I recently read an article about Dr. Andrew Weil. I remembered Dr. Weil from his popularity and visibility in the 1980s and 90s. I figured he had retired, but the article made clear that Weil, the father of integrative medicine, having spent the last 30 years developing, teaching, and writing on the principle of integrative medicine, medicinal herbs, and mind-body interactions, was as relevant as ever. The article made passing note of a 4-7-8 breathing technique Weil recommends, and religiously practices himself, to align the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems.
This sounded too good to miss, so off to Google I went to learn more.
First, definitions. The sympathetic nervous system controls our bodies’ “fight-or-flight” responses. The parasympathetic system regulates “rest and digest” functions.
Dr. Weil suggests the high rate of inflammation, and diseases associated with inflammation, are due to our bodies spending more time in the sympathetic, fight or flight state, than in the resting or parasympathetic state. So basically, our bodies are spending more time acutely ready for physical activity. That takes a toll, which can lead to inflammation and disease.
Made sense, so I kept researching.
On his website, https://www.drweil.com, Dr Weil defines the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise as follows:
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere. Although you can do it in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath cycle. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four cycles. Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4-7-8 is important.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Do it at least twice a day. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths.
Dr. Weil had me at “This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
I always interpreted the adage to ‘take a deep breath’ to imply that by taking time to breathe, you are creating a moment to pause and reflect before responding. But breathing to help calm my nervous system, and thereby help reduce inflammation, was a twist I had not seen coming.
Better yet, it is easy to do and totally free.
When all else fails? 4-7-8!