Using Breathing Exercises to Cure Insomnia: A Case Study
For years, Amanda battled insomnia. As a 44 year old mother of two, she rarely got a full night’s sleep—four or five hours was the norm—and most nights she struggled to fall asleep and either tossed and turned throughout the night, or woke up too early and couldn’t fall back asleep.
She tried various remedies: Not eating for several hours before bedtime. Dimming the lights and turning off electronic devices an hour before bed. Establishing a regular sleep schedule. Cutting out alcohol after dinner and caffeine after mid-afternoon. Maintaining proper “sleep hygiene” (e.g., only use your bed for sleeping). Exercising harder. Meditating.
While all of these helped, none solved the insomnia problem at its root. Next, Amanda turned to over-the-counter and prescription medications. She experimented with the “Sleep Aid” product sold in drug stores, and soon discovered that it contains Diphenhydramine—a powerful antihistamine that induces sleep, but disrupts the REM sleep cycle and often causes drowsiness. She also tested Ambien, a powerful sedative with dangerous side effects and a high addiction rate; after one month of blissful, drug-induced sleep, she wisely chose not to refill her prescription.
In a last ditch effort to cure her insomnia, Amanda decided to try a solution she’d heard about over the years: deep breathing exercises.
She learned a couple of quick, 5-minute breathing routines that she could practice every night while in bed. She discovered how to relax her mind and body, through breathing, to create the conditions for deep sleep.
Almost immediately her insomnia receded. When combined with good sleep hygiene, breathing exercises helped her fall asleep faster, sleep more soundly, and feel more refreshed and energetic in the morning than she had in a long time.
Now Amanda looks forward to climbing into bed at the end of the day, to rest and recover, whereas before she had dreaded it since she didn’t know how to slow her body and mind down. A virtuous cycle of relaxation, deep sleep, and feeling rested in the mornings reinforced the positive change, and today she no longer suffers from regular insomnia.
The best way to fall asleep
While many would have you believe you need pharmaceuticals to manage sleep, the truth is that breathing techniques are a far more safe and effective tool.
The physiological principles behind it are quite simple. Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that is both conscious and unconscious. While most of the time breathing is regulated automatically by our autonomic nervous system, it can also be consciously controlled.
When breathing happens unconsciously, it is always a reflection of our current physical and mental state. For example, when we experience fear or are consumed by stressful thoughts, our bellies (diaphragms) constrict, and we breathe from the chest, and our breathing patterns become quick and shallow. In a state of physical and mental relaxation, our breathing patterns deepen and elongate, our belly loosens, and we breathe more from the diaphragm.
The physiological process also works in reverse—the way you breathe has an immediate effect on the stress levels in your body and mind. Consciously altering your breathing patterns can create either a stress or relaxation response in the body. So, if you hyperventilate—by taking short, shallow breaths for an extended period of time—you will induce a state of panic and your body will take on all of the physiological markers of a fight-or-flight stress response. Elevated blood pressure and heart rate, increased adrenaline, release of cortisol and other stress chemicals, etc.
By the same token, consciously slowing down your breath tricks your body into entering a deeply relaxed state. You trigger the body’s “relaxation response,” leading to a cascade of positive physical effects such as a loosening of muscles, expansion of the belly, reduced heart rate, suppression of stress hormones, and the release of soothing chemicals such as oxytocin from the pituitary glands. The result is deep physical relaxation and a feeling of well-being or tranquility.
The next section offers two scientifically validated breathing exercises for curing insomnia.
Breathing exercises for sleep
Exercise One: 4-7-8 BREATHING PATTERN
The 4-7-8 Breathing Pattern is one of the most well-recognized and powerful mechanisms for immediately triggering the body’s relaxation response and creating the conditions for deep sleep. Here is the technique:
1. Inhale deeply through the nose and count to 4. Expand your belly as you inhale.
2. Hold your breath for count of 7.
3. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Purse your lips and make a swishing sound as you exhale.
4. The pace of your counting should be relatively slow. But what is important is to maintain the 4:7:8 ratios between inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling: Most important, make sure the exhale is twice as long as the inhale—this is essential for triggering the relaxation response.
Exercise Two: MINDFUL BALANCED BREATHING
An deeply effective way to get rid of stressful thoughts and prepare yourself for sleep is to focus intently on the breath.
Focusing on the breath is a kind of meditation or “mindfulness” the helps to momentarily stop stressful thinking while refreshing your brain and physical chemistry. Here’s how to do it:
1. Sit or lay down in a comfortable posture, with back straight. Breathe only through the nose. Allow your belly to expand and contract as you breath.
2. First, try to expel all the air in your body while contracting your belly.
3. When you run out of air to expel, inhale for a count of 6. Focus on the feeling of air entering the nostrils.
4. Next, exhale for a count of 6, slowly and quietly, and concentrate on the sensation of air passing through the nostrils.
5. Repeat this pattern of 6 counts in – 6 counts out several times. Always stay mindful and aware of the air passing in and out.
6. Over the long term, these breathing exercises will help you sleep far better than any pharmaceutical.
To learn more and access free, guided breathing lessons for sleep, stress, and pain management, click here!