Insomnia, awakening mid-sleep and waking up unrested in the mornings are all things we regularly encounter in the hustle and bustle of modern life. As we drink oh-so-many cups of coffee to combat its effects and not dwell so much about the reasons behind it, insomnia even becomes something we secretly boast about at times we stay up late working. Yet, sleep is not some luxury but a vital process during which all necessary functions for a healthy life happen – giving the body time to repair and renew itself. And insomnia is not just a nuisance but a critical issue that causes issues with concentration and drops in performance. It weakens the immune system, therefore creating a window for numerous diseases to attack the body. But, here’s the good news. There’s a natural and efficient tool to help overcome our sleep issues. And that’s our breath.
One of the factors – or most likely the most important – that prevents you from relaxing, calming down and having a restful sleep is not being able to silence or slow down your mind due to intense stress. Here is where breathing exercises come into play. Breathwork helps us combat stress throughout the day and facilitates rest as we get ready to go to bed, preparing us for a good night’s sleep.
Scientific research confirms that breathing exercises help fall asleep more easily, regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and improve sleep quality. Regular breathwork is also proven to be an effective treatment for the common sleep disorder known as insomnia.
The connection between sleep, autonomic nervous system, and stress
Recent scientific research has shown that long-term stress is a common cause of sleep disorders. Lower parasympathetic and higher sympathetic activity triggered by chronic stress are linked to short durations of sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and insomnia. Known as autonomic dysfunction, this condition has been categorised by researchers as part of the pathology of insomnia.
The sympathetic activity responsible for the stress response known as the fight or flight response keeps us alive in the face of danger. But the stress of everyday life can also make us feel like we’re constantly under threat. And this, in turn, results in higher sympathetic activity.
Research clearly shows how distress brings more distress. Sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in sympathetic tone. It’s a vicious cycle – stress causing insomnia, insomnia causing more stress, and so on. Stress-related insomnia, therefore, can cause sleep-related problems to worsen in time. To recover from this, it’s necessary to regulate the autonomic nervous system activity.
Shifting to parasympathetic activity with breathwork
The parasympathetic system helps lower the blood pressure, slow down the heart rate, decrease the production of the stress hormone (cortisol), and support rest and restoration processes like sleep and digestion. On top of helping with the actual process of falling asleep, the parasympathetic system needs to be dominant for us to get a deep, quality sleep.
Triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and controlling the stress response is possible with breathwork. This way, we can activate a natural process called ‘relaxation response’ and calm our bodies and minds – paving a natural way towards falling asleep.
Slower breaths for better sleep
Researchers have shown that slow breathing techniques can increase the vagal tone and that, in turn, improves sleep quality. These techniques have healing effects on the body and mind. Breathing slowly decreases the sympathetic nervous system activity that causes insomnia by helping the parasympathetic system become dominant.
Doing breathing exercises before bed has proven to ease falling asleep and improve sleep quality. Moreover, practising slow breathing techniques regularly throughout the day prevents the sympathetic nervous system from constantly being dominant and helps develop a healthy sleep cycle.
Melatonin and its effects on sleep
Melatonin, also known as the ‘sleep hormone’, is a central part of the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Since its production increases during nighttime, it’s also called the hormone of darkness. It increases the parasympathetic tone and suppresses the sympathetic tone – making it easier to fall asleep and get healthy sleep.
Research shows melatonin levels are lower in individuals who have a hard time falling asleep, sleeping deeply or who suffer from short periods of sleep. Slow breathing exercises trigger the release of the melatonin hormone. This makes it easy to get a deep and relaxing sleep during ideal sleep times.
Nasal breathing improves sleep quality
Recent research has shown that nasal breathing plays a vital role in organising the neural activity in the brain. The volume of air inhaled during nasal breathing is less compared to that of mouth breathing. This helps lower the chronic stress caused by constantly getting higher oxygen and lower carbon dioxide. As cortisol levels drop, the shift to the brain activity that promotes sleep becomes easier.
