Sleep aids such as earplugs, eye masks, sleeping pills, and white noise are all used to help you fall asleep soundly. However, these sleep aids can be costly and oftentimes provide short-term solutions as sleep disorders and sleep deprivation continue to interfere with a good night’s rest. Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained medical doctor with a focus on holistic health, believes getting the best sleep ever is as simple as breathing in and breathing out.

Woman sleeping in a bed This breathing exercise claims to help you fall asleep in just 60 seconds by simply inhaling and exhaling. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

America’s Sleep Problem

In the U.S., 40 million people suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems. Stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks, alarm clocks, and external lights, interfere with our “circadian rhythm,” also known as our natural sleep/wake cycle, which is why sleep deprivation is becoming more common. Although research cannot pinpoint the exact amount of sleep needed by people at different ages, eight or so hours for a healthy adult is a good “rule of thumb,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.

The 21st century’s digital revolution has made it increasingly difficult to get a sufficient amount of sleep, especially with the constant need to be connected 24/7. However, Weil, a huge advocate of holistic breathing practices to combat stress, anxiety, and insomnia, believes this can all be remedied with a simple breathing exercise. On his website, he writes: “Breathing strongly influences physiology and thought processes, including moods. By simply focusing your attention on your breathing and without doing anything to change it, you can move in the direction of relaxation.”

This same philosophy is used in his well-known “The 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise,” also called “The Relaxing Breath,” which promotes better sleep. This is based on pranayama, an ancient Indian practice that means “regulation of breath.” The exercise is described by Weil as “a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system” that eases the body into a state of calmness and relaxation.

Kevin Meehan, a holistic practitioner and founder of Meehan Formulations in Jackson, Wyo., believes this breathing technique could be effective because it encourages the fast removal of carbon dioxide. Appropriate respiration is effective in removing carbon dioxide from our systems. “Doing so equates into a better preservation of the bicarbonate pool; our reservoirs for helping maintain an appropriate pH balance,” Meehan told Medical Daily in an email.

How To Do The “4-7-8” Exercise

Weil’s technique is shockingly simple, takes hardly any time, and can be done anywhere in five steps. Although you can do the exercise in any position, it’s recommended to sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Weil explains to “place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.” This is followed by the five-step procedure listed below:

  1. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.

  2. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.

  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.

  4. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.

  5. This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Weil emphasizes the most important part of this process is holding your breath for eight seconds. This is because keeping the breath in will allow oxygen to fill your lungs and then circulate throughout the body. It is this that produces a relaxing effect in the body.

Does The Sleep Hack Really Work?

A life hack, especially a 60-second sleep hack, leads several experts to be skeptical about such a bold claim. Dr. Michelle E. Gordon, founder of Northern Westchester Surgical Associates General, acute and emergency surgery specialist, has tried Weil’s breathing technique and attests falling asleep in a minute did not work for her. However, she told Medical Daily in an email: “The breath does elicit a sense of relaxation and calm. I teach it to my patients as a means of keeping calm when having anxiety over surgery or post-operative anxiety. It works.”

Gordon believes the breathing exercise works because it works in the same way as meditation: It helps people quiet the mind and let go of preoccupying thoughts.

The truth behind Weil’s 4-7-8 exercise is it takes practicing this twice a day over two months to perfect the technique until you can truly fall asleep in a minute. Once you’ve mastered it, it will become more and more effective and even help you deal with anxiety and stress in your life. Soon, going to bed will be as simple as taking a deep breath.