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Take a Deep Breath Toward Better Sleep

What to do if you're tired of counting sheep.

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Bartholomew Cooke / Trunk Archive
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If you've noticed the quality of your sleep declining as you age, you're probably wondering, What's the deal? — quickly followed by What can I do about it?

Sleep problems are common for both men and women as they age. The culprits? It could be a combination of factors, including sleep patterns changing as you get older, hormone fluctuations for women going through menopause, an increase in medical conditions and/or an increase in medications to treat those conditions.

In general, practicing self-care helps you sleep better.

"People who seem to take care of themselves will have better sleep in the long run,” says Michael Breus, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “What I mean by that is doing things like exercising daily or at least weekly, eating nutritious foods and staying hydrated, all of which will help you sleep well into your senior years."

But in the short term — relax, you can deal with these sleep problems. No, really relax — through deep-breathing exercises.

In a nutshell, deep breathing lowers your heart rate. According to Breus (aka the Sleep Doctor), your heart rate, on average, should be about 60 beats per minute or less in order to enter into a state of unconsciousness. Most people's heart rate is closer to 75 or 80, he says.

"When you do deep, diaphragmatic breathing, it lowers your heart rate very quickly and lowers the anxiety that's associated with the higher heart rate,” Breus notes. “That's really where the magic happens.” However, he cautions that, before trying any deep-breathing exercises, screen yourself to make sure you don't have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or any type of restrictive lung disease. And talk to your doctor first if you're a smoker.

If you're tired of counting sheep and popping melatonin, you might want to add the easy, sleep-inducing practice of deep breathing to your bedtime ritual. One popular technique? The 4-7-8 deep-breathing exercise. Here's how it works for sleep.

Step 1: Do this technique once you've already gotten ready for sleep (face washed, teeth brushed, etc.) and you're lying in bed in a cool, dark, quiet room.

Step 2: Slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four. (If you have difficulty breathing through your nose — say you've got significant nasal congestion — that's fine, Breus says. Just breathe through your mouth.)

Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of seven.

Step 4: Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight.

According to Breus, when you're a shallow breather, some carbon dioxide still remains in your lungs and you don't get a full lung extension. What you're looking for with this exercise is to “get a really nice, big lung extension by pushing all that old air out.” Then, when you're inhaling, you're breathing in more air, “which is good because you're getting oxygen going through the heart and getting out to the extremities."

Besides slowing down your heart rate and lowering your anxiety, Breus says that deep-breathing exercises also serve as a distraction. “The No. 1 complaint that I hear from my patients is they can't turn off their brain at night, “ Breus explains. “When you are focused on counting breaths, it distracts you from those anxiety-provoking thoughts."

For the best effect, do the 4-7-8 technique for about five to seven complete cycles. However, Breus notes to be careful so that you don't get light-headed or hyperventilate. The key? Don't rush it — just breathe deeply, slowly and steadily on both the inhale and the exhale.

Look to the 4-7-8 deep-breathing exercise only as a presleep anxiety-reduction technique that will help you fall asleep quicker, Breus says. “I've never seen any data that shows that breathing techniques prior to bed make you sleep any deeper or stay asleep longer."

One final note: When it comes to better sleep, it helps to look at your air quality and humidity. To improve your indoor air quality, use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in your home's AC unit and change them often, keep your home clean, and open your windows to occasionally let fresh air in and circulate through your home.

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