The 4-7-8 breathing technique: How to fall asleep fast

We all have trouble falling asleep from time to time. There are few things as frustrating as being tired and not being able to drop off to sleep.

You’ve had a nice hot bath, you’ve enjoyed your favorite hot drink, you’ve even dispensed a few drops of lavender on your pillow. Soft, soothing music is playing. No luck. Nothing helps.

This is why you need to know about the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

It’s based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama and was further developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.

It’s a holistic breathing technique that is primarily used to combat stress and anxiety but can be used to help people with their sleeping problems. Stress and anxiety are often the underlying causes of insomnia – the inability to fall or stay asleep.

The breathing technique is surprisingly simple. But it may change your life.

How do you do it?

According to a licensed wellness practitioner, here’s how you do it:

“You simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.”

The wellness practitioner warns that when you try it for the first time, you’ll be desperate to just take in another breath, or you’ll want to speed up your counting. But you should not give in to the temptation.

You must “stick” to the numbers (or at least try to), and don’t take any breaks – in other words, consecutively repeat the 4-7-8 sequence without resuming regular breathing. Keeping this up, you can literally feel your heart rate slow down, your mind get quieter, and your whole body physically relax.

“It washes over you like a calming, relaxing drug. I can never remember getting past the first set of 4-7-8,” says the practitioner.

It’s that simple and it works, but why?

Alina Gonzalez, writing for The Thirty, was told about the 4-7-8 breathing technique by the wellness practitioner and achieved remarkable results.

According to Gonzalez, the studied combination of numbers has a chemical-like effect on the brain that slows the heart rate and helps one to fall asleep.

“It works,” the wellness practitioner told Gonzales. “It’s crazy.” And that’s exactly what happened with Gonzales as well.

“I couldn’t wait to put the trick to the test, and to my complete disbelief, I woke up the next morning unable to even remember getting to the eighth second of the exhale because it knocked me out that fast,” Gonzales enthuses.

I tried it and cured my insomnia

This was enough of a testimonial for yours truly to try it out as I suffer from insomnia on a regular basis. Last night I gave it a short for the first time.

The outcome:

I fell asleep immediately. When I woke up in the middle of the night as I usually do, I did the technique again and fell back asleep.

Not as instantly as at the beginning of the night, but quickly.

Why does it work?

Stress and breathing are inextricably linked. High stress levels lead to shallow breathing and shallow breathing leads to more stress.

When we are upset or stressed our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Breathing deeply and slowly instantly calms us down mentally and physically.

It is not uncommon for people who are stressed or anxious to chronically under-breathe and sometimes even unconsciously hold their breath.

“By extending your inhale to a count of four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, allowing the oxygen to affect your bloodstream by holding your breath for seven seconds, and then emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs by exhaling steadily for eight seconds.

“The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even make you feel slightly lightheaded which contributes to the mild sedative-like effect.

“It will instantly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air,” explains Gonzales.

This breathing exercise is a mindful breathing practice, which has been inherent in yoga practices and Eastern wellness modalities for thousands of years, but has only recently been incorporated in Western thinking and practices.

Forcing the mind and body to regulate the breath

This is really the key point explaining why the 4-7-8 breathing technique is so powerful.

Holding the breath brings our bodies into a deep state of relaxation. It gives the body time to replenish its oxygen, giving your organs and tissues a much-needed oxygen boost.

Relaxation techniques like this one help bring the body back into balance, regulating our fight-or-flight response system.

It’s a way to combat the usually stressful experiencing of lying awake at night, fighting to get back to sleep.

The 4-7-8 technique forces the mind and body to focus on regulating the breath, rather than worrying about not sleeping. Weil describes it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”

According to Healthline, the overall concept of 4-7-8 breathing can be compared to practices such as:

  • Alternate nostril breathing involves breathing in and out of one nostril at a time while holding the other nostril closed.
  • Mindfulness meditation encourages focused breathing while guiding your attention to the present moment.
  • Visualization focuses your mind on the path and pattern of your natural breathing.
  • Guided imagery encourages you to focus on a happy memory or story that will take your mind off your worries as you breathe.

It’s a simple technique, but you can see that it incorporates a number of very powerful elements. Often the best ideas are the simplest ones.

Will you try it?

Have you got enough information to give it a try?

It’s already helped me after trying it for just one night.

Proponents of the 4-7-8 breathing technique insist that it becomes more powerful by doing it repeatedly over time, so I’m excited to continue doing it every night.

I invite you to try it yourself. Let me know in the comments below how it works for you.

Hopefully, you sleep as well as I did last night.

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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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