A Psychiatrist & Neuroscientist's Favorite Breathing Exercises For Sleep
There is no shortage of sleep-promoting tips out there, from lighting hacks to herbal therapies to relaxing yoga poses. But sometimes the simplest habits are actually the most powerful. It's certainly the case for psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dave Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder of Apollo Neuro, who swears by breathing techniques for a good night's rest on the mindbodygreen podcast.
We love breathwork here at mbg: It's low-lift, accessible, and doesn't cost a dime. Plus, it's associated with a slew of health benefits, like balanced mood, enhanced energy, and of course, some good quality shut-eye. Here, Rabin shares specific breathing exercises he swears by to wind down. A bonus? You can practice them absolutely anywhere—but we'd recommend tucking into bed.
A helpful breathing exercise for sleep
"My favorite technique is relatively simple," Rabin says. "Just breathe the way you breathe when you're sleeping." Think long, slow inhales and exhales: "[Breathe for] five seconds in, hold for a second, [then breathe for] five or six seconds out. Just keep doing that, and try to fill your lungs as deep as you can and empty them as much as you can on every exhale," he explains.
This simple technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which takes you out of a "fight-or-flight" response and into a "rest-and-digest" mindset. "Your body starts to wind down, and you're starting to tell your body, 'Hey, you're safe. You're safe enough to pay attention to this breath. That means you're safe enough to fall asleep,'" says Rabin.
As a general rule, just make your exhales longer than your inhales—that's what stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system. But if you need something a little more prescriptive, you can try a 4-7-8 breathing practice. It's the same idea as Rabin's trick, but it just requires a few more seconds in between steps: Inhale for four, hold for seven, and exhale for eight.
If you want to level up the practice, start incorporating progressive muscle relaxation: "You basically reach out with your fingers and toes as far as you can, like a reaching stretch while you're lying down in bed," explains Rabin. "Stretch for five seconds as you breathe in and relax; then you breathe out and repeat that cycle going all the way up your body, just drawing your awareness away from your thoughts about earlier that day, things you need to do the next day, or wherever else your mind could go."
This technique draws your attention back to your body, and it has been shown to help people fall asleep longer and have a more well-rested brain profile during sleep.
When to practice breathing exercises
The best time to practice these breathing exercises for sleep is, well, right before bed—but the great thing about these techniques is that they're super versatile. Feel free to incorporate them at any point during your wind-down routine.
That said, to make it more of a nightly ritual, you may want to prioritize breathwork at a certain time you know you'll stick to—like, say, right after taking a sleep aid, applying a rich hand cream, or turning off the TV. Stacking those habits may make the commitment a touch easier until focusing on your inhales just feels like second nature.
Your breath is one of the most powerful tools in your well-being tool kit, and a few specific exercises can help you achieve a good night's sleep. That's not to say you should toss your sleep aids and eye masks to the wind—just add some nightly breathwork to your bedtime lineup.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.