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10 breathing techniques for sleep

Tossing and turning. Staring at the ceiling. Reading a book. Counting sheep. You’ve tried it all and still can’t fall asleep. Whatever the reason behind your sleeplessness, failing to nod off can be a real blight.

Around a third of all adults suffer from some kind of insomnia or sleep difficulty1. So you’re not alone. What can you do about it, though?

There are lots of things that you can introduce into your life that can improve your overall sleep health. But for those moments when you’re actually in bed trying – and failing – to nod off, sleep breathing exercises may just be your most effective tool.

The benefits of sleep breathing exercises

Whether it’s for aiding sleep or generally decreasing anxiety or stress, breathing techniques are impressive in their efficacy2.

Specific types of breath exercise tap into the body’s relaxation response, promoting feelings of calm. You’re effectively asking your system to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and release tension in your abdomen and muscles3.

Breathing in certain ways can soothe the mind and body, lessen any ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline you may still have left over from any of the day’s stress4. It’s also been shown to increase the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin5.

Here are 10 breathing techniques for sleep that have been shown to be effective. Try them and see, perhaps one or more can help ease any sleep woes you may be experiencing…

1. The 4-7-8 technique

This breathing exercise has been called ‘a natural tranquiliser for the nervous system’ by doctors6. Here’s what you need to do to master this sleep breathing technique:

  1. Slightly open your mouth
  2. Fully exhale making a whooshing noise
  3. Close your lips and breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds.
  4. Now hold your breath for 7 seconds
  5. Exhale out of your mouth for 8 seconds (with the same whooshing noise)
  6. Repeat between 5 to 10 times

2. Three-part breathing

This is a nice and simple method designed to help relax your entire body, working well as a breathing technique for sleep:

  1. Take a nice deep breath in.
  2. Exhale, really focusing on your body and how it feels as you breathe out
  3. Repeat, making sure to slow down your exhale each time.
  4. Carry on until your exhale is twice as long as your inhale

3. Diaphragmatic breathing

Breathing exercises for sleep often work by slowing your breathing and allowing you to relax7. Try this diaphragmatic technique:

  1. Lie flat with pillows under your knees
  2. Put one hand flat on your chest and the other on your stomach
  3. Breath deeply through your nose – feel your chest and stomach rise and fall as you breathe
  4. Breathe slowly through pursed lips for 5 minutes

By the end of the 5 minutes, you should no longer see your chest moving with each breath, only your stomach.

4. Alternate nasal breathing

This breathing exercise for sleep may be a little complex — but it’s worth trying.

  1. Sit up with your back straight
  2. Put your right hand in front of your face
  3. Rest your index and middle fingers between your eyebrows
  4. Close your eyes
  5. Breathe deeply in and out through your nose
  6. With your right thumb close your right nostril
  7. Breath in slowly through your left nostril
  8. Close your left nostril with your ring finger
  9. Hold your breath for a few seconds
  10. Open your right nostril and breathe out slowly through your right nostril
  11. Inhale through the right nostril slowly
  12. Hold both nostrils closed again
  13. Open your left nostril and breathe out slowly
  14. Repeat for a few minutes

5. Kapalbhati breathing

Used in yoga, the Kapalbhati technique is an excellent sleep breathing technique as it relaxes the body and primes it for rest8. You need to:

  1. Sit upright
  2. Place your hands on your knees, palms up
  3. Take a deep breath in
  4. Exhale and contract your stomach, forcing your breath out in a very short burst.
  5. Repeat 15-20 times – you’ve completed one round
  6. Relax with your eyes closed and observe the feelings and sensations in your body
  7. Complete another round

6. Box breathing

This breathing exercise, popular in meditation, has been shown to have a calming effect and can be useful for problem sleepers9. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Sit upright
  2. Breathe in deeply
  3. Push all the air out of your lungs while exhaling
  4. Inhale slowly through your nose, counting to 4 in your head
  5. Hold your breath and count to 4
  6. Slowly exhale through your mouth, pushing all the oxygen out of your lungs

7. Buteyko breathing

If you’re aware that your while trying to sleep your breathing techniques are still is a little fast and figure this may be a factor in your sleeplessness, try Buteyko breathing.

    1. Breathe through your nose for about 30 seconds
    2. Now breathe deeper in and out of your nose
    3. Gently pinch your nose closed with your mouth remaining closed. Keep like this until you need to breathe again
    4. Release the grip on your nose and take another deep breath with your mouth closed
    5. Repeat

8. Sitali breath

Now for a slightly unusual method. Sitali breath, also known as ‘cooling breath’ is a useful breathing exercise for sleep as it soothes the mind and cools down the body10

  1. Sit upright in bed and close your eyes
  2. Inhale and exhale naturally for a few seconds
  3. Make an ‘O’ shape with your lips
  4. Curl your tongue round at the sides and poke it out of your mouth ever so slightly
  5. Inhale deeply as though you’re sucking through a straw
  6. Feel the air pass cooling your tongue and throat
  7. Bring your tongue in and close your mouth
  8. Exhale slowly through your nose
  9. Repeat

9. Bhramari pranayama breathing

Shown to reduce heart rate and help calm people down11, this method is simple, although you may feel a little silly trying this sleep breathing technique the first few times:

  1. Shut your eyes
  2. Breathe in and out deeply a few times
  3. Gently place your thumbs in your ears
  4. Place your index and middle fingers over your eyes
  5. Gently apply pressure on the sides of your nose with your ring fingers
  6. Keep your lips closed and breathe in and out slowly – through your nose – making a quiet ‘oooommmm’ sound
  7. Repeat for for 4-5 minutes

10. The Papworth method

This sleep breathing exercise is particularly useful for anyone with asthma or other breathing issues who needs to calm down or is struggling to sleep12.

  1. Sit up straight in bed
  2. Take a deep breath in through your nose for 4 seconds
  3. Breathe out fully through your mouth for 4 seconds
  4. Try to focus on your abdomen as it rises and falls
  5. Repeat for 5 minutes

So the next time you’re struggling to sleep, why not try one or more of these sleep breathing techniques?

Footnotes

  1. Insomnia: What You Need to Know as You Age – John Hopkins Medical
  2. Relaxation Exercises To Help Fall Asleep – Sleep Foundation 
  3. Why slowing your breathing helps you relax – BBC Worklife
  4. Breathing exercises for beating stress and creating calm – Education Support
  5. Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep – Frontiers in Neurology, Ravindra P. Nagendra, Nirmala Maruthai and Bindu M. Kutty
  6. What Is the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique? – Healthline
  7. The 9 Best Breathing Techniques for Sleep – Healthline
  8. The 9 Best Breathing Techniques for Sleep – Healthline
  9. How Box Breathing Can Help You Destress – Cleveland Clinic
  10. 10 Breathing Techniques for Stress Relief and More – Healthline
  11. Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate – Nepal Medical College Journal, T Pramanik, B Pudasaini, R Prajapati
  12. Integrated breathing and relaxation training (the Papworth method) for adults with asthma in primary care: a randomised controlled trial – Thorax, Elizabeth A Holloway & Robert J West