Health Column: Breathing yourself to stressless sleep

You know when you’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking how badly you’d like to fall asleep?

It usually happens after thinking of just about everything else, which for me usually consists of creative story leads I can never remember, appointments I need to plan and when I last got my car’s oil changed. 

But health experts say you can actually take control of the situation, using one of the body’s most natural functions — breathing, which can also help during times of stress.

“Calmness is key to everything,” said Patrick Giugliano, manager and lead technician at the Riverhead-Southampton Sleep Disorder Center. “If you’re excited, you’re going to have trouble sleeping.”

Dr. Alexis Hugelmeyer of the Suah Center for Natural Healthcare in Riverhead said that deep breathing improves oxygen delivery to tissues, which can have a calming effect and reduce stress hormone levels.

“Unfortunately most people do not regularly practice breathing as a method of controlling stress,” she said.

Stress is often be the reason behind a sleepless night, Mr. Giugliano said.

“When you go to bed, you think about the lows or the highs, but it is really best to think about things that are mindless,” he said.

Certified clinical hypnotherapist Phoenix Redhawk of the Suah Center said breathing exercises can help, whether you’re in need of a good night’s sleep or clearing the mind of all that’s heavy.

“The breathing techniques that I teach have amazing results,” she said. “It is so, so easy.”

Start by making yourself comfortable, fluffing up that pillow and closing your eyes.

“Take a nice deep breath in through the nose, hold it for a moment and exhale evenly through the mouth,” she said. “They will find that even with that one cycle of breathing the process has begun.”

It begins to influence your heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels and many other bodily functions, she said.

Begin by breathing to counts of three: inhale for three seconds, hold that breath for three seconds, and then exhale evenly for three seconds. Do this three times, then switch to a cycle of six-second breaths, using the same pattern, she said. Then go back to three.

Repeat as necessary until you find yourself drifting away, she advised.

“When you’re doing the count and circular breath, your mind really can’t focus on anything else; you have to focus on what you’re doing,” Ms. Redhawk said.

Even if someone does not get their eight hours of sleep, “when they allow the mind and body to relax, they do much better the next day than if they allowed themselves to get frustrated tossing and turning,” she said.

Miller_HeadshotGot a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].