5 Effective Breathing Techniques for Sleep

A woman practicing breathing exercise

A good night's sleep is crucial for optimal body function, but many find it challenging to achieve.

It’s estimated that around 40 million Americans have trouble falling and staying asleep.

Luckily, there are simple and effective ways to promote deep relaxation and improve your sleep quality. One of the most popular methods is breathing techniques.

What are Breathing Techniques for Sleep?

Breathing techniques for sleep are designed to help individuals relax their mind and body.

These techniques make it easier to fall asleep while improving the quality of your night’s rest.

Sleep-focused breathing techniques usually help with controlling your breathing to shift the body’s balance from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is what promotes rest and makes you feel tired.

Activating this nervous system lowers your heart rate and stress levels while relaxing your muscles, and preparing your body for sleep.

The table below outlines the differences between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Parasympathetic nervous system Sympathetic nervous system
Role Dominant during resting periods. Prompts relaxation, digestion, and restoration of bodily functions Prepares the body for action, triggering our fight-or-flight response
Heart rate Slows down to signal a time of rest Accelerates
Breathing Becomes deep and regular Rapid and shallow
Hormones released Promotes the release of hormones associated with relaxation, such as serotonin and melatonin Triggers the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline
Effects on sleep Facilitates falling asleep and maintaining deeper periods of rest Can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep

5 Best Breathing Techniques for Better Sleep

4-7-8 technique

This technique offers a simple and powerful method to relax and sleep.

It’s based on an ancient Indian practice that involves a method called pranayama, which emphasizes rhythm and breath control.

By controlling the deep breathing cycle, the 4-7-8 technique helps to slow down the heart rate and encourage relaxation.

  • Take a relaxing breath in and exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose, counting silently to four.

  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.

  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

  • This is one breath. Now, inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Bhramari pranayama

The Bhramari pranayama technique — also called “bee breath” — is known for its instant calming effects on the mind.

It’s also useful for stress and anxiety relief, making it easier to fall asleep.

When practicing this technique, you’ll make a humming sound while breathing.

The vibration of the humming sound helps to focus the mind, minimizing external distractions and inducing a meditative state.

This sound also has a soothing effect on the brain and nervous system.

  • Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Place your index fingers on your ears right at the cartilage.

  • Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, gently press the cartilage with your fingers and make a loud humming sound like a bee.

  • Covering the ears amplifies the internal sound, further enhancing the benefits of these relaxation techniques.

  • Repeat this process 5-7 times.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This technique is also known as belly breathing, and it focuses on engaging the diaphragm, allowing for deeper and more efficient breaths.

Breathing more deeply can enhance relaxation and potentially lead to improved sleep quality.

  • Lie on your back or sit comfortably, placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.

  • Inhale deeply through the nose, ensuring that it's your diaphragm — not your chest — that fills with enough air to stretch the lungs.

  • Slowly exhale through pursed lips.

  • Repeat for several minutes.

Box method

Box breathing — or square breathing — is a technique used to manage stress and improve concentration.

It’s often used by professionals — like athletes and police officers — to stay calm in high-stress situations. But box breathing has also been found to be beneficial for promoting better sleep.

When practicing this technique, you’ll focus on regulating the nervous system, which distracts the mind from external stressors and helps it to relax.

  • Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

  • Breathe in counting to four slowly, concentrating on the air entering and expanding the lungs.

  • Hold your breath inside while counting to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut.

  • Begin to slowly exhale for four seconds.

  • Repeat the process for four minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed. Then return to your normal breathing pattern.

4-4-8 breathing technique

This technique is a variation of the 4-7-8 method and focuses on a longer exhale to promote relaxation and ease you into restful sleep.

It increases parasympathetic activity by extending the exhale, which is key to inducing a restful state. This helps to lower your stress levels and improve your emotional well-being.

  • Exhale fully through your mouth.

  • Close your mouth and inhale through your nose to a count of four.

  • Hold your breath for a count of four.

  • Exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.

  • Repeat four times.

Tips for Incorporating Breathing Techniques into Your Sleep Routine

Establish pre-sleep rituals

Creating a healthy night-time routine is a great way to incorporate breathing techniques into your bedtime rituals.

This routine could involve turning off electronic devices, dimming your lights, and doing a quiet activity like reading or listening to relaxing music.

The goal of these routines is to signal to your body that it’s time to go to bed. You can incorporate your breathing exercises into any step of this routine.

Choose a comfortable breathing position

Although breathing exercises can be done in any posture, selecting a comfortable position that you can sustain for several minutes may improve relaxation.

Many people find that lying on their back with a small pillow under the knees is quite effective.

Others may find sitting on their bed with their back against the wall more comfortable. You can experiment with different positions to see which one works best.

It’s also important for your sleep environment to be relaxing, so try to ensure that it’s quiet and that you have a comfortable mattress and pillows.

Start with simple techniques

If you're new to breathing exercises, begin with simple techniques such as the 4-7-8 or box methods.

These techniques are easy to remember and can be very effective in promoting relaxation. They also don’t take up a lot of time.

As you gain familiarity and proficiency with breathing techniques, you can integrate more advanced methods into your practice.

Over time, you might find that extending the length of your breathing sessions enhances their soothing effects.

Use guided breathing apps

There are many free and paid apps — like Headspace or Calm — available that offer guided breathing exercises designed to promote sleep.

These can be particularly helpful if you find it difficult to maintain focus or if you're looking for variety in your breathing exercise routine.

Guided breathing apps are also great for beginners who might not know where to start or which methods to try.

Be patient and consistent

Like any new habit, incorporating breathing techniques into your sleep routine may take some time before you see results.

That’s why it’s important to be patient and consistent with your practice, even if you don't notice immediate improvements in your sleep quality.

In most cases, it will take a few weeks of diligent practice before you’ll start noticing the benefits.

Where Can You Learn More About Better Sleep Habits?

If you’re concerned about your sleep habits or want to know more about breathing techniques that promote relaxation, LifeMD is here to help.

LifeMD can connect you to a team of medical professionals who can provide information and guidance on how you can create an optimal sleep environment through healthy habits.

Make your appointment today to get started.

Kimberli Hastings, CNP

Kimberli is a Family Nurse Practitioner, practicing in the areas of Family Medicine and Mental Health since 2019. She has worked in nursing homes, dialysis centers, and clinics. Kimberli’s goal as a healthcare provider is to improve her patients' lives.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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