Healthy sleep for most adults is getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
The stats tell us that 35.2% of adults in the US reports getting less than seven hours of sleep. So, around 1 in 3 adults do not get the sleep they need to function properly and safely during the day.
It is clear that many adults are dealing with a serious issue. Thankfully, this is an issue that can be solved. The solution doesn’t always need to involve medication which can come with a long list of side effects.
There is one solution that is free, easy to learn, and accessible to everyone. That is deep breathing.
How Deep Breathing Improves Sleep
There is a clear link between good mental health and good sleep. The highest quality sleep comes when we are feeling relaxed, calm & happy. During this state, the body naturally functions from its circadian rhythm and you’ll get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling rested and rejuvenated.
Deep breathing exercises help the body to relax and feel calm. Scientists have found that the breath is linked to the Autonomic Nervous System. When we breathe deeply and slowly we activate the nervous system which is responsible for calming the body down and putting it into a resting state.
When we breathe quickly we are activating the opposite system. The nervous system is responsible for getting us ready to flee from danger.
At a basic level, when we breathe slowly, we feel calmer and more relaxed. When we breathe quickly we feel more anxious and stressed.
Have a check-in yourself over the next few days. See if you can notice the pace of your breath and how you are feeling. Perhaps you will notice a pattern between the speed of your breath and how stressed or calm you feel.
Aside from the connection to breathing and the autonomic nervous system function, scientists have found something else. This study from 2019 highlights multiple studies which show the connection between deep breathing exercises and an increase in melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body which is in control of the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is often given as a supplement to aid with mild insomnia and sleep disorders. Whilst this hormone doesn’t put you to sleep, it helps the body to regulate its sleep cycle which is the foundation of a good rest.
4 Deep Breathing Techniques to Improve Sleep
I’ve covered the basics of how deep breathing can improve sleep. But which techniques are best? There are tons of options available and whilst many of them have some merit and are worth trying out if you feel drawn to them, here are a few of my favorites.
Mindful breathing is always at the top of my list. I am slightly biased being a mindfulness teacher, but there is a reason why I chose this discipline to study. Mindfulness is all about learning the skill of present moment awareness.
Much of the day we spend lost in thought. Our body is carrying out daily activities; washing up, driving to work, looking after the kids, cooking dinner, etc.
Whilst we are doing these activities, the mind is often somewhere else. The mind is often thinking or worrying itself about things that are completely unrelated to what the body is attending to in the present moment.
Mindfulness helps us to notice when we are worrying about things unrelated to what we are doing in the present moment, and it helps us to line up the mind with the body.
When this happens, the stresses and the worries begin to disappear and the mind begins to calm down. As this happens the body also calms down and relaxes because the mind and body are connected.
Mindful breathing is a mindfulness technique that involves placing attention on the breath. The breath is the focal point during the practice and we use it to anchor our attention to the present moment.
How to Practice Mindful Breathing
Set a timer on your phone for between 10 – 20 minutes depending on whether you are a beginner or more advanced.
Sit in a comfortable position either cross-legged on the floor or seated on a chair.
Start the practice by becoming aware of the breath, notice if your breathing is shallow or deep. Also, pay attention to the temperature of the breath.
Can you notice if the breath is warm or cool, and is the in-breathe and out-breath a different temperature? You can take one hand up to your mouth and feel the out-breath as your breath out, how does that feel?
Now, keep the attention on the breath and keep the attention focused by repeating a short phrase.
Breathing in on the inhale
Breathing out on the exhale
Continue repeating these phrases and keeping the attention on the breath until the timer goes. As you do you will notice that there are many distractions.
You might become aware of your thoughts that distract you from this exercise, you might become aware of different sounds or perhaps some parts of the body which become uncomfortable as you sit to practice.
With each distraction simply acknowledge it and then come back to keeping your attention on the breath and repeating the phrases. Do so with loving compassion for yourself and without judging yourself for “not getting it right”, because this is the practice.
Benefits of Mindful Breathing to Improve Sleep
Improved present moment awareness will help your mind and body to stay calm throughout the day and before bed. If you find yourself getting anxious during the evening or suffer from racing thoughts at night that keep you up, mindful breathing can help you to stay present so that the mind can calm down.
As the mind calms down, so does the body. As we mentioned earlier in the article, a relaxed and calm mind and body will get the best quality sleep.
This deep breathing exercise is incredibly powerful and I have been using it more in my practice over the last several months. It is a type of paced breathing that has been specifically timed to calm down and regulate the nervous system.
