One of the functions of mind-body medicine is to tap into the body’s natural relaxation response -- in order to promote slower breathing, improve blood pressure, reduce stress and enhance wellness. Breathing exercises, or the focus on slow, regular and sometimes deep breathing, are helpful ways to manage stress and improve health. One such breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 technique, also called the relaxing breath exercise.
Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that describes the regulation of breathing to achieve health benefits. An ancient Indian practice, pranayama involves the manipulation of breath with 3 phases -- inhalation, retention and exhalation. A study published in the January 2014 “Journal of Diagnostic Research” linked both fast and slow types of pranayama to reduced stress and improved cognition, including attention, retention as well as speed in tasks that merge vision and physical action, such as playing video games. Several types of breathing exercises can be considered pranayama, including breathing techniques used in yoga and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
The 4-7-8 Method
The numbers in the name -- 4-7-8 -- refer to the counts when breathing in, holding your breath and exhaling. Start by sitting up straight in a comfortable position. Next, place the tip of your tongue on the ridge of your gums, just behind your upper front teeth. Expand your diaphragm and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for another count of 7. Open your mouth slightly, keeping your tongue in place, and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat this cycle 4 times.
Proponents of the 4-7-8 method recommend using this technique at least twice a day. It’s promised to be powerful if used regularly over time. The idea behind these scheduled exercise sessions, however, is to retrain your entire way of breathing. With enough practice, you should begin breathing more deeply without thinking about it. Unfortunately, little if any research is available on the benefits of this specific breathing technique. However, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), breathing exercises are linked to a variety of health benefits including improved anxiety, pain and blood pressure.
Precautions and Next Steps
The 4-7-8 method is a breathing exercise based on the ancient practice of pranayama. It can be helpful in managing stress and anxiety, and may improve health outcomes. It’s an easy technique that almost anyone can be trained to do. According to NCCIH, relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises are generally safe. However, anyone with a history of abuse, trauma, psychiatric conditions or epilepsy should talk with their doctor or therapist first, as there have been reports of certain relaxation techniques worsening symptoms in some people with these conditions. While breathing exercises can improve health, they are not a replacement for medical care and prescription medications, so continue to follow up with your doctor for care of any medical conditions.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH, RD