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Here's How to Improve Your Sleep by Breathing Better

The more I learn about our breath, the more confused I am as to why breathwork isn’t a more popular health tool. I read somewhere that it might be because there’s no big money in it. Companies and institutes aren’t throwing cash at researching the benefits of breathwork because well, there’s not much they can sell us with the results.

Think about it. Wherever there’s a big problem, someone’s always wanting to sell us a big solution. Sleep issues are a big problem.

So many people struggle with sleep and end up grumpy, tired, and not at their sharpest during the day. Too little sleep can literally make you sick, fat, and stupid. Various studies worldwide have shown the prevalence of insomnia occurring in 10–30 percent of the population, some estimates are even as high as 50–60 percent. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has become the norm.

But, not to worry! There are many solutions you can readily buy, such as pills, $10k temperature-controlled mattresses, black-out curtains, rings and watches that track your steps, vitals, and everything about your sleep, air diffusers misting dreamy scents, and recordings of ocean waves with baby sea lion sounds in the background. You name it. The list goes on and on.

But maybe, just maybe — we’re overlooking a super simple and free solution to getting better sleep — our breath.

1. Calm your mind and body before going to sleep.

It makes a lot of sense that many of us would have trouble sleeping when you think about it. We run around all day like maniacs and then expect our brains and bodies to calm down the second our heads hit the pillow. That’s unrealistic.  You need a transition period.

Here's How to Improve Your Sleep by Breathing BetterOne of the things you should do to prepare for deep sleep, and discourage heavy breathing at night, is taking time to “down-regulate” before going to bed. Slow breathing is the quickest way to calm your brain and body. You can do this by activating your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is the relaxation response. When initiated, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease while digestion and body temperature increase.

It’s well established scientifically that slow, exhale-emphasized breathing is a powerful way to relax your brain and body.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Go to bed 10–15 minutes earlier than usual.
  2. Place one hand on your chest, one hand above your navel.
  3. Bring your attention to your breath.
  4. Pay attention to cold air coming into your nose and warm air going out.
  5. Gently soften the speed of your breathing.
  6. Create a slight feeling of “air hunger” by taking smaller inhales.
  7. Have a very relaxed and slow exhale.
  8. Feel your hand at your navel moving up as you inhale and moving down as you exhale. Keep the hand on your chest as still as you can.
  9. Keep doing that — soft, slow breaths — for 10–15 minutes or until you fall asleep.
  10. Whenever you notice you’re lost in thought, just gently bring your attention back to your breath. And don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s entirely normal.

You Want to Create Air-Hunger

The idea of creating a slight feeling of “air hunger” takes a little bit of practice, and is a key element of the Oxygen Advantage Functional Breathing retraining technique. Air hunger is the sensation of the urge to breathe. You create it by taking in less air than you normally would. You don’t want to be breathless, and you definitely don’t want to make yourself feel stressed. You just want to feel like you would like to take a deeper breath but in a way that’s tolerable for you.

The purpose of breathing light and slow right before bed is two-fold:

  • Increasing carbon dioxide in your system improves oxygen uptake and oxygen delivery to the brain and reduces racing thoughts. Increased oxygenation of the blood and improved blood circulation will also have a direct impact on sleep quality, helping you wake up feeling alert and energized.
  • Stimulating the vagus nerve increases parasympathetic nervous system activation and relaxes your mind and body.

After a long day, I don’t always feel like spending ten minutes just lying there breathing. So, I often combine this breathing exercise with reading a book. For me, it’s perfectly possible to have about 20 percent of my attention on my breathing and 80 percent on my book. Find what works for you.

Here's How to Improve Your Sleep by Breathing Better

2. If you wake up during the night, use your breath to go back to sleep.

Your brain’s priority is always protecting your body and ensuring its survival. Whenever we breathe rapidly or irregularly, our brain interprets this as a potential threat and wakes us up. I’ve been chatting with lots of friends about their sleep. Almost everyone I talked to struggles with waking up one or more times during the night or early morning and finding it difficult to go back to sleep, at least occasionally.

