Here’s How Breathing Impacts Your Quality Of Sleep—And How To Improve It

It's way more important than you think.

sleep quality
Image: Unsplash

If you have trouble sleeping, you’ll know how dramatically it can impact your quality of life and overall sense of health and wellbeing. You’ve probably tried all sorts to remedy your slumber—cutting out caffeine, dedicating two hours a night to a self-care ‘unwind’ routine and eschewing technology of an evening in favour of a good, old-fashioned book. But have you ever thought about how the most simple of acts—breathing— can impact your dream time?

Here’s what you need to know about breathing for optimal sleep, and how to remedy any issues:

Do you wake up in the middle of the night?

Turns out, waking up in the middle of the night (usually, for women, “to pee”) can be a sign of an underlying health issue—usually related to a spike in cortisol. This could be caused by a number of things, and could mean that you’re not achieving the slow, deep, quality breathing that’s necessary for restful sleep.

As you may know, our bodies have an autonomic nervous system which has two modes. “Rest and digest,” which is the parasympathetic state, and “fight or flight,” which is the sympathetic state. The sympathetic state comes into action only when we are responding to a stressor; our heart rates speed up and our breathing gets shallower and more rapid. This reaction is supposed to be an acute one however; not a chronic one that wakes you up at 3am every morning.

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

The opposite happens when we are in the parasympathetic state—and obviously, our bodies are meant to be in the parasympathetic, state when we are in our ultimate, zzz-catching resting state.

The importance of ‘breathing correctly’:

Turns out that the way that we breathe dramatically affects the state our body is in—and breathing through the nose puts your body into that calm and relaxed parasympathetic state.

Clearly, it’s optimal for us to breathe through our noses when we sleep. When we nose-breathe, it keeps our bodies in the parasympathetic state so it can actually “rest and digest” and carry out all of the processes necessary to recover from the previous day. Mouth-breathing, though, can put us back into the sympathetic state, and make us wake up more frequently.

Remedy #1: Mouth taping

Yup, staying true to the old adage that “mouths are built for eating, noses are built for breathing”, mouth taping works to optimise breathing patterns by directing airflow through the nose, in order to improve nose breathing.

Taping your mouth shut (sounds weird we know) activates the parasympathetic nervous system, protecting you from stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness. It also produces nitric oxide, a gas that kills bacteria in airborne particles, thus boosting immunity, as well as helping to maintain optimal blood oxygen saturation, which lends itself to enhanced focus, strength, and stamina. Quite the resumé!

Image: christinaricewellness.com

Remedy #2 Alternate nostril breath

A great way of becoming accustomed to breathing through your nose and prepare for sleep is to use the yogi breathing technique, nadi shodhana. Sitting up, breathe in through one nostril while you gently block the other one by pressing your finger against it. When you exhale, release your finger and breathe through the other nostril, blocking the opposite nostril.

Remedy #3 Lengthened breath

Inhale for a count of three, then exhale for a count of six. Change up the numbers to suit you, but the idea is to have a prolonged exhale in comparison to your inhale. Slow, deep breathing like this, known as pranayamic breathing, resets your autonomic nervous system and will help you achieve sleep much quicker.

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