How to Use the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique to (Finally) Fall Asleep

Try the Military Sleep Method to Fall Asleep in Minutes

When you find it challenging to fall asleep, there is a simple breathing technique that can help calm your mind and relax your body within minutes. Known as the 4-7-8 breathing method, this technique was developed by Andrew Weil, M.D., a renowned professor of medicine and public health. Dr. Weil is also the founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique has its roots in the ancient yogic tradition of pranayama, which involves consciously controlling the breath through various patterns and techniques. Yoga and pranayama have been practiced in Eastern cultures for thousands of years and have gained popularity in the Western world since the 1800s. These intentional breathing practices, such as slow breathing, deep belly breathing, and single-nostril breathing, have been utilized to counteract the effects of an overactive sympathetic nervous system (the stress system), regulate anxiety, and induce a state of deep relaxation.

By following the 4-7-8 breathing method, you can experience the benefits of controlled breathing to help ease your mind and promote a sense of tranquility.

How to Do It

The 4-7-8 breathing method can be practiced anytime and anywhere, whether you’re lying in bed, facing a nerve-wracking situation, or seeking relaxation after a tense conversation. Follow these steps to begin:

  1. Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
  2. Hold your breath at the top of the inhale for a count of seven.
  3. Exhale through pursed lips for a count of eight.

To start, Suzanne Bergmann, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Joshua Tal, PhD, and Associates in New York City, recommends repeating this cycle four times. The pause between breaths allows you to focus on slowing down your breath while ensuring that both the inhalation and exhalation are complete. By extending the exhale, you can fully empty your lungs, allowing your body to take in more oxygen with the next inhale.

Bergmann advises against eliminating the pause, as it may lead to quick and shallow breathing or hyperventilation. Initially, it may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable, so practice with gentle breaths rather than forceful ones. If you experience lightheadedness, try adjusting the counting speed, keeping in mind that precise seconds are not necessary.

4-7-8 Breathing Method Benefits

It helps replace unwanted thoughts.

Feeling anxious? Remember that your mind can’t focus on two things simultaneously. That’s where the 4-7-8 breathing exercise comes in handy. By engaging in this simple technique—counting your inhale, breath hold, and exhale—you provide a substitute and diversion from racing or unwanted thoughts. It serves as a mental distraction, allowing you to redirect your attention and find a sense of calm.

It engages your diaphragm, a key breathing muscle.

Engaging in deep and intentional breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 technique can have several benefits. When you practice this exercise, you activate your diaphragm, a crucial muscle located just below your lungs. By fully engaging the diaphragm, you enhance the efficiency of your breathing and even improve your posture. This powerful muscle plays a vital role in the inhalation and exhalation process, making it the key player in the magic of your breath.

It promotes a state of deep relaxation—and helps bring on sleep.

According to sleep physician Cheri D. Mah, M.D., M.S., breathing exercises can have a positive impact on sleep by activating the parasympathetic system and promoting relaxation. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for bringing the body into a state of relaxation, while the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers the fight-or-flight response during times of stress. Both states are important for survival, but maintaining a balance between them is crucial. Unfortunately, many people find themselves trapped in a chronic state of stress without realizing it, which can disrupt their sleep.

By practicing intentional and focused breathing, you can effectively calm and relax your nervous system, leading to a sense of calm in both the body and mind. Research suggests that slow breathing, combined with healthy sleep habits, may be more effective in addressing insomnia than other methods such as hypnosis or medication. So, incorporating breathing exercises into your bedtime routine can be a natural and powerful tool for improving the quality of your sleep.

It helps lower chronic stress, if done consistently.

While it may not be magical, the practice of regulating your nervous system and stress response through techniques like breathing exercises can have profound effects on your overall well-being. It does require practice and consistency, but the benefits are worth it. By reducing stress, you can experience a decrease in anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, improved mood, and a reduction in muscle tension, explains Bergmann. These positive changes can have a significant impact on your overall health and contribute to a greater sense of calm and balance in your daily life.

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