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Falling asleep or getting over anxiety may never be as easy as 1-2-3, but some experts believe another set of numbers (4-7-8) is much closer to doing the trick.
The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for a count of four, breathing out for a count of seven, and breathing out for a count of eight, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Southern California Keck. School of Medicine, by email.
Also known as “calming breath,” 4-7-8 has ancient roots in pranayama, the yogic practice of regulating the breath, but was popularized by integrative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015.
“A lot of sleep difficulties are caused by people who struggle to fall asleep because their minds are buzzing,” said Rebecca Robbins, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in Brigham’s department of sleep and circadian disorders. Boston Women’s Hospital. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique allow you to practice calmness. And that’s what we have to do before going to bed.”
“It doesn’t ‘put you to sleep,’ but it reduces anxiety to make you more likely to fall asleep,” said Joshua Tal, a clinical psychologist in New York state.
The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any equipment or specific settings, but when you’re first learning the exercise, you should sit with your back straight, according to Weil. Practicing in a quiet, peaceful place can help, Robbins said. You can use the technique while lying in bed.
Throughout the practice, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind the upper front teeth, as you will be pulling it out of your mouth around the tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:
- Breathe completely through the mouth, making a sound.
- Close your mouth and breathe in quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Breathe in through your mouth, making a zulu sound to the count of eight.
- Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breath cycles.
Maintaining a ratio of four, seven, and then eight counts is more important than the amount of time you spend in each phase, Weil says.
“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise but keep the ratio (consistent) for the three phases. With practice, slow everything down and get used to breathing in and out deeper and deeper,” its website advised.
When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response, is overactive, which makes you feel overstimulated and not ready to relax and sleep, Dasgupta said. “An active sympathetic nervous system can cause a rapid heart rate, as well as rapid, shallow breathing.”
The 4-7-8 breathing practice can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system — which is responsible for rest and digestion — which reduces sympathetic activity, he adds, putting the body in a more restful state. Activating the parasympathetic system also gives the anxious brain something to focus on, “why can’t I sleep?” Tal said.
While promoters 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 symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia when comparing pre- and post-intervention, however, there are no large randomized control trials of 4-7-8 breathing to my knowledge,” he said. said Tal. “Research on these symptoms of diaphragmatic breathing (effect) is generally lacking, with no clear link due to the poor quality of the 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. After participants measured these health factors and their fasting glucose, they performed 4-7-8 breaths for six cycles per set in three sets, interspersed with one minute of normal breathing between each set. According to a study published in July, researchers found that the technique improved participants’ heart rate and blood pressure.
“If you’re practicing some of these activities, what we see is an increase in the amplitude of the theta and delta (brain) waves, which indicate that you’re in a 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.”
The 4-7-8 technique is pretty safe, but if you’re a beginner, it might feel a little light at first, Dasgupta said.
“Normal breathing is a balance between inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. When you disrupt this balance where you inhale more than you breathe in, it causes a rapid decrease in carbon dioxide in the body,” he said. “Low carbon dioxide levels narrow the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduced blood supply to the brain causes symptoms such as lightheadedness. Therefore, it is often recommended to start slowly and practice three or 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 add to your tool list 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.
Unmanaged stress can lead to difficulty sleeping, Robbins said. “But when we manage our stress 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 the events that happen in our lives.”