Fall Asleep Faster: Better Sleep for Better Recovery

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Insomniacs celebrate. Because researchers have found the answer to fall asleep faster. And it takes less than a minute! No it’s not a magical pill, sound machine or involve the counting of any herded animal. It’s better than that.

But wait, if you love your nightly tossing and turning, staring at the ceiling fan or sheep counting, then stop reading now. Because this 60-seconds-to-sleep method might change your bedroom habits for good.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a Harvard trained physician, uses holistic breathing techniques to get you into dreamland faster. A lot faster.

HERE’S HOW IT WORKS

The technique is based on the 4-7-8 Principle. This is apparently the magical ratio for how long your breaths should be in order to induce instant relaxation to the rest of your body. 

When you’re cozy in your jammies and snug under the covers (or sitting in a chair with your back straight as recommended by the sleep guru), close your eyes.

Dr. Weil first says you have to put the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissues just behind your upper front teeth. And then keep it there for the entire exercises – breathing in and out. And if it feels weird, he says to purse your lips to make it less awkward. Not sure if that’s less awkward, but we’ll follow the expert’s advice.

Then follow this series:

  1. Exhale all of the air out of your lungs by making a “whooshing” sound from your mouth (remember, keep your tongue at the roof of your mouth).
  2. Inhale for 4 seconds. It seems long, but keep breathing in the entire time.
  3. Hold that inhale for a count of 7 seconds.
  4. Then slowly breath out, with that same slow “whooshing” sound for 8 seconds. Empty your lungs completely and make sure it takes the entire time.

That is one complete breath. Hence the reason it’s called the 4-7-8 Principle.

Woman sleeping in a chair, fall asleep faster even in a chairThe repeat this cycle a total of 3 times. In only 57 seconds and you should be ready to snooze at the end of the third cycle. See I told you, just one minute to fall asleep faster.

Instant sleep here we come!

Okayyyyy that sounds all fine and dandy.

BUT DOES IT REALLY MAKE ME FALL ASLEEP FASTER?

In the quest for science and knowledge, I decided to give this a try. After all, it came from a doctor so it must work, right? Now, I wasn’t really ready for bed (since it was 2:00 in the afternoon when I tried it. But what the heck, if it works, it works).

So I sat in a comfy chair, closed my eyes, and put my tongue in place. Then I started breathing and counting.

At the end of breath cycle 1, I felt no different. This must be a gimmick.

And the end of breath cycle 2, I could feel my shoulders drop in relaxation. Okayyyy something’s happening.

And at the end of the last cycle, I felt a noticeable difference in my calmness and relaxation. Was I ready to crash into a deep and sweet slumber? Uh no. But that noticeable difference in relaxation in just 60 seconds is still pretty impressive. There might be something to this breathing thing. It must work for something.

SO WHAT DO OTHER SMART PEOPLE THINK?

To investigate a little further, I started researching what other sleep gurus thought about this magical sleep cure all.  Does it really make you fall asleep faster?

And surprisingly, a lot of folks support this.   Now, not every sleep doctor touts this as the magic instant sleep fix, but it is more widely recognized and championed than I thought. After all, it doesn’t sound like it could be true. But plenty of experts see the perks. It’s just that most people see it more as a 60-second stress and anxiety reducer than an instant sleep inducer.

Sheldon Cooper having a panic attack and breathing into a brown bag

When someone is stressed, they typically start having much shallower breathing. Experts call it underbreathing because they take in less air and exhale it much quicker. And during those stressful times, that person probably doesn’t even know they do this. It’s more of a biological response to stress.

But this shallower breathing leads to a build up of toxins in the blood. The lungs aren’t able to fully fill and that means less oxygen in your blood to clear out the nasty junk that shouldn’t be there. Less oxygen travelling around the body leads to a foggy brain, dim focus and weak and tired muscles. It’s one way that anxiety wears your body down.

The 4-7-8 Principle is just one variation of diaphragmatic breathing – a fancy term for deep, purposeful breathing. When you focus on your breathing and filling your lungs completely, you re-oxygenate your blood. Since most of us don’t naturally inhale for a whole 4 seconds, this longer inhale forces way more air into our lungs than we’re used to. When you hold that huge amount of air in, you force it to start interacting with your blood stream quickly. Then you exhale out all of the carbon dioxide. Completely emptying your lungs in order to take in a huge gasp of more fresh air.

That rush of fresh oxygen surges throughout your muscles and brain to clean out those toxins.   But it also slows down your heart rate, which is how it can slow down your anxious feelings. And by slowing down your breathing pattern and getting a rush of oxygen into your blood, you can actually give yourself a mild light-headedness, which can be interpreted as restful or sleepiness.

