The 4-7-8 Method That Can Help You Sleep

This breathing technique can help activate your system responsible for resting and digesting

Falling asleep or recovering from anxiety may never be as easy as counting from one to three, but some experts believe that a different set of numbers – 4-7-8 – is much closer to getting results.

The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves inhaling for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and exhaling for a count of eight, said Dr. Raj Dasgupta, professor of medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, via email.

Also known as “relaxing breathing”, the 4-7-8 method has ancient roots in pranayama, which is the practice of breathing regulation in Yoga, but was popularized by integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil, in 2015.

“Many of the difficulties falling asleep occur in people who cannot sleep because their minds are overly active,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate scientist in the department of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But exercises like the 4-7-8 technique give you the opportunity to practice the state of peace. And that’s exactly what we need to do before we go to bed.”

“It doesn’t ‘put you to sleep,’ but it can reduce anxiety to increase your chances of falling asleep,” said Joshua Tal, a clinical psychologist in New York State.

How the 4-7-8 works

The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any specific equipment or setup, but when you start learning the exercise, you should sit with your back straight, according to Weil. Doing it in a quiet, peaceful place can help, Robbins said. Once you are comfortable with the exercise, you can use the technique while lying in bed.

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During the entire workout, place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of the fabric behind your front teeth as you will be exhaling through your mouth, around your tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:

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

Keeping the ratio of counting to four, then to seven and then to eight is more important than the time spent in each phase, according to Weil.

“If you have difficulty holding your breath, speed up the exercise, but keep the ratio (consistent) for the three phases. With practice, you can slow everything down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply”, he advised in his site.

When you feel stressed, your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, is overactive, making you feel overstimulated and not ready to relax and transition to sleep, Dasgupta said. “An active, sympathetic nervous system can cause a rapid heart rate, as well as rapid, shallow breathing.”

What the research shows

The 4-7-8 breathing technique can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for resting and digesting – which reduces sympathetic activity, he added, putting the body in a state more conducive to restful sleep. Activating the parasympathetic system also gives an anxious brain something to focus on other than “why am I not sleeping?” said Tal.

Despite proponents touting the method, more research is needed to establish clearer links between 4-7-8, sleep and other health benefits, he added.

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“There is some evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia when comparing pre- and post-intervention, however, there is not a large randomized control of trials specifically on breathing 4-7-8, as far as I know,” Tal said. “Research on (the effect of) diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms is generally patchy, and does not establish a clear link due to the poor quality of the study.

A team of researchers based in Thailand studied the immediate effects of 4-7-8 breathing on heart rate and blood pressure among 43 healthy young adults. After participants had these health factors and their fasting blood glucose measured, they performed breathing 4-7-8 for six cycles per set 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.

When researchers looked at the effects of breathing techniques like 4-7-8, they saw an increase in theta and delta brain waves, which indicate that the person is in a parasympathetic state, Robbins said. “Slow breathing like the 4-7-8 technique reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and improves lung function.”

The 4-7-8 technique is relatively safe, but if you’re a beginner, you might feel a little dizzy at first, Dasgupta said.

What to expect

“Normal breathing is a balance between breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. When we upset this balance by exhaling more than we inhale, it causes a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body,” he said. “Low carbon dioxide levels lead to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduction in blood supply to the brain causes symptoms such as dizziness. This is why it is often recommended to start slowly and practice three to four cycles of each time until you feel comfortable with the technique.”

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The more you practice the 4-7-8 technique, the better you will become, and the more your body and mind will incorporate it into your usual list of tools for managing stress and anxiety, Dasgupta said. Some people combine this method with other relaxation practices, such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness, or meditation.

Unmanaged stress can manifest itself in difficulty falling asleep, Robbins said. “But when we can manage our stress throughout the day (and) implement some of these breathing techniques, we can put ourselves on the front lines instead of falling victim to events that happen in our lives.