When you're feeling stressed or having trouble sleeping, it can sometimes be difficult to get out of that headspace and calm down. But the solution may be as easy as taking deep breaths in and out in a specific rhythm.
A breathing technique—dubbed the 4-7-8 method—has been growing in popularity in recent years thanks to Andrew Weil, MD, who has been teaching the method since the 1980s.
As the name implies— the technique involves breathing in for four seconds, holding that breath for a count of seven, and then exhaling for eight seconds while making a whooshing sound by placing the tongue behind the front teeth. After four repetitions, a person should ideally feel a sense of calm.
"Over time…after you practice it for six weeks or eight weeks, there is a real shift in the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, resulting in lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, better circulation," Dr. Weil, founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told Health. " It's also the most effective anti-anxiety measure that I've ever come across."
Here's a closer look at how breathing affects our sense of relaxation, how the 4-7-8 method can promote better sleep, and the easiest ways to incorporate it into your daily routine.
The 4-7-8 technique actually comes from pranayama, or yogic, breathing, Dr. Weil explained. Under this umbrella, there are hundreds of other different techniques for controlling breath that promote health or mindfulness in various ways.
This specific type of breathing engages the diaphragm, explained Todd Arnedt, PhD, professor of psychiatry and neurology and director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan. This is the opposite of the kind of breathing we do when we're stressed.
"When we're anxious, we tend to do a lot of short, quick breaths, breathing from our chest," Arnedt told Health. "[4-7-8 breathing] sort of redirects you to breathe from your belly and from your diaphragm. And there are a whole host of positive physiological responses that go along with that breathing and help to put you in that relaxed state."
Some of these positive outcomes from diaphragmatic breathing may include improved cognitive function and lower cortisol, or stress, levels, as well as improved quality of life. For the 4-7-8 method more specifically, research found that the practice can help improve blood pressure and heart rate variability.
It may seem strange that something as simple as breathing can have such a big effect on our health, but the connection between breath and the parasympathetic nervous system is likely why we see so many health benefits from the practice.
"Our autonomic nervous system is made up of two main parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic," Raj Dasgupta, MD, pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine specialist at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told Health. "The sympathetic is going to be our fight or flight per se, and in general, that may increase your heart rate, may increase your breathing. And when you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, we kind of refer to that as a rest and digest."
Breathing in this specific ratio—four seconds in, seven seconds of holding at the top, and eight seconds of exhaling—activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps our body relax, slowing the heart rate, helping with digestion, and lowering stress hormones. Breathing in through your nose and then holding your breath also humidifies and filters the air, and opens up the lungs, Dr. Dasgupta added.
Because it can help relax the body, the 4-7-8 technique can be a good one to incorporate, especially if a person is dealing with stress or has any kind of insomnia.
"As it relates to sleep, we often encourage people to engage in these kinds of practices in the last hour or so before they go to bed, in concert with a good positive, wind down routine," Arnedt said. "This 4-7-8 breathing technique or other mindfulness and relaxation strategies can often be a good part of a good wind down routine—that again, sets the stage for sleep to happen."
Doing this breathing technique can also be useful to help lull a person back to sleep if they wake up in the middle of the night, he added.
Besides making sleeping easier, being able to make your body more relaxed and more ready for sleep should help with a host of other issues as well. Poor sleep quality and not getting enough sleep are linked to a number of health issues—everything from heart disease to depression. Having a simple tool to get you ready for sleep could be a great tool to stay on top of your health.
But the 4-7-8 breathing technique does more than promote sleep, and can be used by anyone at any point throughout the day, Dr. Weil said. It also increases in effectiveness the more that a person does it, so as long as you feel well, "you cannot do it too frequently," Dr. Weil wrote on his website.
"I do it in the morning when I first get up. I do it in the evening when I get into bed to fall asleep, and I do it anytime during the day that I may feel anxious or I want to relax more," he said.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is fairly simple, Dr. Weil explained, which is in part why he recommends it so widely. You can do it standing, lying down or sitting, he explained, though if you're sitting, it's best to sit upright and have both feet on the floor.
"It's also totally simple, it's very time effective. The practice, it just takes a minute or two a day, no equipment," Dr. Weil added. "And it's an utterly simple technique."
Even though it's simple, for some it can take some getting used to.
"You can think of it as a skill. It's probably not something that you're going to be good at right away. It's likely something like practicing the piano or another instrument, or learning how to throw a baseball," Arnedt said. "It's something that's gonna take a little bit of time for you to master and be good at."
For people with underlying heart or lung issues, Dr. Dasgupta added, it can sometimes be challenging to hold their breath for a full 7 seconds. Breathing out for a longer period of time may also feel a bit strange—it expels a lot of CO2 from our lungs, he explained, which can sometimes make us feel lightheaded. The experience has to be tailored to the individual.
"The technique by itself per se, isn't the magic bullet. We definitely encourage people to use this breathing technique with other relaxation techniques," Dasgupta said. "But this is something that is safe for most people."
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