil initially posted his video in 2014, it has been receiving a resurgence in interest following a Daily Mail article on May 6, 2015. Since its initial posting, however, many bloggers and other laypeople have tried the method on for size with mixed results. On the Apartment Therapy blog, Carrie McBride, Managing Editor stated, “This wasn’t an instant success for me. Weil emphasizes that the exercise takes practice so three tries is really just the tip of the relaxation iceberg.” Her blog chronicles a couple of unsuccessful attempts, as well as her initial reservations about putting it into practice.

Brandi Jeter, author of the blog, “Mama Knows it All,” also posted about her experience with the technique. A self-proclaimed sufferer of insomnia, Jeter stumbled upon 4-7-8 through Facebook. In her post, she states, “As a former actor, I used to do breathing exercises a lot during warmups for shows or in class. I’m pretty aware of my breathing, and know that I’m often not taking in full breathes, but rather doing a lot of shallow breathing.” Jeter’s experience with the method was positive. She advised that she didn’t know exactly how long it took her to fall asleep, but the technique left her feeling more rested. 

The Bottom Line

From anecdotal evidence, it appears that the 4-7-8 Technique doesn’t help everyone fall asleep in exactly 60 seconds or less. For some, it takes longer, and for others, it didn’t quiet their mind as much as they had hoped. However, deep breathing has long been regarded as a successful method for calming anxiety and helping with sleep disorders. Also, the technique helps stimulate the processes that help your body fall asleep. If you have trouble sleeping, it is definitely worth a try. Since it’s not a medication, you won’t run the risk of side effects or drug interactions, and the worst possible result is that you don’t fall asleep as quickly as the method claims.