5 breathwork techniques for better sleep
Deep diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing in a way that utilizes the lower parts of the lungs and expands the belly as opposed to shallow chest breathing, which only utilizes the upper chest. Also called belly or abdominal breathing, this is a very efficient and effective method used in many breathwork techniques.
How to practise deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing
- 1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
- 2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below the ribcage.
- 3. Inhale deeply through the nose and let the air fill toward your abdomen.
- 4. Exhale slowly through the nose as you relax your abdomen.
- 5. The hand on your chest should be relatively stable as the hand on your belly rises and falls with each breath. Keep breathing like this for 5-10 minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed.
Keep breathing like this for 5-10 minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed.
Benefits of belly breathing
Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system in charge of the body’s relaxation response. Triggering the rest and digest response helps reduce the blood pressure, bring the heart rate down, lower the stress level and improve your mood. It is also an excellent tool to alleviate pain and decrease anxiety. Deep diaphragmatic breaths let the body know that everything is alright and invite peace and calm.
4-7-8 breathing is a technique designed by the complementary and alternative medicine specialist Dr Andrew Weil, who describes it as a natural sedative for the nervous system.
How to practise 4-7-8 breathing
Inhale through the nose for a count of 4.
Hold for a count of 7.
Exhale through the mouth for a count of 8.
Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths, expanding the belly on the inhale and releasing it on the exhale helps prolong the inhales and exhales.
Holding your breath or exhaling for a prolonged period may be challenging in the beginning. But the absolute time you inhale, hold your breath and exhale is not important. The ratio of these periods is what’s important. So, you may count your breaths a little bit faster when starting out and then gradually slow down as you grow more comfortable.
Benefits of 4-7-8 breathing
Anxiety and worry can prevent you from resting well. If anxiety keeps you up at night, the 4-7-8 breathing technique may ease your mind and soothe your body, helping you drift off to sleep faster and more peacefully. It also helps decrease anxiety and control emotional responses like anger.
Bhramari pranayama (Bumblebee breathing)
Bhramari pranayama is a soothing and relaxing yogic breathing technique that takes its name from the black Indian bee.
How to practise Bhramari pranayama
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Slightly part your teeth but keep your mouth closed.
Gently close your ears with your thumbs- no need to insert your fingers deep into your ears. Spread your other fingers and rest them on the crown.
Breathe in deeply through the nose, and as you exhale, let out a low-pitched hum from the back of your throat. This should sound like the buzzing of a bee.
Try to make the sound as soft and smooth as you can. You will feel the vibration through your head.
Perform the technique 10 times, and you will feel a shift of energy and a sense of peace and quiet within you.
Benefits of Bhramari pranayama
Bumblebee breathing helps lower the blood pressure and heart rate, dissipate anger and reduce stress.
Chandra Bhedana is a breathing technique used in yoga. It is practised by inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril. Chandra Bhedana literally means “moon-piercing”. Breathing through the left nostril, which represents the moon, activates the Ida Nadi, bringing the body into a state of calm and peace. Ida Nadi is the energy channel that corresponds to the parasympathetic nervous system.
How to practise Chandra Bhedana
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight.
2. Place your index and middle fingers on your forehead.
3. You will alternate your thumb and ring finger to close your right and left nostrils.
4. Close the right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left.
5. Close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right.
Practise for 10 rounds, and you will feel the calming effect of Chandra Bhedana.
If you are new to breathwork, you can keep the duration of inhalation and exhalation equal. As your practice improves, extending the exhalations twice as long as the inhalations will increase the technique’s effectiveness. As you progress, you can also add a breath-hold by closing both nostrils after you inhale.
Benefits of Chandra Bhedana
Chandra Bhedana is a technique that provides both physical and psychological relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps to cool down the body, lower the blood pressure and relieve stress.
Body scan technique
Another method you can try for falling asleep more quickly is the body scan method. It is a mindfulness meditation technique combining breathing and focusing on your body. In this method, you scan your body from head to toe (or vice versa) and concentrate on relaxing each little part of your body one by one. If you feel any tension, you breathe toward that area, making sure you loosen up all your muscles. You should keep your focus on your breathing and gently direct your attention back to your breath whenever you get distracted.
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