The 4-7-8 technique is a relaxation exercise that involves breathing in for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of seven and exhaling for a count of eight, says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. School of Medicine, via email.
“A lot of people who have sleep problems are people who struggle to sleep because their minds are too busy,” says Rebecca Robbins, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist in the Brigham Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. Women’s Hospital in Boston. “But exercises like 4-7-8 give you a chance to exercise in peace. And that’s what we should do before we go to bed.”
“It doesn’t ‘make you sleepy,’ but it can reduce anxiety to increase the likelihood of falling asleep,” says Joshua Tal, a clinical psychologist in New York State.
How it works 4-7-8
The 4-7-8 method doesn’t require any equipment or a specific setting, but when you first learn the exercise, you should sit with your back straight, Weil says. Practicing in a calm, quiet place can help, says Robbins. Once you are hooked, you can use the method by lying in bed.
Place the tip of your tongue on the tip of the tissue behind your upper front teeth as you breathe through your mouth around your tongue. Then follow these steps, according to Weil:
- Breathe fully through your mouth, making a sparkling sound.
- Close your mouth and breathe silently through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Breathe in through your mouth making a snoring sound for a count of eight.
- Repeat the process three times for a total of four breath cycles.
Maintaining a ratio of four, then seven, then eight counts is more important than the amount of time you spend on each phase, Weil says.
“If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up the exercise but keep the ratio (consistency) for the three phases. You can practice slowing everything down and practicing deep inhaling and exhaling,” the website advises.
What does research show?
When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system — which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response — is overactive, leaving you feeling 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 and shallow breathing.”
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise also reduces sympathetic activity in your parasympathetic nervous system — which is responsible for relaxation and digestion. Activating the parasympathetic system helps the stressed brain answer the question, “Why can’t I sleep?” Tal said.
While its proponents may swear by the method, more research is needed to establish a clearer connection between the 4-7-8 and sleep and other health benefits, he said.
“There is some evidence that 4-7-8 breathing helps reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia when comparing pre- and post-intervention, but as far as I know there are no large randomized controlled trials of 4-7-8 breathing,” Tal said. “In general, the research on the effect of diaphragmatic breathing on these symptoms is spotty, with no clear connection due to the poor quality of the study.”
“If you practice some of these activities, what we see is (a) increased amplitude of theta and delta[brain]waves, which indicates that a 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 pulmonary function.”
What is expected
The 4-7-8 technique is relatively safe, but if you’re a beginner, you might feel a little light at first, says Dasgupta.
“Normal breathing is the balance between breathing in oxygen and breathing in carbon dioxide. When you disturb this balance, by breathing more than you breathe out, (this) reduces the rate of carbon dioxide in the body,” he said. “Low levels of carbon dioxide cause the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain to narrow. This reduced blood supply to the brain can cause symptoms such as lightheadedness. This is why it is usually recommended to start slowly and practice three to four cycles over time until you are comfortable with the technique.”
Unmanaged stress can rear its head in the form of sleep problems, Robbins said. “But when we manage our stress during the day (and) apply some of these breathing techniques, we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat instead of being victims of the events in our lives.”