4 Breathing Exercises for Better Sleep

Written by Aviva Patz
Reviewed by Amy Hess-Fischl, MS, RD, LDN, BC-ADM, CDE

There are many compelling reasons to get a good night’s sleep, beyond wishing there were a way to get through your work day without a mid-afternoon crash. Now a 2015 study shows that sleep deprivation hikes your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and can pack on the pounds, worsening the disease if you already have it.

“Chronic sleep deprivation may lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” explains Judi Bar, yoga program manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. “Elevated cortisol may in turn promote insulin resistance, in which the body can’t use the hormone insulin properly to help move glucose into cells for energy.” On top of that, she adds, lack of quality sleep lowers levels of the hormone leptin, an appetite suppressant, while boosting levels of ghrelin, an appetite stimulant.

Here’s the double whammy: Not only can lack of sleep bring on insulin resistance, but people who have diabetes may also sleep poorly—because they’re up several times in the night to use the bathroom or because they have sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breathing that disrupt sleep. That makes sleep loss an active contributor to diabetes—and also a great challenge to address.

Enter yoga, the mind-body practice that can ease stress and help with control of blood glucose levels. You won’t need to learn any gravity-defying poses because it’s yogic breathing that helps with sleep. “With a single breathing practice you can move into a more relaxed state,” says Bar, who brings yoga into her many wellness programs at the Cleveland Clinic. “Relaxing your muscles, steadying your breath and quieting your mind will help you sleep better.”

Bar offers four breathing practices you can do at bedtime or when you wake up in the middle of the night to help you drift peacefully into la la land.

1. Ocean Breathing

Lie on your back with your head supported. With each inhalation and exhalation breath in with the gentle sound of “haaaa,” so that you are able to hear the sweet audible ocean sound of breath. Pause and take normal breaths if your breathing becomes disturbed or difficult. Count 10 sets of inhales and exhales. If you become distracted before you reach 10, calmly pick up where you left off. “This has a wonderful meditative quality,” Bar says.

 

 

2. Ocean Breath with prolonged exhalation

Lie on your back with your head supported. Inhale through your nose normally. This time, make the “haaa” sound only on the exhale. “This slows the heart rate down and calms the sympathetic nervous system, returning you to a relaxed and restful state,” Bar says. Pause and take normal breaths if your breathing becomes disturbed or difficult.

3. Abdominal Breathing

Lie on your back with your head supported and chin slightly tucked in toward your chest. Position your head, neck and spine in one long line, and let your hands rest on your stomach. With eyes closed, slowly inhale, and as you exhale, draw your stomach in toward your spine, holding for a few seconds at the end. Inhale, relaxing the muscles of your abdomen as they rise into your hands. Return to your natural breathing rhythm—slow, deep and continuous—feeling your hands rise and fall with the breath.

4. Alternate Nostril Breathing

Sit up tall in a comfortable upright position. With your right hand, curl your index and middle fingers to your palm and extend your thumb, ring finger and pinky. Rest your thumb and ring finger on either side of your nose.

To begin, press your thumb on your right nostril to gently close it off, and inhale only through your left nostril. Now switch, releasing your thumb and using your ring finger to gently close your left nostril, exhaling slowly and evenly through your right nostril. Stay in position and inhale through your right nostril; exhale through the left. This is one round. After each exhale, remember to breathe in from the same nostril from which you just exhaled. Continue inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils for five more rounds. Close your eyes, relax, and continue taking long, deep breaths, allowing the air to flow smoothly. This technique, called Nadi Shodhan or Anulom Vilom pranayama, helps clear blocked energy channels in the body, which in turn calms the mind.

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Sleep Apnea and Diabetes