The Breathing Trick That Could Help You Fall Asleep Almost Instantly

One simple breathing technique that takes just over a minute to complete could help you fall asleep faster and get a better night's rest overall, according to experts.

The technique, known as 4-7-8 breathing, was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil—a trained medical doctor and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

Weil developed the technique, which is based on breathing exercises found in yoga, for the purposes of managing stress and anxiety.

But experts told Newsweek the technique can also be useful for people who are having trouble sleeping.

Why can't I fall asleep, even though I'm tired?

Sleep is crucial to our physical and mental health, enabling our body to recover and wake up feeling refreshed.

But large portions of the population don't get sufficient sleep, have poor sleep quality, or have trouble falling asleep as a result of sleep disorders, medical conditions or mental health issues.

According to the American Sleep Association, 50 to 70 million adults in the United States have a sleep disorder, with insomnia being the most common one.

A man sleeping in bed
Stock image: A man sleeping in bed. A simple breathing technique could help you to fall asleep or get a better night's rest. iStock

Around 10 percent of adults suffer from chronic insomnia, while many more suffer short-term issues. Meanwhile around 25 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea—a sleep disorder characterized by repeated obstruction to the airway during sleep.

In addition, 35 percent of adults report getting less than seven hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period—less than the minimum recommend amount.

What is the 4-7-8 breathing technique?

"The 4-7-8 breath that I teach is the most powerful relaxation method that I've discovered," Weil said in a video demonstration of the technique. "It's very simple, requires no equipment, takes very little time, costs nothing."

This is how to practise the technique correctly:

  • Step 1 - Breathe in through your nose quietly to a count of four.
  • Step 2 - Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Step 3 - Blow air out through your mouth audibly and forcefully.
  • Step 4 - Repeat this process for a total of four breath cycles.

The speed with which you do the technique is not necessarily important. What is important is maintaining the 4-7-8 ratio between the counts.

According to Weil, this is a technique that you have to practise regularly—at least twice a day—to benefit from fully.

"You can do it more frequently than twice a day but never more than four breath cycles at one time," Weil said in the video.

According to Weil, it may take four to six weeks before you notice any physiological changes from the practise.

Over time he said it could help to lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve digestion, improve circulation, and to help people fall asleep.

"It is the most effective anti-anxiety techniques that I've found," he said. "I've taught it to patients with the most extreme forms of panic disorder, who eventually brought that under control, just relying on this breathing technique."

Breathing and sleep

According to Patrick McKeown, a leading international expert on breathing and sleep, and author of bestselling books like The Oxygen Advantage, changing our breathing can have a profound impact on our physical and mental states.

"With breathing exercises one can down-regulate and up-regulate, giving us control over how our minds and bodies react to external stimuli," McKeown told Newsweek. "For sleep, breathing and mental health, functional breathing is instrumental.

"Knowing what exercises to practise can be life changing as we learn to change states. It's not about taking the deep breath. It's much more than that!"

According to McKeown, how a person breathes during the day will influence our breathing patterns during sleep.

"If our breathing patterns mean we are breathing through the mouth, with a faster rate and from the upper chest, (rather than from the diaphragm) this will increase the risk of sleep issues including insomnia, snoring and sleep apnea."

4-7-8 for sleep anxiety

McKeown said that for people with functional breathing who are able to slow down their respiratory rate to around three breaths per minute—like during 4-7-8 exercise—extended exhalation will help activate the bodies relaxation response.

"When the rest and digest response is activated, one feels sleepy and experience increased watery saliva in the mouth," he said. "Slowing breathing rate also enables a better gas exchange to take place from the lungs to the blood.

"Practising this breathing technique before going to bed will not only help people fall asleep but will noticeably improve quality of sleep and when practiced regularly, will lead to a better quality of life all around."

Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who is a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told Newsweek he is a "huge fan" of the 4-7-8 breathing technique.

According to Breus, the technique lowers the heart rate to the point it needs to be at night when some is trying to fall asleep.

"I have adopted this method, as both a 'help you fall asleep' but more of a 'help you get back to sleep' method," Breus told Newsweek. "Most people do not know this metric, but in order to get to a state of unconsciousness you need a heart rate of 60 or below, to get there. So, when you wake up in the middle of the night and your anxiety is high because you looked at the clock, this can help you get back to sleep."

In addition, Breus said there is plenty of data to show that diaphragmatic breathing helps to lower anxiety, which has been linked to difficulties falling and staying asleep.

A couple in bed
Stock image: A couple sleeping in bed. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million adults in the United States have a sleep disorder. iStock

"Most people are what we call 'shallow breathers' meaning that they do not use their full lung capacity, unless during full-on physical activity," Breus said. "This type of breathing requires more breaths per minute to get the required volume of air to live. More breaths per minute equals increased heart rate—and we know we need to get to 60, which is usually down from where people tend to sit naturally (unless you are an athlete)."

Breathing for four counts in will slowly fill the lungs, holding for seven enables oxygen exchange to the fullest, and breathing out for eight pushes all the excess carbon dioxide out of the lungs and allows more fresh, highly oxygenated air to enter the system, and so the heart does not have to work as hard, according to Breus. This leads to a lowering of the heart rate.

McKeown said it is important to note that not everyone will be able to practise 4-7-8 breathing.

"People with poor breathing already experience a breathlessness that we call 'air hunger'. Slowing down the respiratory rate to three breaths per minute will be impossible for them to practise. It could even cause a disruption to their breathing," he said.