Try These 5 Simple Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Struggling to nod off? Or waking up a few hours into your beauty sleep only to have difficulty slipping back into a slumber? Either way, sleep loss sucks.
Because roughly 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation — and even more are prone to having a few off nights — finding sleep solutions has been a massive trend as of late. But before you dive into supplements and prescriptions, have you tried breathing exercises for sleep? It may sound flippant, but this is an expert-backed solution that could save you time, money, and yes, lost sleep.
"Sometimes when someone is struggling to fall asleep, it could be because of stress and overthinking," says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a psychologist whose expertise is performance psychology. "In turn, practicing some breathing exercises can help them unwind and fall asleep faster." (See also: Could Sleep Anxiety Be to Blame for Your Tiredness?)
Ahead, a complete breakdown of how breathing exercises for sleep can help you, and how to harness the power of breath to sleep better, deeper, and more consistently.
How Breathing Exercises Can Help You Sleep
Now, you might be wondering, "I'm already breathing all the time, what makes this any different?" And, honestly, that's a valid question. But the magic is actually in how you breathe.
"Deep breathing exercises can physiologically calm you down by lowering heart rate, releasing muscle tension, and changing skin conductance, which will help lower your sense of fight or flight," says Perlus. (Skin conductance is a phenomenon in which your skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity in response to physiologically arousing stimuli.)
Deliberately slowing down and deepening your breathing "activates your parasympathetic nervous system to reset and rejuvenate your brain," says Smita Patel, D.O., integrative neurology and sleep physician. Quick refresher: The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body's rest and digest response (e.g. reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and relaxing muscles). The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is what people associate with fight or flight mode, which typically involves a racing heart rate, quickened breathing, and tightened muscles — all of which can make shut-eye feel damn near impossible.
This is why consciously slowing down your breath can be particularly essential for sleep — it's essentially your body's physiological cue to rest.
"Your breathing pattern is a powerful piece of data for the brain because you are doing it constantly. If your breathing tends to be shallow, frequent, with a focus on inhalation and short, quick exhalation, the body knows you're stressed. It will serve you by promoting capability to fight, flight, and hide — survival, yes, but not for healing or vitality," explains Dr. Patel. "Only when you're relaxed, safe, and at ease is your breathing able to deepen, slow [down], and allow long steady exhalations with pauses between breaths. The body knows this truth."
So, deep breathing can trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and, in turn, help set up a conducive environment for sleep. But that's not all it can do to help you score some shut-eye. "If your goal is to fall asleep, focusing on the breath is also better than focusing on the important meetings you may have the next day," says psychiatrist and sleep physician Alex Dimitriu, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.
Typically, breathing exercises for sleep (such as the ones below) involve some level of, in Perlus' words, "choreography" or steps to follow. This forces you to stop fixating on the stressors buzzing through your head (and inhibiting your precious beauty sleep) and instead, directs your focus on the breath and, thus, the present. (And, ICYDK, focusing on the present has been linked with lower cortisol or stress levels, which is key for a successful night of zzz's.)
"These exercises can help you focus on something other than what keeps you awake," adds Perlus. Once in a relaxed state through modulated breaths, "you can begin to breathe more normally and effectively and regulate your blood pressure. Altogether, breathing exercises can not only help you fall asleep but eventually regulate your sleep," she explains.
The Best Types of Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Is there one particular way to breathe that's best? Not really, says Dr. Patel. While there are many effective patterns and practices, whatever works for you is the best choice.
"As long as the exhalation phase is long, breathing exercises are effective," agrees Dr. Dimitriu. Here's why: Prolonged exhalation allows the lungs to "squeeze the heart just a bit," adding a little bit of pressure that's "perceived by the heart as a signal to slow down the heartbeat," he explains. And as mentioned above, a slower heartbeat has a calming effect. "Long exhalations may also increase activity in the vagus nerve, which is the body's main mediator of the 'rest and digest' mode, as opposed to the 'fight or flight' mode," adds Dr. Dimitriu.
