Can something as simple as breathing significantly impact how you sleep? According to research, it absolutely can.
The science of breathwork
We all have an automatic nervous system - a part of our nervous system that regulates important processes like blood pressure and heart rate. This system has two states: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for stressful situations, increasing the heart rate and energising the body. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system slows things down - restoring and conserving bodily processes and slowing down the heart rate.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, to prepare ourselves for sleep, we want to be in a parasympathetic state (or ‘rest and digest’ mode, as it’s sometimes called).
Here’s where your breath comes in.
The way we breathe can have a powerful effect on the nervous system. Breathing in stimulates the sympathetic system, while exhaling activates the parasympathetic system. In particular, taking slow, deep breaths can help to bring us into that calm, parasympathetic state, signalling to the body that it’s time to wind down.
What does the research say?
Several studies have demonstrated the powerful effects of breathwork on sleep.
In one study, a group of participants were asked to perform slow-paced breathing for fifteen minutes every night over a period of 30 days. They were compared to a control group who spent the same time using social media apps. The slow-paced breathing group experienced much better sleep (measured via subjective reporting, as well as objectives measures like heart rate variability).
Another controlled trial found similar results, with a ‘pre-sleep slow breathing’ group showing higher parasympathetic activation and an increase of ‘delta power’ compared to controls. (delta wave activity is indicative of a deeper sleep).
Sounds great. Where do I start?