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Does the 4, 7, 8 Breathing Trick Work?

Breathing, an involuntary and often overlooked aspect of human function, has taken on an increasingly significant role in mental health, relaxation, and stress management discussions. Various breathing exercises promise to offer relief from a range of health conditions, but one technique, in particular, has been at the forefront of such discussions: the 4 7 8 breathing method. But does the 4 7 8 trick work?

Introduction to 4, 7, 8 Breathing

The 4 7 8 breathing technique, popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, an advocate of integrative medicine, is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. Dr. Weil suggests that this breathing method can help individuals fall asleep faster, reduce anxiety, and manage stress. It involves inhaling for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling with a whoosh sound for a count of 8.

The Science Behind Breathing Techniques

Breathing exercises, such as 4 7 8 breathing, box breathing, and alternate nostril breathing, have ancient origins and are often integrated into practices like mindfulness meditation. But how do these practices influence our body and mind?

Nervous System Dynamics

Our nervous system is dichotomized into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. While the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for stressful situations, the parasympathetic nervous system promotes relaxation and recovery.

Deep breathing techniques, including the 4 7 8 method, can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure. This mechanism explains the potential benefits of controlled breathing for those with high blood pressure and anxiety.

Sleep and Breathing

Many people who struggle with insomnia turn to sleep medicine and sleep experts for answers. While medications have their place, non-pharmacological interventions, like breathing exercises, have fewer side effects and can be just as effective for some individuals.

The 4 7 8 technique is said to encourage faster onset of sleep. By promoting relaxation and shifting focus from anxious thoughts, this method may help insomniacs create a mental environment conducive to sleep.

Anxiety, Stress, and Breath

The deep breaths associated with the 4 7 8 trick can counteract the shallow, rapid breathing often seen during episodes of anxiety. The mind-body connection is profound; by controlling our breathing, we can send signals to our brain that it's time to relax, potentially reducing stress levels.

Research indicates that practicing deep breathing exercises can lower cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone. This biochemical change can lead to a subjective feeling of relaxation and calm.

Comparing Breathing Techniques

While the 4 7 8 breathing method has garnered significant attention, it's one of many breathing exercises with purported health benefits.

Box Breathing

Also known as square breathing, this technique is favored by many, including elite military professionals, to maintain calm and focus, especially in high-pressure situations. Here's how it's done:

  1. Inhale for a count of 4.

  2. Hold the breath in your lungs without inhaling or exhaling for another count of 4.

  3. Exhale slowly and steadily for a count of 4.

  4. Hold the breath again, this time with your lungs emptied, for a count of 4.

This process forms the "box" or "square" pattern. The even counts in each segment help regulate the nervous system and act as a form of mental distraction from stress or anxiety.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

More than just "belly breathing," diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that engages the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic and abdominal cavities. This form of breathing is more efficient than chest breathing and offers various health benefits. Here's what you need to know:

  1. Position: Start by lying down, with one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Over time, this breathing can be practiced in any position.

  2. Inhale deeply through the nose, ensuring that the diaphragm inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. The hand on your abdomen should rise higher than the one on your chest.

  3. Exhale through pursed lips, noting the contraction of the diaphragm. The hand on your abdomen should move in as you exhale, while the one on your chest should remain relatively still.

By focusing on deep abdominal expansion rather than chest rise, this technique increases oxygen exchange and can reduce the effort required to breathe, especially in those with respiratory ailments.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Derived from yogic traditions and known as 'Nadi Shodhana' in Sanskrit, this breathing technique is believed to balance the body's energy channels. Here's how you can practice:

  1. Position: Sit in a comfortable position, spine erect, and shoulders relaxed.

  2. Using the thumb of your right hand, close off your right nostril.

  3. Inhale deeply and slowly through the left nostril.

  4. Close the left nostril using the ring finger of the same hand, releasing the right nostril.

  5. Exhale slowly through the right nostril.

  6. Inhale through the right nostril.

  7. Close the right nostril and exhale through the left.

This process is one cycle. The practice is believed to harmonize the left and right hemispheres of the brain, promote relaxation, and reduce anxiety.

Expert Opinions and Caveats

It's essential to approach breathing exercises with an open yet critical mind. While many attest to the effectiveness of the 4 7 8 technique, individual experiences vary.

Sleep medicine and integrative health practitioners recognize the potential benefits of such exercises. However, they also highlight that breathing methods are not a one-size-fits-all solution. While they can significantly benefit some, others might find minimal relief.

In Practice: How to Incorporate Breathing Exercises

To assess whether the 4 7 8 trick works for you, consider the following steps:

  • Routine: Like any technique or exercise, consistency is key. Incorporate the practice into your daily routine, either in moments of stress or as a relaxation technique before sleep.
  • Environment: Create a quiet space free from disturbances. This aids in focus and mindfulness during the exercise.
  • Mind-Body Connection: Pay attention to how your body reacts during and after the practice. Over time, you might observe reduced heart rates, clearer mind, and better sleep quality.
  • Consultation: Before adopting any breathing technique as a treatment for health conditions like high blood pressure or severe insomnia, consult with a healthcare professional.


Does the 4 7 8 trick work? The answer, supported by both ancient wisdom and modern science, leans towards yes – for many people. The interconnectedness of breath, body, and mind underscores the potential power of such simple practices. As with any technique, individual experiences will vary. Still, in the realm of non-invasive, low-risk interventions, breathing techniques, including the 4 7 8 method, remain a promising tool for promoting relaxation, managing stress, and potentially improving sleep.

September 22, 2023 by Janelle Viramontes
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