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Breathe your way to better sleep and overall recovery

By Dana Santas, CNN

In Part I of the series, I outlined the overall power of breathing to impact our bodies and minds. Then in Part II, I shared how our breathing pattern can impact posture, movement and pain. Those articles demonstrated how the quality of our breathing pattern — good or bad — has a corresponding positive or negative effect on many aspects of our health and wellness. Your ability to recover is no exception. In this third installment, we examine the influential role breathing plays in recovery, and I share tips to help you leverage your breathing to get the quality sleep you need.

Your body’s need for sleep to recover

Giving your body the time and support to recover is vital to your physical health and psychological well-being. This is why sleep takes up nearly one-third of your life.

The only way the recovery process can take place is through activation of the parasympathetic aspect of your autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and recover” or “rest and digest” state. It triggers a lowering of blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone production while supporting the processes that facilitate restoration and renewal, like sleep and digestion. Not only is it essential for helping us fall asleep but, during quality, deep sleep, we exhibit parasympathetic nervous system dominance.

While you are awake, your autonomic nervous system is constantly toggling between your parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight-or-flight” state. By calibrating levels of both these states based on your life’s circumstances, your autonomic nervous system is designed to foster homeostasis, or a state of equilibrium.

However, in the face of chronic stress, you can get stuck more in the highly stimulated sympathetic state, making it very difficult to diminish your stress response and switch into “rest and recover” mode to enable sleep.

With our high-stress, hyperstimulated lives in mind, it’s no surprise that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 Americans don’t get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep per night. What’s more, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, sleeping fewer than seven hours on a regular basis is associated with numerous negative health implications, like weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, impaired immune function, increased pain, impaired performance, and greater risk of death.

The good news is that there are effective ways you can leverage your breathing to release yourself from the high-stress state.

The key to initiating recovery

Breathing is the only aspect of the autonomic nervous system you can control, which makes it the key to unlocking your parasympathetic nervous system to support recovery.

As a breathing coach in pro sports, I work with team coaches who understand the paramount importance of prioritizing recovery methods to achieve elite-level performance.

One of them, Paul Fournier, major league strength coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, said this to me about leveraging breathing: “Here at the Philadelphia Phillies, we perform in a high-stress environment, both mentally and physically. We realize that deep breathing is a powerful tool that can help reduce that anxiety and muscle tension by accessing the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby assisting in recovery.”

Again, the quality of your breathing pattern can positively or negatively impact other aspects of your health. In Part II, we looked at the posture, movement and pain implications of being stuck in a rapid, shallow, upper-chest-oriented breathing pattern. That same faulty pattern that so many people unknowingly suffer from contributes to locking you into the highly stimulated, “fight-or-flight” mode.

This is why it’s so important to learn to breathe better, using the power of your diaphragm in coordination with the movement of your ribs. For guidance, check out this video.

By transitioning from the vertical, upper-chest breathing pattern to a healthier, more horizontal breath, you can learn to leverage your breathing to elicit a relaxation response, enabling recovery.

How to breathe your way to better sleep

When it comes to using your breath to foster sleep, there are two specific breathing exercise I teach that have proven very effective. With both exercises, it’s essential that you employ proper breathing biomechanics, covered in Part II, to help release overworked upper-body muscles and promote relaxation. If you’re still working on getting your ribs to move properly, practice a round of six breaths in my 5-7-3 breathing pattern before doing the exercises below.

Breathing countdown to sleep

Ever tried counting sheep to fall asleep? The impetus behind the activity is to focus your mind enough to quiet the thoughts that are keeping you awake.

Counting deep breaths backward is a quick-and-easy meditative technique that helps you focus your mind, just like the sheep counting; however, breath-counting is much more effective, because deep breathing elicits a parasympathetic state that promotes the physiological processes to induce and maintain sleep.

To do it, simply get comfortable in your bed with your eyes closed and establish a long, deep breath with your exhales extending at least a couple seconds longer than your inhales. Think of your exhales like sighs of relief.

When you are ready, start with the number 20, imagining it in your mind’s eye as you inhale. Then, as you exhale, let the number disappear. On your next inhale, visualize the number 19 and so on. If thoughts come into your head or you lose track of the count, start over. Some nights, I start over several times before finally falling asleep. If you get from 20 to 1 and sleep still eludes you, repeat the process or extend your count 30 to 1 or 40 to 1.

Peace pause breathing

Sometimes daily stress not only manifests in your breathing pattern but also weighs heavily on your mind. When that’s the case, I recommend practicing at least six rounds of this exercise before bedtime to help you achieve a peaceful mental state and evoke a relaxation response prior to sleep.

Sitting comfortably on or near your bed, close your eyes and gradually lengthen and deepen your breathing to follow this pace: five-count inhalation, seven-count exhalation and a five-count pause after exhalation. Once you have achieved the pattern, begin spelling out P-E-A-C-E in your mind during the pause before you move on to your next inhalation. After practicing this exercise, you can also do the breathing countdown to sleep described above.

Create a sleep routine that includes breathing

Consistently getting the sleep you need is crucial. To do so, be proactive in routinely taking steps that support daily rest.

For some expert advice, I tapped my friend Brandon Marcello, a high-performance strategist specializing in sleep, who also works with the military and pro sports teams like the Toronto Raptors.

According to Marcello, “In order to achieve optimal sleep, you must have good sleep hygiene.”

He defines sleep hygiene as “quantity, quality and the consistency of both,” and he compares it to dental hygiene: “It’s just like brushing your teeth; you wouldn’t wake up and only brush your bottom teeth or decide to only brush for 20 seconds because you know the downside of poor dental hygiene.”

Marcello said, “It’s the same for sleep. There’s a downside to poor sleep hygiene, so it needs to be based on a routine, like dental hygiene.”

When it comes to creating a sleep routine, Marcello said it should be individualized and focused on environment and pre-sleep activities.

Marcello recommends a dark, cool room as the ideal environment for sleep. Part of your nightly routine might be closing your shades, dimming the lights or moving the thermostat down a few degrees.

He offers his clients a pre-sleep menu to help them create a personalized routine. The routine can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour. Length is inconsequential as long as you are practicing a stable routine to “get your body and mind in a position to accept sleep,” Marcello said.

Marcello’s sleep menu includes activities like the following:

  • Reading
  • Relaxing music
  • Meditation
  • Stretching
  • Breathing exercises

“In our hyperstimulated society, we are bombarded with artificial light, TV, social media … and it has a physiological impact manifesting as sympathetic activation,” Marcello said. This is where he said breathing plays a big role and why it needs to be integrated into your pre-sleep routine — and I agree.

Since quality sleep requires parasympathetic activity, which you can elicit through deep breathing, all of the pre-sleep activities in your routine should incorporate an awareness of breath. This is especially true with meditation and stretching.

Personally, I’m a big proponent of pre-sleep stretching in coordination with deep breathing. The video at the top this article is based on pre-sleep stretching routines I design for professional athletes to help them access their parasympathetic nervous system — relaxing their muscles and minds — after night games and travel.

Now that you know how to leverage your breathing for better sleep and how to create an effective sleep routine, you have the power to put your restless nights to bed.

Next week, in our final installment, I will empower you with breathing techniques to combat anxiety for better stress management and enhanced focus throughout your waking hours.

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