When that happens to you, try this:

  • Immediately bring your attention from your thoughts to your breath. You want to activate your body’s relaxation response by focusing on slow and gentle breathing, with a prolonged exhalation.
  • If your mind is whirring, try not to panic or get annoyed. Just keep bringing your attention back to the breath, over and over again, until you fall back asleep. (This is basic mindfulness.)

One trick I use is “think of the black.” I focus on staring into the black space behind my eyes and letting myself “fall” into the darkness. I imagine the feeling of sinking into the bed by breathing slowly and relaxing any tension in my body. It’s a strange feeling, but it works for me every time.

3. Make sure you’re breathing through your nose

‘It’s a good idea to be a nose breather unless you need to mouth breathe. It’s a great idea to be a nose breather in sleep. One way to get good at that, is to get a bit of medical tape and to tape your mouth shut before going to sleep.'” — Andrew Huberman in Sleep Toolkit episode.

Did you know there’s a massive difference between breathing through your nose and breathing through your mouth? The only reason humans evolved to be able to breathe through two channels is to increase our chances of survival. Should the nose get obstructed, the mouth becomes a backup ventilation system. But that’s all the mouth was ever meant to be — a backup.

So, you want to train yourself to breathe through your nose as much as possible — especially during sleep. It’s essential for maintaining optimal sleep quality, and in many cases, it can help prevent snoring and improve sleep apnea. The nose acts as a natural filter, removing allergens, dust, and other particles from the air you breathe. It also warms and humidifies the air, making it more comfortable to breathe while we sleep.

Nose breathing also increases the amount of nitric oxide (NO) you produce — a gas only produced in your nasal cavities. NO is a vasodilator, which means it helps to widen blood vessels and improve oxygen circulation in your body.

To tape your mouth is not the sexiest thing to do, and it can be a bit uncomfortable, at first. However, I got used to it very quickly. If you need to, you could start taping your mouth for short intervals during the day to get used to the feeling. (Disclaimer: Don’t do this if you’re feeling nauseous, have an upset stomach or have been drinking alcohol!)

  • Down-regulate before going to sleep to calm down your body and mind. Slow down your breathing, and focus on making the exhale longer than the inhale.
  • Use your breath as an anchor when you wake up in the middle of the night. Bring your focus from your thoughts to your breath, over and over, until you fall back asleep.
  • Ensure nose breathing if necessary with mouth tape. Nose breathing is one of the key factors to ensure optimal sleep quality, and if you’re a snorer, this is a must-try!

 Guest Author

Charlotte GrysolleHi! I’m Charlotte Grysolle and here’s what I’m up to:

🔬 Running my 2nd Year of Creative Experiments

👩‍💻 Writing practical guides on neuroscience, productivity & creativity – posted on Medium and on my website (new pieces every two weeks)

💌 Sending out a bi-monthly Stretch Letter to +1,800 readers

✍️ Part of a remote team building the world’s best online writing school

  1. Sign up for my newsletter where I share one science-based concept every week, helping +2,400 people get better at harnessing the power of their brain and body.
  2. Create Your Breathwork ToolkitBook a free 1–1 session here. In the lovely words of Hesam Panahi, “In just 45 minutes, I was able to walk away with clarity about what I could accomplish by being more intentional with my breathing. Charlotte’s advice was not only actionable, but also personalized based on my questions and interests. Talking with Charlotte saved me the hours of endless searching and dead-ends I would have experienced if I had tried to explore on my own.
  3. Body-Based Productivity Coaching & Workshops. BBP is based on two fundamental principles: i. Take care of your body and your mind will follow. ii. Leverage your body as a tool to work and feel better. I offer personalized coaching and group workshops (I recently co-created a session for a Fortune500 cosmetics company.) Send me a private message if you’d like more info.
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  1. Which book is the more useful read? ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ by Jame Nestor or ‘The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter’ by Patrick McKeown? Or should you we doing fast breathing for creation of nitric oxide via Breath of Fire

  2. This is a very interesting and informative piece Debbie. Charlotte has shared some really valuable and practical ways to calm the mind to fall asleep. Very helpful!

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