While it might be easy to take your breathing for granted (being that it’s an automatic process and all), using your breath in a deliberate way can offer up some surprising health advantages. By studying the benefits of deep breathing exercises in recent years, researchers have found that, not only can deep breathing help with a whole slew of health concerns, like anxiety, stress, and brain fog, according to Christophe Andre, writing for Scientific American, deep breathing exercises can also help with insomnia.
"Deep breathing exercises serve two purposes," Jamison Monroe, CEO and founder of the Newport Academy tells Bustle via email. "They calm the central nervous system and act as a meditation to quiet the mind. Breathing exercises calm your nervous system, preparing the body for deeper sleep."
Scientific American notes that deep breathing techniques are pivotal to mindfulness and relaxation practices. Yoga, meditation, and disciplines like tai chi hinge on the skillful use of breath to affect positive change in the mind and body. Now, modern research into the physiological effects of deep breathing show just why these ancient practices are so effective. According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry in December 2018, breath-focused relaxation techniques help both the brain and body relax. Specifically, by targeting the autonomic nervous system through deep breathing techniques, the study’s authors say that deep breathing can help treat insomnia and sleep issues. And deep breathing exercises may make it easier to fall back asleep if you tend to wake up during the night.
Clearly, it can be hard to sleep well when you’re stressed out. Verywell Health writes that, similar to meditation and guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing may help your insomnia by easing your stress symptoms. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes feelings of calm) and interrupting the fight or flight response, breath control techniques can help lessen anxious thoughts and feelings while relaxing you physically — making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, Harvard Health says.
So, how do you take advantage of these benefits?
"The best time of day to practice deep breathing in order to address sleep issues and insomnia would be right before bed," Monroe says. "It’s a way to train your brain to start winding down for the night. Life is hectic, and your brain isn’t just going to flip to 'sleep mode' because the clock says it’s time to go to bed."
"A simple calming breath can be very helpful in staving off insomnia," Monroe says. "Take a long, slow breath in through your nose, first filling the abdomen, then the lower lungs, then the upper chest. Hold your breath to the count of three, then exhale slowly through the mouth, emptying the breath first from the upper chest, then the lower lungs, then the abdomen. Repeat five to 10 times, or as long as you wish."
"Researchers find that a rate of six to eight breaths per minute, with a focus on the exhale, is ideal for activating the body’s relaxation response" says Monroe. "A similar practice is known as square breathing, or box breathing: Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, repeat."
There are plenty of reasons to add some kind of controlled breathing technique to your self-care routine. Whether you like deep belly breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation, there are many ways to practice deep breathing and reap its benefits. According to the American Institute of Stress, setting up a regular time to do your deep breathing exercises each day can help you stick to the practice, and get more out of it, over time. But don't stress if your relaxation practice isn't perfect — just fit it in as regularly as you can. Combined with exercise and sleep hygiene habits, deep breathing exercises can be a powerful way to help reduce insomnia, so that you can sleep better and more deeply every night.