There are plenty of things you can do before you go to bed to get a better night’s rest, whether that’s having a cup of hot chamomile tea, taking a hot bath, or doing a sleep meditation.
But even if you do all those things, there might be nights where, once you’re in bed, you struggle to fall or stay asleep. And in those instances, one of the best things you can do? Breathing.
“Certain exercises that involve deep, slow breathing are believed to influence the nervous system, providing a relaxing effect,” says Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, Medical Expert at SleepingOcean.com. “Since the nervous system is…[integral for] sleep initiation, breathing exercises can trigger sleep onset by relaxing the nervous system.”
So, with the right breathing exercises, you can trigger the kind of body-and-mind relaxation you need to fall (and stay!) asleep. But what, exactly, are those breathing exercises?
Let’s take a look at three breathing techniques you can try to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling refreshed in the morning.
If you’re looking for a breathing exercise that will help you get a good night’s sleep, “diaphragmatic breathing is among the most effective tools,” says Hsu. “It promotes relaxation, reduces anxiety, and is proven to improve sleep quality.”
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, is an exercise where you “try and push the air in using the belly instead of the chest,” says Hsu.
Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing.
Step one. Lie down on your back and place a hand on your stomach. (Hsu says this can actually make the breathing exercise easier.)
Step two. Inhale through your nose, breathing directly into your belly. Think of it like a balloon; you want to inflate your belly with air and feel it rise against your hand. (The chest should remain still.)
Step three. Exhale through your nose or mouth. Your stomach should fall as you exhale. Again, if you’re thinking of your belly like a balloon, the balloon should deflate on the exhale.
Step four. Continue breathing pattern until you feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
Another great breathing exercise for sleep is known as box breathing. Like other deep breathing exercises, box breathing can help to calm the nervous system, promote relaxation, and make it easier to fall asleep. But because box breathing also requires you to count each breath, it’s an ideal option for people who struggle with an overactive mind before bedtime. (If your mind is focused on counting your breath, it can’t be focused on other things!)
With box breathing, you “inhale on the count of four, hold [your] breath for another count of four, exhale on the count of four, [trying] to push all of the air out, then pause and hold the breath for another count of four,” says Hsu.
Or, if you need a step-by-step breakdown, box breathing works like this.
Step one. Inhale through your nose, counting to four as you breathe in.
Step two. When you finish your inhale, hold your breath for another four counts.
Step three. Exhale slowly and fully through your nose, counting to four as you breathe out.
Step four. When you finish your exhale, hold your breath for another four counts.
Step five. Continue breathing pattern until you feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
If inhaling, exhaling, and holding your breath for counts of four feels like too much, not to worry; you can start box breathing with a count of three—and, as you get more comfortable, work up to a four count.
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a pranayama practice—or, in other words, a yogic breathing exercise. Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to lower stress and lower heart rate, both of which can help you fall and stay asleep.
As the name suggests, alternate nostril breathing involves alternating nostrils for each inhale and exhale. With alternate nostril breathing, you “cover nostril one, inhale through nostril two, then cover nostril two, and exhale through nostril one,” says Hsu.
Here’s how to properly practice the alternate nostril breathing technique.
Step one. Using your right thumb, cover your right nostril.
Step two. While your right nostril is covered, inhale deeply through your left nostril.
Step three. Hold your breath—and, while you’re holding, lift your thumb from your right nostril and cover your left nostril with your right index finger.
Step four. While your left nostril is covered, exhale fully through your right nostril.
Step five. Inhale through your right nostril.
Step six. Hold your breath—and, while you’re holding, lift your index finger from your left nostril and cover your right nostril with your thumb.
Step seven. While your right nostril is covered, exhale fully through your left nostril.
Step eight. Repeat the cycle for up to five minutes.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.