Can’t sleep? Try this simple breathing exercise

Breathing exercises to help you sleep
Sarah Biddlecombe,-Lifestyle Editor

Struggling to drop off to sleep? Solving that could be as easy as 4-7-8…

If you find it difficult to drift off or stay snoozing once you have, then don’t worry: you are definitely not alone. One in three Brits struggle with insomnia and most of us will experience problems with sleep at some point in our lives.

Research even suggests that our collective problem with sleep has only gotten worse through the pandemic, with ‘insomnia’ being Googled more in 2020 than ever before. If you’re struggling to reach the land of nod each night then the good news is that there could be an easy (and free!) solution to help you get there – a breathing technique for sleep.

What exactly is ‘breathwork’?

Breathwork is a relatively new wellness phenomenon. Essentially, it involves controlling your breathing through various exercises, with potential benefits including mental and physical wellbeing. The NHS even recommends certain breathwork techniques to help soothe anxiety, stress or feelings of panic. 

One of the leading experts in the breathwork space is Stuart Sandeman, the host of BBC Radio 1’s Decompression Sessions and the founder of Breathpod, a London-based wellness company offering workshops, talks, events and one-to-one sessions. ‘Breathwork in the form that I practice and teach began with a chance visit to a breathing class with my mum in 2016,’ Stuart says. ‘It was two months after my girlfriend had passed away from cancer and the first thing I noticed was that I was able to work through my grief. Then I saw a number of other changes. My energy levels were higher, I had more strength in the gym and recovered quickly, and I had much more headspace throughout the day. With continued practice I experienced a whole range of other physical, mental and emotional benefits.’

Breathwork and sleep

Can something as simple as a breathing exercise really help us to drift off? Yes, says Stuart. ‘First, you can use breathwork as a sleep preparation tool – you can improve your chances of falling asleep by working with your nervous system to move from the sympathetic “stress” mode to the parasympathetic “rest” mode,’ he explains. ‘Secondly, you can improve the quality of your sleep. This takes a little more time to achieve, but with practice you can reach a place where you sleep much more deeply and fall asleep more quickly if you wake up in the night.’

So how does it work? ‘Most of the time we’re in a stressed state because of our jobs, our lifestyles, and the amount of stimulation we’re exposed to in our daily lives,’ Stuart says. ‘By moving into our “rest” state through breathing, we can slow down that stressed-out, overactive mind, allow the tension to leave our bodies, and naturally bring ourselves to a much calmer place.‘

Stuart also believes that breathwork can help you sleep for longer, too. ‘Over time it teaches your body how to breathe optimally, through the nose and using the diaphragm,’ he says. ‘There are a number of specific interventions for those who aren’t sleeping well, but in brief it’s about ensuring there’s an unobstructed flow of air coming in and out, which can help with sleep apnoea and many other sleep issues.’

Try 4-7-8 breathing

The good news for people struggling to sleep? There’s a simple breathing technique for sleep that you can try in the comfort of your own home, whenever you need it.

‘The 4-7-8 exercise is the single best one out there,’ says Stuart. ‘There are even specialists who say that if you keep practicing this technique, you’ll be able to fall asleep in 90 seconds. I wouldn’t say that’s guaranteed for everyone, but it’s absolutely true that the 4-7-8 technique will dramatically reduce the time you take to nod off.’

Stuart explains the technique: ‘All you have to do is breathe in through the nose for four, hold your breath for seven – this increases carbon dioxide in the body slightly – and then breathe out, through the mouth, for eight. You can repeat that as needed.’

Give it a try tonight. We’ll see you in the land of nod.


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