After a few restless nights without sleep this week (and having tried everything from sleep aids, sleep inducing meditation to Nidra yoga), I was ready to do almost anything to get a full night of rest. So when a friend told me that she swore by a particular breathing technique, I was immediately up for it.
Her tried-and-true method, the 4-7-8 breathing technique, is theoretically as simple as it sounds: You breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven, then exhale for eight counts, and repeat until you fall asleep. The idea is that it relaxes your body, and is especially helpful if you're awake because you're anxious (hi, hello).
That might work for some people (like my friend), but it's not always that simple. Jason C. Ong, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says that while there isn't hard evidence that they work, breathing techniques, deep breathing in particular, are meant to get your body to calm down and move into a resting state.
"Usually when we take a deep breath, it stimulates the diaphragm, and that actually sends signals to the parasympathetic nervous system to turn off that fight or flight system," he says. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the bodily functions that are at use when you're relaxed — like when your heart slows down and your muscles relax.
"This relates to insomnia and sleep because a lot of what seems to cause insomnia, especially chronic insomnia, tends to be this over-activation of the stress response system, meaning the fight or flight system," he says. When you're breathing deeply, your fight or flight system is turned off and Dr. Ong says that hypothetically makes it easier for you to fall asleep.
He also says that the 4-7-8 technique might be a distraction, which sometimes helps people fall asleep faster. After all, the harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely it is for sleep to come quicker.
"From that standpoint, if you can do something to reduce the effort to make that happen, that seems to have some psychological benefits," Dr. Ong says.
In practice, though, it's not a foolproof plan. For one thing, I found that it was harder than I thought to actually execute because I kept getting distracted, and having to hold your breath for seven seconds feels longer than you'd think. Either way, Dr. Ong says that a lot of the time, the effectiveness of a breathing technique may actually come down to the placebo effect.
"In terms of learning a trick to fall asleep, generally these things don’t work," he says. "Even if it works here and there, it’s because it just happens to work, no one knows why. It's like how if you gave people a sugar pill, a third of them would fall asleep, because of the placebo effect."
To be fair, the 4-7-8 breathing trick did help distract me from all the thoughts racing around in my head. I did eventually fall asleep, but because it still took so long, I think it had more to do with my body finally giving out than the actual technique. Sure, it wasn't a surefire trick, but who knows — it might work for other people, and in this stressful Covid news cycle, we're going to need all the help we can get.