6 Breathing Exercises for Better Sleep

Getting enough good sleep is important for feeling good and staying healthy. Many people in the United States don’t sleep enough. About one-third sleep less than seven hours a night, and nearly half have trouble falling or staying asleep.

Breathing exercises can help manage stress and relax before bed. They’re simple and easy to do. Like other healthy habits, practicing breathing exercises takes time and effort.

In this article, you’ll learn some exercises that can be incorporated into your bedtime routine to improve your sleep.

Breathing Techniques for Sleep

If you want to improve your sleep quality, try one of these techniques:

1. Belly Breathing

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a simple yet effective technique that can help calm the mind and body, making it easier to fall asleep. This method focuses on deep, slow breaths that engage the diaphragm, allowing for maximum oxygen intake and promoting a state of relaxation.  It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response.

How to do it:

  1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. If lying down, you may place a pillow under your knees for support.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, just below your rib cage.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose, ensuring that the hand on your belly rises higher than the one on your chest. This indicates that you are filling the lower part of your lungs.
  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth or nose, feeling the hand on your belly lower as you release air.
  5. Repeat this process for several minutes, focusing on the rise and fall of your belly.

Belly breathing works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ response. This contrasts with the sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which is often activated during stress. By focusing on deep, slow breaths, belly breathing helps to reduce stress and anxiety, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and prepare the body for sleep.

2. Bhramari Pranayama Breathing

Bhramari Pranayama, or the Humming Bee Breath, is a yogic breathing technique that involves making a humming sound during exhalation. This practice is known for its immediate calming effects on the mind, making it beneficial for those struggling with sleep due to stress or anxiety.

It works by inducing a meditative state that overrides the sympathetic nervous system, thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This shift from a state of stress (‘fight or flight’) to relaxation (‘rest and digest’) helps to calm the mind, reduce anxiety and stress levels, and lower heart rate and blood pressure.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with a straight back and closed eyes.
  2. Place your index fingers on the cartilage between your cheek and ear. You may gently press this cartilage with your fingers.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose.
  4. As you exhale, make a humming sound like a bee, gently pressing the cartilage. This creates a resonating vibration.
  5. Repeat this process for 5 to 9 cycles, focusing on the sound and vibration produced during exhalation.

3. Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as four-square breathing or square breathing, is a simple yet effective method to calm the mind and reduce stress. By focusing on equal timing for all four parts of the breath (inhale, hold, exhale, hold), it promotes relaxation and calmness.

This technique is beneficial for managing anxiety, improving emotional resilience, and enhancing the physical mechanics of breath. It activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps in achieving a relaxed state conducive to sleep.

How to do it:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  4. Hold again for 4 seconds before beginning the next cycle.
  5. Practice this pattern for a few minutes before bed, adjusting the timing as needed to suit your comfort level.

4. 4-7-8 Breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is based on an ancient yogic method called pranayama and was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It helps control your breathing, bringing the body into a state of deep relaxation. This technique is particularly effective for calming the mind and reducing anxiety, which can interfere with sleep. It has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure, preparing the body for sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

How to do it:

  1. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound.
  4. Repeat this cycle for four full breaths to start, gradually increasing to eight full breaths over time.

5. Guided Imagery

Guided Imagery is a relaxation technique that involves visualizing calming and peaceful images in your mind, which can help reduce stress and anxiety, factors that often interfere with sleep. This method leverages the brain’s power to influence the body and emotions through vivid mental images. That way, you can shift the body’s response away from stress and towards relaxation, making it easier to fall asleep and improve sleep quality. 

How to do it:

  1. Choose a comfortable and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
  2. Lie down or sit comfortably. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly to induce physical relaxation.
  3. Imagine a serene setting, such as a beach, forest, or mountain. Focus on the details within this scene—the sounds, the smells, and the sensations.
  4. Enhance the visualization by imagining the touch of the wind, the smell of trees, or the sound of waves. The more vivid the sensory experience, the more immersive the imagery.
  5. Continue to breathe deeply and allow yourself to feel more relaxed with each breath.
  6. After spending 10-20 minutes in your peaceful scene, slowly bring your awareness back to the present and open your eyes.

6. Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Nadi Shodhana, is a yogic breathing technique that helps calm the mind and body. It is believed to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain, harmonizing the physical, mental, and emotional states. This balance can be particularly beneficial for sleep, as it promotes relaxation and reduces stress levels.

How to do it:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight and shoulders relaxed.
  2. Place your right thumb on your right nostril and your ring finger on your left nostril. Your index and middle fingers can rest on your forehead.
  3. Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly through the left nostril.
  4. Close your left nostril with your ring finger, open your right nostril, and exhale slowly through the right nostril.
  5. Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril.
  6. Close the right nostril with your thumb, open the left nostril, and exhale through the left nostril.
  7. Repeat this pattern for several minutes, focusing on your breath and the flow of air through your nostrils.

How to Add Breathing Exercises to Your Bedtime Routine

To effectively incorporate breathing exercises into your bedtime routine, which can enhance relaxation and improve sleep quality, follow these steps:

  1. Establish a Pre-Sleep Ritual: Integrate breathing exercises into a nightly routine to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down. This could involve dimming the lights, turning off electronic devices, and engaging in a calming activity like reading or listening to soft music before beginning your breathing exercises.
  2. Choose a Comfortable Position: While you can perform breathing exercises in any posture, finding a comfortable position is crucial. Many find lying on their back with a small pillow under their knees or sitting up with their back supported against a wall to be effective.
  3. Start with Simple Techniques: If you are new to breathing exercises, begin with simpler methods such as the 4-7-8 technique or box breathing. These are easy to remember and don’t require much time, making them ideal for beginners.
  4. Use Guided Breathing Apps: Consider using apps like Headspace or Calm, which offer guided breathing exercises. These can be especially helpful if you find it difficult to maintain focus or are looking for a variety of exercises.

Breathing exercises work better with regular practice. Setbacks are normal when you start a new habit, so be persistent. Make sure you do these exercises each night, and recommit to your goals if you have to.

Need professional help to diagnose and address your sleep problems? Schedule an online consultation with sleep specialist Dr. John Williams.

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