It is possible to measure the positive effects of this practice through heart rate variability which is an indicator of your nervous system resilience & heart’s health.
How to Practice Resonance Breathing
This technique can be practiced sitting or lying down, you can use futon mattress for it.
Once again set the timer on your phone for between 10 – 20 minutes.
Once you are comfortable you can close your eyes or lower your gaze and begin the practice.
This time, instead of reciting Breathing in and Breathing out on the inhale and the exhale.
You will recite.
Breathing in 1,2,3,4,5
Breathing out 1,2,3,4,5
Each count should be roughly one second in length so that the full cycle of inhale and exhale takes 10 seconds.
This can be repeated until the timer goes off.
Benefits of Resonance Breathing to Improve Sleep
Resonance breathing works to improve your resilience when it comes to encountering stress. We all experience stress in our lives, some level of stress is actually needed and is just part of being a healthy adult.
How we respond to this stress varies dramatically. Resonance breathing helps the nervous system to respond to stress and manage it in a healthier way. This gives us benefits throughout the day so that when it comes to getting ready for sleep we are already feeling calmer & more relaxed.
This technique is well known to singers, actors & performers who use their breath to project their voice. The diaphragm is the muscle that draws air into the lungs. Most of us do not use the diaphragm properly when we breathe because we breathe shallow breaths that sit at the top of the chest.
A full breath should fill the chest cavity to the extent that the belly also rises. When we use the diaphragm to breathe we can feel the chest & the belly rise.
How to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing
Set a timer for between 5 – 15 minutes.
The easiest way to practice is to lie down and place the hands over the belly as indicated in the graphic above.
As you draw the air into the lungs, place your attention on the stomach and without forcing it, keep inhaling until you notice your belly rise.
This might be a very subtle rise at first.
Notice the hand falling with the stomach as you exhale the air out. Keep the attention on the stomach and repeat this process until the timer goes off.
Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing to Improve Sleep
This technique works in much the same way as resonance breathing, it has the added benefit of training the body to breathe in a more healthy way. Once you get used to engaging the diaphragm for breathing you will naturally start to do this more regularly throughout the day which will calm and relax the body.
Diaphragmatic breathing also increases oxygen levels in the body which increases the amount of oxygen going to key muscles and gives you more energy.
Deep Breathing to Music
All of the exercises I have described so far are self-paced, which means that you can practice by yourself without instruction. Or, they can be practiced with a teacher to guide you.
Deep breathing to music is a great blend between the two. You can practice by yourself without a teacher but you still get the benefit of the music guiding your practice.
The music becomes the teacher, you simply match your breathing rhythm to the music.
How to Practice Deep Breathing to Music
Go to Harmonicbreathing.com and click through to Spotify or Soundcloud. There you will find deep breathing music tracks which combine binaural beats with nature sounds. Each track is around 4 minutes long, it is easy to build the length of practice you want by simply clicking onto the next track once you’ve finished with the first.
These tracks are timed at the recommended rate for improving Heart Rate Variability and calming the body.
Simply find a comfortable position either sitting or lying down.
Play the track and listen out for intonation as it rises and falls, this matches your inhale and exhale.
If you find it beneficial you can also add a phrase such as
This will help keep your attention focused on the music. Otherwise, simply breathe along to the music until the end of the practice.
Benefits of Deep Breathing to Music for Improving Sleep
The main benefit of deep breathing to music is accessibility. It can be quite difficult to create a regular deep breathing practice because it is not the most engaging and fun activity to try out.
Deep breathing practices can also make some people who suffer from anxiety nervous since they have experienced some issues with breathing because of their anxiety in the past.
Deep breathing to music gives your mind something to focus on, it makes the practice more enjoyable and easy to follow along to. It is also really easy to time your practice with the tracks and you can practice for as little as 4 minutes per day so it’s really easy to get started with.
Deep breathing exercises are well worth trying if you suffer from sleep issues. There are so many different practices to try and what you like will differ depending on your personal preferences.
The best advice is to just give some of these practices a go and see what works for you. Drop the need to be perfect at them and just start.
So often we think that in order to solve a big problem we need a big solution, however, the answer to your sleep issues could be as simple as deep breathing for 10 – 20 minutes per day.
This article was written by Cheryl A Clarke, An Accredited Mindfulness Meditation Teacher, Psychology Student & Content Writer for Harmonic Breathing, a completely free-to-use breathing technique to reduce anxiety and improve sleep, with over 6,000 monthly active users.