As a health coach in a functional medicine clinic, I am exposed to hundreds of patients whose health is not where they want it to be. Many of these people are overwhelmed, exhausted and have limited capacity to make complex change. For this reason, I keep the 4-7-8 breathing technique handy and prescribe it often; the simplicity of it cuts through the barriers of change while delivering many positive results.
Your breath, as a tool, is physiologically the fastest route to access a calmer, more healing and health-promoting state. While there are many healthful ways to incorporate breathwork into your routine, I’ll focus on the specific benefits and strategy of 4-7-8.
Before going into the details of 4-7-8 breathing, let’s first touch on the main processes in your body that drive states of relaxation, repair and optimisation or distress, reactivity and deprioritised health functions.
You might be familiar with the terms ‘fight, flight, freeze’ and ‘rest, digest, repair’. These refer to your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), of which we will discuss two branches:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (fight-or-flight response): When you encounter stress, danger, or perceived threats (even just a thought), the sympathetic nervous system activates the "fight-or-flight" response. This leads to the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, preparing your body for quick action. It can impair digestion in part by redirecting blood flow away from your digestive system towards limbs for quick action. Your heart rate increases, muscles tense up, and your breathing becomes faster and shallower
- Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest-and-digest response): The parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the sympathetic response and induces the "rest-and-digest" response. This branch of the ANS promotes relaxation, calms the body, and conserves energy. Your heart rate slows down, muscles relax, and breathing becomes slower and deeper and as the name suggests, digestion gets paid attention to
On any given day, you will likely be in flux as you may move to the sympathetic ANS state on the way to work, when in a ‘life juggling’ state, when at the gym, supermarket, school or when confronted with a full email inbox or a difficult conversation. Conversely, you may be more relaxed and connected - parasympathetic - when daydreaming, reading a book, drawing, or having a relaxing chat with a friend. Flux is fine and this is the nature of these adaptive states. Where we can afford to zone in and pay attention is when:
- The balance is out and you spend more time in the sympathetic zone (you’re exhausted, wired, tired, and have limited capacity or resilience)
- Your health is compromised and it’s important to prioritise parasympathetic to support recovery, healing and adaptation (you might have a diagnosed condition or you’re aware something is wrong with your health)
Here's how breathwork techniques can help to restore your health:
- Slowing down breathing rate: When you intentionally slow down your breathing and take longer, deeper breaths, you signal to your body that there is no immediate threat. As a result, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes the priority
- Increased oxygen and carbon dioxide balance: Deep breathing allows you to take in more oxygen and release more carbon dioxide. This improved balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide helps regulate the body's pH levels and reduces the feeling of tension and anxiety. Specifically with 4-7-8 we have a much longer exhale than inhale, relieving the body of the buildup of carbon dioxide (that ‘need to breathe’ sensation comes from a build-up of carbon dioxide, not necessarily a lack of oxygen as most of us have adequate oxygen saturation)
- Vagus nerve stimulation: The vagus nerve is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system, and it runs from the brainstem to various organs, including the heart and lungs. Deep and slow breathing activates the vagus nerve, triggering a relaxation response and further promoting a sense of calm
- Reducing muscle tension: Slow and deliberate breathing helps relax the muscles, particularly the muscles of the chest, jaw and shoulders that can become unconsciously tense during times of stress
Breathwork is something that is high on my recommendation list for several reasons:
- It’s free
- You can do it anywhere
- It has the potential to immediately inform a change in your physiology
- The more you practice it, the easier that state is to achieve (neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to rewire and adapt to a new thought or behaviour)
Although we could readily ‘prescribe’ 4-7-8 breathing techniques to everyone, we know that certain cohorts get particular benefits from this practice. We find it particularly meaningful for those with:
- High/ongoing stress: We now know this style of breathwork supports a parasympathetic state. As a result, the body may experience reduced levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, leading to an overall sense of relaxation
- Anxiety: The technique's deliberate and controlled breathing pattern can help individuals manage feelings of anxiety and panic. It encourages a deeper and slower breath, which can interrupt the cycle of anxious thoughts and provide a sense of grounding. It can also be helpful to focus the mind on counting, instead of focusing on the anxious thoughts
- Poor or disturbed sleep: Practicing 4-7-8 breathing before bedtime may assist with sleep initiation and improve sleep quality. The technique's relaxation benefits can help quiet a busy mind, making it easier to fall asleep and potentially reducing night-time awakenings. We encourage this alongside other sleep hygiene techniques like early morning light exposure, turning off or downlights and electronics leading up to bedtime and sleeping in a cool, dark space
- High blood pressure: Slow and deep breathing has been shown to have a positive impact on blood pressure. The 4-7-8 breathing technique's focus on elongated exhalation can help relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure levels in some individuals
- Pain: While not a substitute for targeted professional treatment, relaxation techniques like 4-7-8 breathing may help individuals cope better with certain types of pain and discomfort by promoting relaxation and reducing muscle tension
- Emotional Regulation: Practicing this breathing technique may also help individuals develop better emotional regulation skills, enabling them to respond to challenging situations with more composure and resilience
The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a simple and effective method for promoting relaxation, reducing stress, and potentially aiding with sleep. The longer exhale is an important element as it directly signals that you are in a ‘threat-free’ environment. That is important if the goal is to regulate stress hormones.
Thinking about this from a physiological signalling perspective, if you are under threat, your physiology expects short, sharp, rapid or possibly shallow breathing. It would make no sense, evolutionarily speaking, to be doing long, slow, deep breathing if you were escaping a threat or engaged in a conflict. The wisdom of this wiring is already established in our biology.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique
Here's how you can do the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Find a comfortable seated or lying down position. You can also perform this technique while standing, but it's often easier to start while seated or lying. If you haven’t had much experience doing breathing techniques, it might be difficult to feel like you can access a full breath. When you lay down, the supporting musculature can relax, creating better access to that deep breath
- Close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so (keep them open if you experience anxiety)
- First, exhale so that you begin to ‘empty’
- Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds (or your own 4 beats). Feel the air fill your lungs, expanding your belly as you inhale. If you notice your chest rise instead, breath out and try laying down so that you can direct your breath deeper
- Hold your breath for a count of 7. During this phase, try to remain relaxed and avoid tensing up. You might actively relax your shoulders, jaw or brow
- Exhale slowly and completely through your mouth for a count of 8. As you breathe out, imagine releasing any tension or stress from your body
- This completes one breath cycle. Now, inhale again and repeat the process for four breath cycles initially
- Over time, you can gradually increase the number of breath cycles to 8 or more if you feel comfortable
The key to this technique is maintaining the ratio of 4:7:8 for inhale, hold, and exhale, respectively. The deliberate extended exhale helps trigger the body's relaxation response, which can have calming effects on the nervous system and offer many positive health benefits.