In addition to practicing breathing techniques for sleep that have a long exhalation phase — "kind of like singing" — you're also going to want to try not to "clock watch" or count seconds too carefully, as doing so will only keep you alert and awake, explains Dr. Dimitriu. (Related: Try These Sleep Affirmations to Score Some Serious Shut-Eye)
5 Simple Breathing Exercises for Sleep
A form of diaphragmatic breathing, this technique involves breathing deeply into (yup!) your belly. As you do so, you should place your hand on your abdomen and "experience your belly expand into your hand on the inhale and contract on the exhale," says Perlus.
"One of the most significant benefits of diaphragmatic breathing most people have experienced is reduced stress," she says. "Belly breathing can aid in reducing anxiety, depression, and stress while also relieving the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization that could be induced by job burnout." And as you well know by now, the more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to fall and stay asleep smoothly. (See more: What Is Belly Breathing and Why Is It Important for Exercise?)
How to Practice:
- Sit or lie down on the ground or the bed in a comfortable position.
- Place one hand below the ribs, so that it's lying flat on your belly, and the other on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through the nose, allowing the belly to push your hand out slowly. Make sure your chest does not move.
- With pursed lips, breathe out as if you were whistling. As you breathe out, you should use the hand on your belly to gently push all the air out as your abdomen goes in.
- Complete this cycle about 3-10 times, taking your time and focusing on each one.
- Once you finish, reflect on how you're feeling now that you've completed the exercise.
Yoga nidra has been helpful for some people to fall asleep, says Dr. Dimitriu. It's similar to meditation, but different in that with yoga nidra, you're lying down and the goal is to "move into a deep state of conscious awareness sleep," which is a deeper state of relaxation with awareness, according to the Cleveland Clinic. With meditation, you're usually sitting up and in a "waking state of consciousness," focusing your and letting thoughts come and go.
Yoga nidra is also generally very structured. It doesn't involve consciously controlling your breath, but rather simply becoming aware of your breath so it can slow down and become even.
How to Practice:
- Select a guided yoga nidra video on the app or site of your choice. (Dr. Dimitriu suggests Peloton, Oura, or YouTube. His favorite is this 20-minute yoga nidra video on YouTube.)
- Follow the guidance until you fall asleep.
Sometimes called "box breathing,'" this breathing technique for sleep is another recommendation from Dr. Dimitriu. "Square breathing gives you something physical to focus on, and counting the seconds and synchronizing the breath can have a grounding effect and reduce the wandering of the mind," he explains. "In square breathing, the prolonged exhalation phase also results in the lungs pushing on the heart a bit, which in turn, makes the heart beat more slowly," thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system to help you fall asleep.
How to Practice:
- Breathe in for four counts.
- Hold for four counts.
- Exhale for four counts.
- Rest for four counts.
- Repeat, continuing for as long as you wish or until you drift off to sleep.
Breathing in a 4-7-8 second pattern is a favorite of both Dr. Patel and Dr. Dimitriu. The technique came from Andrew Weil, M.D., who developed it as "a variation of pranayama, an ancient yogic technique that helps people relax as it replenishes oxygen in the body," says Dr. Patel. It's particularly easy to follow, making it a smart go-to for those who are just starting out with breathing exercises for sleep.
How to Practice:
- Sitting with your back straight, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose for a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for seven counts.
- Exhale completely through your mouth for eight counts.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
"The alternate nasal or alternate nostril breathing exercise is also called nadi shodhana pranayama," says Dr. Patel. "A 2013 study reported that people who tried nasal breathing exercises felt less stressed afterward." And, again, reducing stress will help you chill out and be able to fall asleep. "When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated...your body enters a state of relaxation, and this relaxation is helpful and needed when trying to get to sleep," she adds.
How to Practice:
- Sit with your legs crossed.
- Place your left hand on your knee and your right thumb against the right side of your nose.
- Exhale fully then close the right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril. Then close the left nostril with your ring finger. (If this is uncomfortable, you can use your pointer or middle finger.)
- Open your right nostril and exhale through it.
- Inhale through the right nostril, and then close this nostril with your thumb.
- Open the left nostril, and then exhale through the left side. That's one cycle.
- Continue this rotation for five minutes, finishing by exhaling through your left nostril.