By Lyuba Byessonova
Breathing is a miraculous body function. Just think about it: breathing happens by itself without you even thinking of it, while at the same time you can consciously control it.
Breathing correctly can also be one of the easiest ways to help you fall asleep. Deep, slow breathing decreases your heartbeat and hence puts your nervous system into a rest and digest mode. You need to have 55 heartbeats per minute or below to be able to fall asleep.
Diaphragmatic breathing: Breathing into your belly
Shallow breathing in your chest won’t achieve this effect. It is essential to breathe deeply into your belly as if your belly is inflating like a balloon. When doing so, you are breathing with your diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest and abdominal cavities. The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle and so often forgotten!
It is also essential to breathe through your nose. The pathway of nose breathing is more extended than when breathing through the mouth. Besides, the nose works like a filter: it keeps the dust and other particles from entering your body.
Most adults tend to chronically breathe shallowly in their chest. This is a natural response to navigating higher levels of activity and stress in life. However, people still chest-breathe even when they’re not facing significant stressors, making their recovery from life’s challenges slower, or even absent.
Babies are great examples of breathing well, maybe that’s why they can sleep so much! Have you ever seen a new born baby breathe? Infants cannot yet breathe shallowly in their chests because they lack tone in their accessory breathing muscles (the muscles of your chest, neck and back). Thus, babies breathe entirely using their diaphragm.
Why is it important to breathe with the diaphragm?
Diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial for sleeping and overall great for your health. Some main advantages of using the diaphragm are:
- Diaphragmatic breathing rebalances your nervous system, reducing heart rate and breathing rate and changing from fight or flight to calm and relax, making it easy to fall asleep.
- Efficient gas exchange – the bottom third of the lungs is where about two-thirds of the gas exchange occurs, so oxygenation is more efficient when you use the diaphragm.
- You’ll experience less tension and tightness in the neck and shoulders as the muscles here can relax.
- Diaphragmatic breathing gently “massages” or moves the abdominal organs, aiding digestion and helping lymphatic drainage; much of the lymphatic system is located just below the diaphragm.
- The diaphragm contributes to good posture and core muscle strength, so it needs to work correctly. Overdeveloped abs and sucking the stomach can hinder the diaphragm’s proper movement and promote upper chest breathing.
Various techniques can help you learn to breathe with your diaphragm. One of the easiest is coherent breathing.
What is coherent breathing?
Coherent breathing takes advantage of the fact that we can positively affect our body by controlling our breath. The purpose behind coherent breath is to slow down your breathing as much as possible, so you can calm down your nervous system.
When you slow down your breathing, you massage and activate your vagus nerve, the primary nerve that helps the body get into rest and digest mode. The vagus nerve passes through the heart, and when being activated, it slows down the heart rate.
Remember, your heart rate should be below 55 beats per minute to fall asleep, not higher.
How to practice coherent breathing
The best time to practice coherent breathing is right before sleeping. Below you can read a detailed explanation on how to practice coherent breathing:
- Start by finding a comfortable position in your bed.
- Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on the chest – your heart area.
- Notice the flow of your breath. Notice how your belly rises when you inhale and falls inwards on an exhale. Continue to follow your breath flow for 3-5 breathing cycles.
- Now start the practice of coherent breathing. Inhale on the count of four, hold the breath for four, and exhale for six. If this too long or too fast, count for yourself. Go with what is possible for you.
- Continue for at least ten complete rounds.
During this whole process, keep your hand on your stomach. Breathe deeply through your nose from your diaphragm.
You might feel as though you need to take a deep breath or that you can’t stop your thoughts from wandering. That’s okay! Just bring yourself back to focusing on your breathing and counting your breaths’ length in your head.
If you find that you feel comfortable taking even longer breaths, feel free. It’s also okay to have a longer exhale than inhale, even for as long as 10 seconds.
Practice this coherent breathing for as long as you need to feel relaxed and sleepy. You can come back to this breathing technique throughout the day whenever you feel stressed.
Use this short 5-minute video with instructions to help you practice the coherent breathing technique until you get used to it and are able to practice it independently. You can also find more techniques on sleep here.