The free, easy way to fall asleep (and no, it’s not counting sheep.)

Image: iStock

Here are two things we know for sure.

1. Sleep is important.

2. Falling asleep is not always easy.

And on top of that, you may have heard that there’s this thing called the June supermooon happening at the moment – which is inflaming everyone’s emotions and making us all a bit cranky.

Of course we already know that there are myriad factors that can keep you wide awake way past your bedtime – nerves, excitement, stress, the weather, caffeine and major astronomical movements. Regardless of why it happens, trying to coax your body into sleep can be immensely frustrating.

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Some of us try counting sheep. Others make silent bargains with their brain to make it just shut up and rest. Then there’s the world of sleep-inducing medications — of course, it’s always advisable to see your GP if you’re having ongoing trouble with sleep.

However, for temporary sleeplessness, there’s one sleep-easy technique that’s making headlines lately. It costs nothing, it’s easy to master, and according to reviews it’s both fast and effective.

It's a breathing technique called 4-7-8, and it's really quite straightforward.

First, you exhale loudly through your mouth (and make a nice "whoosh" sound). Then, you breathe in quietly through your nose for a mental count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.

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Dr Andrew Weil, who developed the trick, claims it acts as a "natural tranquilliser for the nervous system" which gets more powerful the more often you practise it. He recommends doing it at least twice a day and only repeating the breaths four times for the first month, upping it to eight when you're more used to it.

Here's a clip of Dr Weil demonstrating the technique:

It sounds simple, but for some people it seems to work.

Just ask Alina Gonzalez, editor of the website, who recently shared an account of how she tried 4-7-8 breathing in the lead up to a friend's wedding, where she would be making a speech. Gonzalez was struggling to fall asleep due to nerves, but she found the breathing trick knocked her out within seconds, as she writes:

"[T]o my complete disbelief, I woke up the next morning unable to even remember getting to the eighth second of the exhale because it knocked me out that fast. For the next four nights leading up to the big day, even as my stress increased, I was able to fall asleep the minute I tried the 4-7-8 trick."


Gonzalez believes the effectiveness of the trick derives from its ability to force your body to slow down and take in more oxygen - even when all that adrenalin is making your heart race uncontrollably:

"[I]n order to hold your breath for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight—when your breath is so shallow and short—your body is forced to slow your heart rate ... Holding your breath, and then slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain reaction. It feels like going from a mad-dash sprint to a finish line to a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park."

A stroll in the park sounds great, if you ask us. It sure beats having to conjure up, then count, a flock of imaginary flying sheep.

Even if you're not struggling to fall asleep, you can still embrace the 4-7-8 technique. Dr Weil suggests using it in stressful, anxious situations - just stop, sit upright and start breathing.

"Use it whenever anything upsetting happens - before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension," he writes.

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Dr Joel Kahn uses this style of breathing to "bring balance back" in high-stress situations. As he explains on MindBodyGreen, research backs the benefits of using breathing techniques:

"Subjects taught to breathe slowly and deeply as a mind-body practice show beneficial changes in the autonomic nervous system favouring parasympathetic relaxation, document changes increases in skin temperature from better artery flow, and reveal reductions in blood pressure compared to control subjects."

As with anything, this approach might not work for you. Likewise, if your sleeplessness (or anxiety) persists, it's important to have a chat to your GP - there could be something else at play that may need to be addressed using other treatments.

But in the meantime, it's worth keeping this technique up your sleeve for the next time you're plagued by late-night brain hyperactivity (seriously, brain, get your act together).

Good luck and, hopefully, goodnight.

Is there a trick that you use to fall asleep? Share it in the comments below.

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