Deep breathing influences every cell and process in your body. It can change your heart rate, promote digestion, manage stress hormones, and yes, even convince that busy brain of yours to power down for the night. So, how does your breathing actually help improve your sleep quality? The answer lies in HOW you breathe. The simple act of slow and intentional breathing can be one of your most powerful allies in the quest for better sleep.

Slowing your breathing aids relaxation by affecting the autonomic nervous system, which oversees involuntary bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiration. This system comprises the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS, known as the "fight-or-flight" system, activates during stress, causing a faster heart rate, muscle tension, and shallow breathing. Conversely, the PNS, or "rest-and-digest" system, is activated by slow, diaphragmatic breathing, which reduces heart rate, alleviates muscle tension, and promotes a state of calm.

Practicing slow diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly” breathing, has been shown to activate the vagus nerve. This activation helps transition the body from the SNS stress response to the PNS relaxation response. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it signals the brain to reduce anxious feelings and encourage relaxation. Over time, this can decrease the production of stress hormones like cortisol, aiding in mental calmness and improving your ability to fall asleep.

Incorporating deep breathing exercises into your daily routine, whether during the day or at night, can be a straightforward and effective method to enhance sleep quality and overall health. Let’s explore some specific breathing techniques that can help you not only fall asleep but also enjoy deeper, more restorative sleep.

1) Diaphragmatic Breathing

Engaging in deep “belly” breathing not only enhances your oxygen intake during the day but also sets the stage for a more restful night’s sleep. This technique focuses on breathing deeply into the abdomen rather than taking shallow breaths from the chest.

How to Practice:

  1. Lie down in bed, placing one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, ensuring your abdominal hand rises higher than the chest hand.
  3. Exhale through pursed lips as if whistling for a count of 6 seconds, noticing the hand on your abdomen lower. Repeat this cycle for several minutes.

Visualize your belly as a balloon, filling it with air as you inhale and deflating it as you exhale. Practicing this before bed or during nighttime wakefulness can help soothe your mind and ease you back into sleep.

2) Box Breathing: The Square Route to Sleep

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a favorite breathing technique among athletes and U.S. Veterans and Navy SEALs for its simplicity and effectiveness in reducing stress and making it easier to fall asleep. 

How to Practice:

  1. Inhale: Breathe in for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold: Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale: Slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
  4. Hold: Hold your breath again for 4 seconds. Repeat this process for a few minutes, and you’ll feel a wave of calmness wash over you.

3) The 4-7-8 Breathing Method

Created by Dr. Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 technique is a straightforward yet powerful method to promote relaxation.

How to practice: 

  1. Take a breath in for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  3. Exhale fully for 8 seconds.

Repeat this cycle four times and feel the day’s stress melt away. It's perfect for those nights when your brain is buzzing with unwelcome thoughts about meetings and to-do lists.

Also get to know about: Oxa Podcast. Episode #4. Ryan Carroll: Breathing Anxiety Away

4) Alternate Nostril Breathing

This yoga-inspired technique, supported by science, is highly effective for calming the mind before bed.

How to Practice:

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight.
  2. Place your right thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril.
  3. Close your left nostril with your fingers, then exhale through your right nostril.
  4. Inhale through your right nostril, then switch to close it off and exhale through your left nostril.

I hope you enjoy these breathing practices to promote better sleep quality. Remember, your breathing can either trigger your stress response or dial it down. The benefits from a sleep perspective lie in HOW you breathe (i.e., whether you breathe from the chest or belly). By incorporating slow breathing techniques into your daily routine to promote better sleep quality, you can enhance your ability to relax both mentally and physically. 

Prefer to have a guided breathing practice? Make it easy to maintain a regular breathing practice with Oxa as your go-to breathing guide. Oxa makes it simple to start leveraging the power of your breath with guided exercises, so you can visually see the benefits of your practice with real-time feedback. Oxa’s guided breathing exercises help you activate the body's natural relaxation response, also known as "rest-and-digest," setting the stage for deep sleep to occur naturally. As with any good habit, consistency is crucial. Breathe easy and enjoy sweet dreams!

Also read about: Insomnia Management with Breathwork: Insights from Dr. Sarah Silverman

Breathing & Sleep FAQs 

What is diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly or abdominal breathing, focuses on deep, full breaths using the diaphragm muscle. Unlike shallow chest breathing, it engages the diaphragm, a large muscle at the base of the lungs.

This breathing method is beneficial for sleep because it increases the amount of oxygen entering your bloodstream. It is particularly effective in reducing stress and anxiety and promoting relaxation, making it easier to fall asleep quickly.

Why is breathing through the diaphragm important?

Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest-and-digest” response, as opposed to the body’s “fight-or- flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. In order to activate the body’s “rest and digest” response, you must breathe through your diaphragm (not your chest). All other breathing is survival breathing (i.e., it keeps you alive and doesn't necessarily promote relaxation or a physiological change within the nervous system).

What is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body and part of the nervous system. It runs from your brain through your neck and down into your chest and abdomen. It's like a superhighway carrying messages between your brain and many parts of your body, such as the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in keeping your body in balance by managing stress responses and helping with basic functions like breathing and digestion. The vagus nerve is highly involved in the process of activating the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” process, which promotes calm and relaxation within the mind and body. 

What is resonance (coherence) breathing?

Resonance breathing, also known as coherent breathing, is a breathing technique designed to bring the body into a state of balance and calm. As a core breathing exercise embedded within the Oxa app (which also calculates your “resonance score,” this technique typically involves breathing at a rate of about five breaths per minute, which is considered optimal for influencing the body’s autonomic nervous system.

One of the key impacts of resonance breathing is on Heart Rate Variability, which is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. Higher HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health and stress resilience. This breathing technique (among other breathing variations, like the ones listed above) can be particularly useful as a daily practice for managing stress, or as a tool to wind-down in preparation for falling asleep. 

How does deep breathing help you fall asleep?

Deep breathing aids in falling asleep by engaging multiple physiological processes that promote relaxation, which helps prepare the mind and body for sleep. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's “rest and digest” response. This relaxation process helps slow down the heart rate, relax muscles, and decrease blood pressure, creating an optimal state of calm necessary for falling asleep quickly. 

When you engage in deep breathing, you enhance the oxygen exchange in your lungs. More oxygen is delivered to your bloodstream, and more carbon dioxide, a waste product, is expelled. This improved breathing efficiency not only promotes better physical health but also helps your body prepare for deep sleep by maintaining improved oxygen saturation and detoxification.

Dr. Sarah Silverman
July 3, 2024

PsyD, a holistic sleep specialist and insomnia expert, is revolutionizing the way we approach sleep health. With an impressive academic background from the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University, coupled with specialized training at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, Dr. Silverman brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her practice. Her commitment to enhancing sleep wellness and her holistic, evidence-based strategies have made her a beacon of hope for those struggling to find restorative sleep, embodying her belief that everyone deserves to feel well-rested every day.

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