Slow Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Not being able to sleep enough is bad for you – whether that’s due to not being able to get to sleep when you go to bed, or waking up in the small hours, or sleeping too shallowly. Indeed, chronic lack of sleep can make you more likely to develop various health conditions. Dwelling on that is unlikely to help you sleep at night, obviously. So what can you do to get better sleep?
There are many different techniques and methods you can use to help deal with not sleeping well or enough, including various breathing exercises for sleep. One of the simplest is slow breathing.
Slow breathing – simply breathing at a slower rate than you usually do, for a short period – can be incredibly relaxing, both physically and mentally. It’s also very simple to do. And it’s free.
NOTE: If you are already convinced about the benefits of slow breathing exercises for sleep and just want to know how to do them, then just scroll down to the bottom third of this page and you’ll find what you need 🙂
Slow breathing exercises for sleep: how they can help
For a start, not breathing well can be a cause of poor sleep. If you’re in the habit of breathing too shallowly or rapidly, or even too deeply this can result in your body having unbalanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This in turn can impair sleep as well as cause other health problems.
If this is the case, then getting a regular habit of doing some slow relaxed breathing before going to bed is likely to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Even if you generally are breathing adequately, doing some slow well-paced breathing can still help you relax and sleep better.
To understand this, let’s look at the opposite situation: the effects of breathing too shallowly and quickly.
If you’re taking short shallow breaths, this communicates to your nervous system that you’re on ‘high alert’. It activates your sympathetic nervous system and your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This gets adrenaline pumping through your body, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, you breathe more rapidly, and your body releases sugars and fats to supply the rest of your body with energy to deal with the emergency situation you’re body thinks you’re in.
Even after the adrenaline surges have subsided, your adrenal glands will keep producing cortisol, which maintains this state of high alert.
In other words, breathing too shallowly and/or keeps your body in a state of tension, which of course, is pretty much a recipe for insomnia.
Slow breathing relaxes your body and mind
Breathing slowly and steadily, however, has the opposite effect. Instead of activating the sympathetic nervous system and the ‘fight or flight’ response, it triggers the other part of your autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system which produces what researchers now call a ‘relaxation response’. It slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, halts the production of those stress hormones, and basically calms you down.
Indeed, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, in a 2006 report, state that relaxation training is and “effective and recommended therapy in the treatment of chronic insomnia.” The relaxation training that their report covered included methods aimed at reducing physical tension (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training) or at reducing “intrusive thoughts at bedtime that interfere with sleep.”
While the report did not refer to slow breathing exercises specifically, there is now increasing evidence that slow breathing techniques lead to greater activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. As such, in 2019, a group of psychiatric researchers recommended using slow breathing to alleviate insomnia, in addition to these other relaxation methods. They think that for many of us, our sympathetic nervous systems are in a state of chronic over-activation. This may be due to high-pressure modern lifestyles and expectations, and it can not only cause insomnia but poor health in general. They say that slow breathing can counter this over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system:
Regular practice of a slow breathing technique overtime may provide long term correction of sympathetic over-arousal. In addition, slow, deep breathing has been shown to result in melatonin production which not only promotes relaxation, but is an essential sleep-inducing hormone which promotes parasympathetic tone and inhibits sympathetic tone.
(Jerath et al, 2019)
In short, breathing slowly relaxes you. And it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to sleep well. In the words of Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College,
If you breathe correctly, your mind will calm down.
Note on specific health conditions: Does it matter why you’re not sleeping? Yes. If you’re not sleeping because of a specific health condition, then you’ll need to address that first. However, in most cases, using slow breathing techniques could still help. Obviously, check with your doctor if you’ve any questions or concerns about this (especially if you have respiratory issues or other health conditions affecting your breathing).
Further benefits of doing slow breathing exercises for sleep
As well as helping you get a good night’s sleep, regularly practising slow breathing has other health benefits.
- stress reduction (read more here: Slow breathing to reduce stress)
- blood pressure reduction (read more here: Quickest way to lower your blood pressure)
- alleviation of anxiety (read more here: Slow breathing exercises for anxiety)
- general relaxation
- pain relief (read more here: Slow breathing for pain relief)
- general improvement of physical performance (especially during aerobic exercise) since, due to a better oxygen supply to your muscles
- improved immune system functioning
- improvement of some menopause symptoms, including hot flushes, or hot flashes, depending on what side of The Pond you’re on (we’ll have an article on this shortly)
You can read a summary of these broader health benefits of slow breathing in our article here: Therapeutic benefits of slow breathing exercises
How to do slow breathing exercises for sleep
At it’s most basic, slow breathing just involves breathing more slowly than you are currently. So you can do this anywhere and any time. However, it’s easier if you can sit or lie down somewhere quiet and really focus on your breathing.
