The 4-7-8 Method That Can Help You Sleep (and Anxiety)

(CNN Spanish) — Falling asleep or recovering from an anxiety attack may be easy with a 1-2-3 count, but some experts believe a different set of numbers — 4-7-8 — may be an even better solution.

The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and breathing out for a count of eight, explained Dr. Raj Dasgupta, associate clinical professor at the school of Medicine Keck of the University of Southern California, by email.

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

“A lot of sleep problems are because people are trying to sleep, but their minds are buzzing,” said Rebecca Robbins, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Boston Women’s hospital. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you a chance to practice calmness. And that’s exactly what we should do before we go to bed.”

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“It doesn’t ‘put you to sleep,’ but instead reduces anxiety to increase the chances of falling asleep,” explained Joshua Tal, a clinical psychologist in New York state.

How 4-7-8 works

The 4-7-8 method requires no special equipment or preparation, but it is recommended that you sit upright when learning the exercise, according to Weil. Practicing in a calm and quiet place can help, Robbins said. Once the technique is mastered, it can be worked on while lying in bed.

During the practice, the tip of the tongue should be placed against the edge of the tissue behind the upper front teeth while exhaling through the mouth around the tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whistling sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale calmly through your nose, mentally counting to four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth making a whistling sound as you count to eight.
  • Repeat the process three more times for a total of four breathing cycles.

Maintaining the ratio of four, then seven, then eight is more important than the time you spend in each phase, according to Weil.

“If you find it difficult to hold your breath, speed up the exercise, but keep the ratio (constant) of the three phases. With practice, you can slow down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply,” advised the specialist website..

4-7-8 is a technique for reducing anxiety and falling asleep

What the research shows

When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system (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.”

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

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

“There is some evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia compared before and after the intervention; however, to my knowledge, there are no large randomized controlled trials specifically for 4-7-8 breathing, Tal said. “Research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms is generally patchy, with no clear link due to the poor quality of the research.”

A team of researchers from Thailand examined the immediate effects of 4-7-8 breathing on heart rate and blood pressure in a group of 43 healthy young adults. After the participants received these health factors and measured their fasting blood glucose, they performed 4-7-8 breaths for six cycles in three sets, interspersed with one minute of normal breathing between each set. Researchers found that the technique improved participants’ heart rate and blood pressure, according to a study published in July.

“If you’re doing some of these activities, what we see is (an) increase in theta and delta (brain) wave amplitude, which indicates you’re in a parasympathetic state,” Robbins said. “The slow breathing of the 4-7-8 technique reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and improves lung function,” he added.

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 inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. When this balance is disturbed by exhaling more than inhaling, this leads to a rapid decrease in carbon dioxide in the body,” he explained. “Low levels of carbon dioxide cause the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain to narrow. This reduction in blood supply to the brain causes symptoms such as dizziness. That’s why it’s often recommended to start slow and practice three to four cycles until you feel comfortable with the technique.

The more you practice the 4-7-8 technique, the better it will get, and the more tools your body and mind will have to manage stress and anxiety, Dasgupta said. Some people combine this method with other relaxation practices such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, attentiveness or meditation.

Uncontrolled stress can manifest early as difficulty sleeping, Robbins said. “But when we can manage our stress throughout the day (and) apply 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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