In our fast-paced, modern lives, quality sleep has become a luxury for many. We toss and turn, struggling to find tranquillity amid the chaos of our thoughts. But what if there was a simple, natural way to unlock the gateway to restful sleep? Enter the hidden secret: self-regulation of breathing. In this article, we will explore how conscious control of our breath can switch on the parasympathetic mode, facilitating relaxation and creating the ideal conditions for deep sleep.

Why is the regulation of breathing important for sleep? 

Our autonomic nervous system has two primary modes: the sympathetic mode, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, and the parasympathetic mode, often referred to as ‘rest and digest’. These modes represent two ends of a spectrum: stress versus relaxation. Falling asleep is impossible when we are trapped in the grip of the sympathetic mode, as our bodies are primed for action rather than rest.

The breath-relaxation connection

Have you ever noticed how your breath changes when you’re stressed or anxious? It becomes shallow, rapid and irregular. This shift is no coincidence; it is the body’s instinctive response to stress. When we are stressed, our breath becomes compromised, disrupting the delicate balance within our physiology. As a result, our heart rate increases, our muscles tense up, and our minds race with worries. To restore harmony and pave the way for sleep, we must regain control of our breath.

The oxygen mask analogy

Consider a scenario in a hospital emergency room. When a trauma patient is rushed in, the first line of action is often to administer oxygen. Why? Because in moments of extreme physical stress, the body’s breath is the first element to fall out of balance. By providing oxygen, medical professionals help the patient regain control over their breathing, kick-starting the process of rebalancing the body. We can apply this principle to our everyday lives by understanding the vital role breath plays in managing stress and promoting relaxation.

Ways to self-regulate your breathing 

Belly/Abdominal/Diaphragmatic Breathing: All mean the same. When we are born, we instinctively use our diaphragm to breathe deeply into our bellies. Watch a baby sleep, and you’ll notice their little bellies rise and fall with each breath. However, as we grow older and encounter stress and tension, our breath tends to shift to shallow chest breathing. This type of breathing is associated with the fight-or-flight response, triggering anxiety and hindering relaxation.

By reverting to belly breathing, we tap into our body’s natural mechanism for relaxation. It engages the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs, and encourages a slower, more soothing breath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calm and facilitating deep sleep.

So, the next time you find yourself struggling to relax or fall asleep, remember the balloon analogy and embrace the simplicity of belly breathing. Let your breath become your guide, leading you to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

Place one hand on your abdomen and take slow, deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation. This technique activates the diaphragm, leading to a sense of calmness and promoting relaxation.

Left nostril breathing: This practice is believed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and induce a state of relaxation.

Here’s how one can practice it: 

  • Find a comfortable seated position.
  • Relax and centre yourself with closed eyes or a soft gaze.
  • Use your right hand and place your index and middle fingers between your eyebrows.
  • Close your right nostril with your right thumb.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril.
  • Close your left nostril with your ring finger and pinky finger.
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your right nostril.
  • Release your right nostril and inhale through it.
  • Close your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril.
  • Repeat the alternating pattern for several minutes.
  • Gradually extend the duration as you become more comfortable.
  • End the practice by returning to normal, relaxed breathing.

Vibrational breathwork: Experiment with techniques such as Bhramari, also known as ‘bee breath’, or Omkar breathing. By tying vibrations, created through humming or chanting, with breath, you can experience a profound sense of tranquillity and mental stillness. Here’s a simple way to chant Om. 

  • Find a comfortable seated position.
  • Relax and centre yourself with closed eyes or a soft gaze.
  • Take a deep breath through your nose.
  • Exhale while vocalising the sound “Om” (pronounced as “aum”).
  • Chant at a comfortable and steady pace.
  • Focus on the vibration and resonance of the sound.
  • Allow the sound to resonate throughout your body.
  • Continue chanting for a desired duration, such as a few minutes.
  • Observe the sense of tranquillity and mental stillness that arises.
  • Gradually increase the duration of your chanting practice over time.
  • Conclude the practice by taking a few moments of silent reflection.

Box breathing: This technique helps regulate the breath, calm the mind, and prepare the body for sleep.

Here are the steps for box breathing.

  • Find a comfortable seated position or lie down.
  • Relax your body and mind, and close your eyes if it feels comfortable.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose to a count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of four.
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your nose or mouth to a count of four.
  • Hold your breath again for a count of four.
  • Repeat the cycle for several rounds, maintaining the same count for each phase.
  • Focus on the rhythmic pattern of inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding.
  • Keep your breath smooth, controlled, and even throughout the practice.
  • Gradually increase the duration of each count as you become more comfortable.
  • Practice box breathing for a few minutes or longer, depending on your preference.
  • Conclude the practice by taking a few moments of relaxed, natural breathing.

To fully harness the benefits of self-regulated breathing, it is essential to integrate it into daily routine. Set aside a few minutes for intentiosnal breathwork and make it a part of your bedtime ritual. Find a quiet space, free from distractions, and explore the techniques that resonate with you. Gradually, you will develop a profound connection with your breath, empowering you to regulate your emotions, manage stress, and pave the way for deep, rejuvenating sleep.

Luke Coutinho practices in the field of holistic nutrition and integrative and lifestyle medicine. He is the pioneer and founder of the Luke Coutinho signature You Care Wellness Program.

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