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Breathe in, breathe out

The connection between breath and sleep

Do you often spend many hours staring at the ceiling because you struggle to fall asleep? If the answer is yes, then you’ve probably already tried every trick in the book. Ensuring you get enough daylight during the day, regular exercise, making your bedroom as dark as possible, reducing exposure to blue light in the evening, doing a brain-dump before bedtime, drinking chamomile tea, taking a warm shower, clearing the clutter from your bedroom… If you’re ticking all the boxes but still have trouble falling asleep, consider your breathing. Indeed, there is a strong connection between breath and sleep.

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If you can’t sleep, doing some breathing exercises may make a big difference. But before we get into those, let’s take a look at how breath and sleep are connected.

How are breath and sleep connected?


The ‘fight or flight’ response

The average human takes between 20.000 and 25.000 breaths per day. Most of the time, we don’t give them a second thought. Breathing is one of our unconscious bodily functions, just like our heart rate and digestion. It is regulated by our autonomic nervous system, which is also responsible for triggering our acute stress response – better known as ‘fight or flight’. We inherited this ‘fight or flight’ response from our ancestors, who needed it to survive. Once triggered, the body instantly goes into survival mode, preparing itself to either fight or flee. Breathing becomes rapid and shallow in order to increase the oxygen intake.

A threat is a threat

One could say that if our ancestors had not been equipped with ‘fight or flight’, we wouldn’t even be here today. But in this modern era, most of us do not experience life-threatening situations on a daily basis. We may stress about work, finances, relationships, family issues, rising energy prices and politics, but we don’t have to escape from predators that are an immediate threat to our lives. The part of our brain that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response seems unaware of our relatively safe lives, because it responds to every threat in the same way. It doesn’t matter whether it is a physical threat or psychological threat (i.e. something you’re worrying about). Sometimes, it does not even distinguish real threats from imagined ones. They are all followed by your nervous system being stimulated and your ‘fight or flight’ response getting triggered. This also occurs when we are just a little bit too stressed. And when that happens, you can forget about sleep.

Sending back the right signals

Fortunately, you do have some control over your sympathetic nervous system. It basically comes down to sending back the right signals, telling it that everything is okay. If you succeed, your ‘rest and digest’ mode will be activated, and your body will calm down enough to fall asleep. The best way to send the right signals, is by deep, relaxed breathing. Taking slow and low inhales through your nose and exhaling through your mouth slows down your heart rate and reduces your blood pressure. Your muscles relax.

Because breathing is something we do not often think about, it can be difficult to be determine how you should breathe to calm down your nervous system. Breathing exercises to sleep better can help – these 3 super easy breathing techniques for beginners are perfect to get you started.


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