There's no question that many of us would like to improve the quality of our sleep each night. Tossing, turning, waking up frequently, struggling to fall back asleep -- and that's if we can even drift off in the first place.
We are notorious for allowing bright screens into the bedroom and daily doses of anxiety to hit the pillow alongside our heads -- seemingly subconscious habits that leave us annoyingly alert rather than calm and relaxed. One of the best ways to bring the body into its relaxed state is one we shouldn't have to think about: breathing. You read that right. Proper inhales and exhales have become a lost art among today's fast-paced, highly stressed society, robbing us of one of the best (not to mention free) tools for logging quality shut-eye. Taking the time to address your breathing could be just what you need to shut down your stress and solve your sleep problems, killing the proverbial two birds with one soothing stone.
Struggling to drift off to dreamland each night? Give these six breathing tricks a try at bedtime.
Take it slow.
We know, we know, you already tried that! But not so fast -- many of us don't actually know what if feels like to recruit the diaphragm, abdominals and lungs to take in a full breath, hold onto it for a moment and then gradually let it go. Focusing your mind and body on taking these slow, deep breaths helps reduce heart rate and blood pressure simultaneously, further calming down your entire system. A 2010 study even found that this slower breathing style allows the parasympathetic system (which is responsible for your ability to relax) to override your sympathetic system (which controls your automatic stress response). With slow breathing, you'll feel the rib cage expand to let the lungs fill completely, and then fall back into its natural position as you exhale. Lie down in bed on your back and try breathing slowly for 10 minutes before nodding off.
Try the 4-7-8 technique.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, a renowned physician, holistic health author and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, the relaxation breathing exercise known as the 4-7-8 breath can work wonders before bedtime (as well as any other time you're feeling stressed). To relieve your anxious mind, sit up in bed with your back straight, and press the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth. Maintaining that position, close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts, hold that breath for seven counts, and then exhale through your mouth around your tongue for eight counts. Repeat this pattern until you have completed four full breaths.
Use a traditional meditative breath.
If you find that a busy, anxious mind is your primary sleep destroyer, it may be time to finally give meditation a try. Through her research, neuroscientist and meditation expert Catherine Kerr has found that focusing on the breath is the very first component required in a mindfulness meditation practice. Connecting with the rise and fall of the breath, and noticing where you feel that breath move within the body, can help you begin the process of relaxing tense muscles. This physical change also helps you let any negative or stressful thoughts and emotions come and go as you remain tied to the breath and your body. Complete this breathing exercise for eight to 10 minutes to reap the full benefits each night.
Channel your yoga skills.
Kapalbhati breathing (also known as Blowing in Firm pose) requires focusing 100 percent of one's energy on the breath. In Sanskrit, kapal means forehead and bhati means shining, making this movement known for its mind-cleansing benefits. It may also help rid the lungs of carbon dioxide and fill them with fresh oxygen, keep the digestive system healthy, improve circulation in the abdominal area and keep the heart healthy. Try it out by sitting in a kneeling position with your back straight and hands resting on your knees. Take a breath in through your nose and exhale powerfully through your mouth by contracting your abdominal muscles in short, measured bursts.
Another great anxiety-relieving breathing technique based in the practice of yoga is called nadi shodhana, one of the most common forms of pranayama, or breath control. By alternating between each nostril for the inhale and exhale components of the breath, the body and mind are said to achieve a sense of balance and neutrality. While mouth breathing subconsciously tells the brain that the body is stressed, breathing through the nose sends signals of relaxation and homeostasis. When performing this breathing exercise at night before bed, start with the right nostril. Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, and close off the left nostril with the right ring finger to inhale. Then close off the right nostril with the right thumb to exhale. Keep your eyes closed throughout the exercise.
Double down on the exhale.
One more for the yogis out there! Many pranayamic breathing techniques rely on an exhale that is double the length of the previous inhale to inspire calming and restorative benefits. A 2006 study found that this form of voluntary, slow breathing has the ability to help reset the body's autonomic nervous system by synchronizing neural elements in the heart, lungs and brain. And practitioners have found that by focusing on the count associated with the breath, the technique keeps us from thinking stressful thoughts and becomes a more effective substitute for counting sheep. To test it out, lie down in bed on your back, inhale for three seconds, exhale for six seconds and repeat until you've fallen asleep.