4-7-8 Breathing: How to use the technique for sleep or anxiety

The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for four counts, holding that breath for seven counts and breathing out for eight counts, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, Keck Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Southern University from California Faculty of Medicine, via email.

Also known as “relaxing breath,” 4-7-8 has ancient roots in pranayama, which is the yogic practice of breath regulation, but was popularized by integrative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil in 2015.

“What a lot of sleep difficulties are about is people struggling to fall asleep because their mind is racing,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in the division of sleep disorders. and circadians in Brigham and. Boston Women’s Hospital. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you a chance to practice being at peace. And that’s exactly what we need to do before we go to sleep.”

“It doesn’t ‘put you to sleep,’ but it can reduce anxiety to increase the likelihood of falling asleep,” said Joshua Tal, a clinical psychologist in New York State.

How 4-7-8 works

The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any specific equipment or setup, but when you initially learn the exercise, you’ll need to sit with your back straight, according to Weil. Practicing in a quiet, peaceful place could help, Robbins said. Once you get the hang of it, you can use the technique while lying in bed.

Throughout the practice, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth as you exhale through your mouth around your tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a hissing sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth, making a hissing sound for a count of eight.
  • Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breathing cycles.

Maintaining the four-, seven-, and eight-count ratio is more important than the amount of time you spend on each phase, according to Weil.

“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise but keep the (consistent) ratio of the three phases. With practice you can slow everything down and get used to breathing in and out more and more deeply,” advises his web site

What the research shows

When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response, is overactive, leaving you feeling overstimulated and not ready to relax and drift off to sleep, Dasgupta said. “An active sympathetic nervous system can cause a rapid heart rate as well as rapid, shallow breathing.”

Practicing 4-7-8 breathing can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion, which reduces sympathetic activity, she added, putting the body in a state more conducive to restful sleep. Activating the parasympathetic system also gives an anxious brain something to focus on besides “why can’t I sleep?” said Tal.

While proponents may swear by the method, more research is needed to establish clearer links between the 4-7-8 and sleep and other health benefits, he added.

“There is some evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps reduce anxious, depressive and insomnia symptoms when compared before and after the intervention, but to my knowledge there are no large randomized controlled trials specifically on the 4-7-8 breath.” said Tal. “Research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms is generally patchy, with no clear connection 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 among 43 healthy young adults. After participants had these health factors and their fasting blood glucose measured, they performed 4-7-8 breaths for six cycles per set for three sets, interspersed with one minute of normal breathing between each set. Researchers found the technique improved participants’ heart rate and blood pressure, according to a study published in July.
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“If you do 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.”

what to expect

The 4-7-8 technique is relatively safe, but if you’re a beginner, you might feel a little dizzy at first, Dasgupta said.

“Normal breathing is a balance between the inhalation of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide. When this balance is disturbed by exhaling more than inhaling, (this) causes a rapid reduction of carbon dioxide in the body,” he to say. “Low levels of carbon dioxide lead to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduction in blood supply to the brain causes symptoms such as dizziness. This is why it is often recommended to start slowly and practice three to four cycles per hour. a while until you feel comfortable with the technique.”

The more you practice the 4-7-8 technique, the better you’ll be, and the more your body and mind will incorporate it into your regular list of tools 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.
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Unmanaged stress can rear its head in the form of difficulty sleeping, Robbins said. “But when we can 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 victims of the events that happen in our lives.”

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