Forget Melatonin - Try Lengthened Breathing To Get To Sleep Instead

For those who spend hours endlessly tossing and turning throughout the night, popping melatonin before bed seems innocent enough. In fact, taking melatonin to fall asleep is a key part of the nightly routine for almost 30% of Americans, according to the Sleep Foundation. What begins as an easy solution for insomnia as a college student often transforms into an established habit years after graduation. And while melatonin is hardly dangerous, doctors typically do not recommend melatonin unless you experience severe insomnia, as research on long-term use is limited. Studies indicate that it increases the chance of side effects such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea (via WebMD).

Regardless of whether you belong to the night owls or early birds, a lack of sleep on a regular basis takes a serious toll on your body and mind. Thankfully, sleep supplements aren't the only cure for perpetual crankiness. Lengthened breathing is here to save the day – or the night, for the pedantic folks out there. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry argued that controlled and mindful breathing habits may prove more effective at treating insomnia than pharmaceuticals. Does this mean you should toss out your melatonin stash? There's only one way to find out. Here's what you need to know about using deep breathing techniques for better sleep.

Retrain your breathing pattern

Regardless of whether you belong to the night owls or early birds, a lack of deep and restful sleep on a regular basis is bound to leave you exhausted. Aside from the whole walking zombie aspect of poor sleep, inadequate sleep hygiene also affects memory, concentration, and your body's ability to fight off illness, according to the Sleep Foundation. The key to improved sleep involves stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), commonly referred to as the body's "rest and digest" mode. As opposed to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which activates the "fight or flight" mode, the PNS encourages a state of relaxation which makes it easier for you to fall asleep while slowing your heart rate and promoting digestion, per the Cleveland Clinic.

As it turns out, stimulating your PNS is as easy as breathing. Learning to breathe into your belly tricks your brain into entering a rested state. This type of breathing is referred to as diaphragmatic or belly breathing. While lying in bed, begin by placing a hand on your stomach and taking a deep breath through your nose. Focus on expanding your stomach with each inhale, feeling your hand rise with your stomach. Hold your breath for two seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth without forcing the air out. Repeat this cycle at least ten to 15 times per night.

Follow the 4-7-8 technique

Once you feel comfortable with foundational diaphragmatic breathing, you can move on to a mindful breathing technique. Inspired by an ancient yoga practice known as pranayama, Dr. Andrew Weil's 4-7-8 breathing method takes rhythmic breathing to the next level to encourage deep and restful sleep, per Healthline. Following the 4-7-8 technique also helps you activate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and reduce anxiety by focusing on slower breaths and longer exhales (via the Sleep Foundation).

While lying down, with one hand resting on your stomach and another on your chest, take a deep breath into your belly and then slowly let out all the air from your lungs before the next inhale. For the next breath, inhale through your nose while counting to four seconds. Instead of holding your breath for two seconds, hold it for seven seconds then slowly exhale to the count of eight. Repeat the 4-7-8 technique 10-15 times every day before bed.

The key here is to exhale longer than you inhale which will stimulate the PNS. Learning how to control your breathing by holding your breath and slowing the exhale takes practice, but once you adjust to this type of breathing you will find that you no longer need to rely on that bottle of melatonin sitting on your bedroom nightstand.