To do slow breathing exercises for sleep, shortly before you go to bed, get yourself somewhere you won’t be disturbed. This could be in bed, or somewhere else. Then just gradually bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe normally for a few minutes, to really get focused, then gradually slow your breathing down, till you’re breathing more slowly but still comfortably. Don’t push it. Even if you just breathe fractionally more slowly than usual, this will still help. Plus, even just sitting quietly and focusing on breathing will allow your body to relax and your mind to unwind a bit.
It’s good to do this for at least ten to fifteen minutes, to really feel the benefits. If you can practice this every day or evening, then you’ll get better at it, and be able to gradually breathe even more slowly. There’s also some evidence that practicing slow breathing regularly confers more long-term health benefits than just doing it now and again.
How slowly should I be breathing?
Many studies into slow breathing and health find that about six breaths per minute seems to be the most effective. This is a rate of 0.1 Hertz. As the psychiatric researchers state,
There is empirical support that breathing at a frequency of 0.1 Hz is the most effective rate to combat insomnia […] Practicing the 0.1 Hz rate before sleep was shown to improve sleep onset latency and quality in insomniacs and enhance the stability of their sleep pattern. Thus, we suggest 0.1 Hz as the optimal frequency for a slow breathing technique. (Jerath et al, 2019)
Do it the easy way: guided slow breathing exercises for sleep
The one thing that can be tricky about doing slow breathing for a period is that it can be difficult to keep your breathing slow and steady if you’re not used to doing it.
To make it easier, you can listen to guided slow breathing tracks. These are tracks with breathing prompts which you can just breathe along in time to. As it happens – a happy coincidence 😉 – we have created our own guided slow breathing audio tracks which you can use.
These audio tracks have breathing prompts at different breathing paces – from 10 breaths per minute down to 8, 6, 5, and 4 breaths per minute (breathing in and out counts as one breath).
You simply breathe in and out in time with the breathing prompts.
Listening to relaxing music has also been found to be relaxing in and of itself. Listening to music can also relieve stress and anxiety. So most of our audio tracks have soothing music in the background. For each breaths-per-minute cycle, you can choose from tracks with three different types of background music.
You can click here to listen to some samples: Slow breathing audio samples
If you find them helpful, then you can buy the set and instantly download them and get started – go to the bottom of this page for details.
Focus on breathing slowly rather than deeply, and breathe through your nose
One last thing: there’s increasing evidence that breathing through your nose, rather than your mouth, is healthier. This might sound counter-intuitive – surely taking big breaths through your mouth helps you get more oxygen, which is good?
It turns out that taking big or deep breaths through your mouth can often result in you expelling too much carbon dioxide from your lungs. This causes your blood vessels to constrict, which means less oxygen can get around your body in your blood. It can also result in the small airways in your lungs constricting, making you feel more short of breath, and setting up a vicious circle of ‘overbreathing’.
Although we do need to get carbon dioxide out of our lungs, we still need to keep a little bit of it in. Amongst other functions, carbon dioxide (which is acidic) keeps the pH of your blood in a healthy range.
So, when doing slow breathing exercises, focus on just breathing slowly rather than trying to inhale masses of air.
The other thing you can do is to close your mouth and breathe through your nose. Breathing through our noses makes us more likely to be breathing in and out a healthy volume of air, which helps our lungs stay open and relaxed, and enables oxygen to be transported more efficiently round our body.
Obviously, if you have a cold or a blocked nose for any reason, this isn’t possible. So just focus on breathing slowly in a relaxed manner and don’t try to take huge breaths.
Buy Breathe-Slow audio tracks
The entire Breathe Slow collection of guided slow breathing audio tracks is now available for $17 (about £13 or €15).
You’ll get a total of twenty audio tracks: four tracks for each of the five breathing cycles – 10, 8, 6, 5, and 4 breaths per minute. (For each breathing cycle, three of the four tracks have different types of background music and the fourth track has no background music – just the breathing prompts.) So you can always choose a track to suit your desired breathing rate and your musical mood!
The Breathe-Slow audio tracks come with a 60 day no-questions-asked 100% money-back guarantee if you’re not completely satisfied with your investment. Note that this is a digital download ONLY – no CDs will be sent to you.
To order physical CDs, click here:
(note that the physical CDs do not include the 4 breaths per minute tracks)
Slow breathing exercises for sleep: some references:
* = recommended reading
* https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00780/full (Jerath et al, 2019)