These controlled breaths change your blood, your brain and your central nervous system. All in under 60 seconds. And some researchers say that the amount of time you spend on each part of the breath doesn’t change these results. They found that people can feel more relaxed with breathing times of 3-3-6 or 4-5-7. The times are much less important than the focus on filling your lungs, holding it in and slowly exhaling out the CO2. So don’t worry if you only inhaled for 3 seconds during the exercise, it’s not going to change your success. Just as long as you keep breathing in deep and exhaling slowly.

SO IS IT WORTH IT?

If you’re always tossing and turning in search of the z’s, this 60 second technique is definitely worth a try. The creator of the 4-7-8 technique does say that, like all things, it might take your body time to get used to it before it actually helps you fall asleep faster. He recommends practicing it twice a day (hopefully at times when you can be more restful afterward). And then after a few weeks of practice, it’ll be more powerful and potent at relaxing you. That’s when it can really put you to sleep in less than a minute.

But you can also use it for more than just a quick sleep. Other folks suggest using it any time you’re anxious, nervous or overwhelmed. Because it calms your central nervous system, it can be used anytime throughout the day just to relax your mind. Big presentation coming up at work or midterm in an hour? Try it. Just hope you don’t fall asleep…

WHY DO WE EVEN CARE?

Sure, sleep is important, but does it really matter if you only get 5 hours of sleep instead of the recommended 8 that we all know we should be getting? If you stay up a few extra hours watching TV, is it really going to change much? Are one or two nights of sleeplessness really going to do serious damage?

It might not seem like it, but insufficient sleep can instantly change your body.

Having just one or two sleepless nights can already mess with your fitness success. Because those sleepless nights make your hormones wacky, increase your sugar cravings (because you’re searching for more energy) and can even change the way your body responds to the food you eat (yes, by storing more as fat to use for energy later). So less sleep leads to higher fat levels. And that happens just after a day or two. Imagine sleepless nights for a week or more! No wonder you’re struggling to lose that pesky fat.

Woman holding a cupcake in one hand and an apple in the other

Our bodies are designed to run on sleep. In fact, when you’re sleeping is one of the best times for calorie and fat burn. That’s right, it all happens when you’re zonked out.

Imagine this: If you go to bed early enough (around 10 or 11PM) and you sleep through the night without being interrupted, your body will be able to wake naturally around 6AM without an alarm clock! It’s true! Most of us just never get to feel this glorious, restful wakening because we have wonky sleep hygiene that puts our hormones out of whack. But if we use good sleep hygiene and match it with our natural circadian clock, we’ll be golden.

Here’s why: In the morning, when we rise, our bodies get a surge of cortisol to increase our body temperatures. That’s because through the night, our temperatures drop since we aren’t moving. Then that morning sunlight tells our melatonin to shut off and keep us alert for the day. Hello full day of energy.

As the day progresses, our bodies keep warming up and hit a peak in performance between 2:30 and 6PM. So if you’re looking for an optimal time to get your workout in, start hitting the gym in this window. You should have plenty of energy and focus right now.

As the sun starts to set, our melatonin starts increasing and slows down our neural function in preparation for sleep. We slowly ease into a night of rest.

Then, when you’re finally lights out, prolactin and growth hormone are released to help you burn fat while you sleep.  

Your natural circadian clock will tell you once you’ve had enough rest to energize you for tomorrow and you’ll wake up on the right side of the bed, full of energy (for once).

But if you mess with your circadian clock, this perfect sleep cycle doesn’t happen. Lights, noise, eating, even people can chance your sleep cycles. Your hormone levels drop at weird times, your energy spikes and plummets when it doesn’t need to and your body becomes confused when it’s time to be alert and productive or sleeping like a baby.

Man falling asleep at his work desk

 

But just because it’s broken now doesn’t mean you can’t fix your circadian clock! Of course, it’ll take time and consistency to get your body back to it’s rhythm, but successful sleep is possible. And then you may not even need to use the 4-7-8 technique to make yourself fall asleep.

Here’s a few quick fixes to get your circadian clock back running smoothly:

  • Get into a routine. Go to bed and wake at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol or stimulates. These will obviously keep you awake and keep screwing with your sleep schedule.
  • Get blackout curtains in your bedroom. Too much light can signal your melatonin to stop and tell your body to stay awake.
  • Avoid Wi-Fi and electronics right before bed because they also decrease your melatonin levels.
  • Keep your room cold at night and your house or office warm during the day. These mimic your body temperatures during a circadian clock and help tell your body when it’s time to rest and time to wake.
  • Eat breakfast every morning and stop eating about 2-3 hours before you plan to fall asleep
  • Have social interactions during the day, but limit those interactions at night. Social interactions boost your alertness, so find some solitude when it’s close to bedtime.
  • Make sure you exercise, but don’t go overboard. Sedentary folks usually have trouble sleeping, but so do the hard core 2-a-dayers. Find a happy medium.

Once you’ve changed a few of these sleep routines habits, you should start to notice more routine sleep cycles (and hopefully fall asleep faster). Then it’s just sweet dreams from there.

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