After a day of busy commutes, back-to-back meetings and a whirl of social engagements, it can be hard to switch off from the day’s stresses and point your mind in the direction of sleep.
In fact, a survey by online sleep improvement programme Sleepio found that a ‘racing mind’ was the main cause of sleeplessness in the UK, with as many as 82% of respondents saying they were kept awake by ruminations on the day’s events and anticipation of what tomorrow holds.
So when, in 2015, a Harvard-trained doctor revealed a new ‘trick’ that could induce a relaxed mind and allegedly send you off to sleep in as little as 60 seconds, it’s little wonder it hit the headlines and went viral on our social feeds.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique
For those who didn’t catch the hype the first time around, the ‘4-7-8 breathing technique’ was adapted from an ancient yogic practice and championed by Dr Andrew Weil, holistic health author, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center (and something of a celebrity doctor in the US).
According to Dr Weil, the technique works by filling the lungs with air and allowing more oxygen to circulate around the body to promote a state of calm.
Demonstrating the technique in a video on his YouTube channel, Dr Weil claims it promotes “a very pleasant altered state of consciousness”, and a “sense of internal relaxation” that will become profound if you practise it at least twice a day religiously for six to eight weeks.
“It will become a wonderful way to help you fall asleep,” he says. “If you get up in the middle of the night, get back in bed, do this, it will help you get back to sleep.”
How it works...
Dr Weil explains: “[The technique] comes from yoga, and in yoga breathing you’re asked to keep your tongue in the yogic position, which is touching the tip of your tongue to the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth. Touch it lightly and keep it there.”
Although he says the exercise can be done in any position, if you’re doing it seated, he recommends sitting with your back straight and your feet touching the floor.
Here’s how to do it...
- Let all the air out through your mouth
- Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose quietly to a count of four
- Hold your breath for a count of seven
- Blow air out through your mouth (with a whooshing sound) to a count of eight
- Repeat for a total of four breath cycles
No ‘golden bullet’ for sleep
Breathing techniques have long been linked with the promotion of sleep. A cornerstone of mindfulness meditation practice, focusing on the breath provides an anchor for the mind when it’s overwhelmed by the incessant daily torrent of our thoughts and stresses and research shows it can help fight insomnia.
Studies also show that slow breathing can physically relax the body by slowing the blood pressure and heart rate, allowing the parasympathetic system to override the sympathetic system.
But can a breathing technique really be a miracle cure when it comes to beating insomnia and calming a racing mind? We asked John Groeger, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hull.
“If you manage to get yourself to the point of being able to focus on something that isn’t causing you stress, and that you associate with preparing yourself with sleep, that’s probably the best thing you can do because the problem here is not being prepared to sleep,” says Professor Groeger.
“If, say, you’re working, and you decide it’s time to go to bed and you try to try to go to bed immediately, thoughts will still be racing around your head. Focusing on something else, such as breathing, will help to stop you thinking about whatever it is you’re worried about,” he adds.
But if you thought a few deep breaths each night could negate all those late nights and late coffees, he warns that you could be in for a disappointment.
“One easy trick is not going to address these issues: one easy trick is not going to take the caffeine out of your system,” he says.
“I don’t think that any particular technique is magic. There is no golden bullet. I think what it means is that you’re managing to prepare yourself for sleep.”
Though he acknowledges it’s the truth we might not want to hear, Groeger says that positive lifestyle choices and good sleep habits are the key to getting a good night’s sleep. So before you go off and start inhaling to the count of four, we suggest you take a look at our guide to good sleep habits and exposé on the truth about good sleep to be sure you’re not going to sabotage your chances of it working.