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Breathing the 4-7-8 Way for Stress Relief

Doc Talk with Dr. Kahn

While I think proper nutrition with plant based foods packed with nutrients is the first step in all wellness plans, sometimes those plans get derailed because the stress of life gets in the way. Work issues, family, friends, finances, and other concerns may seem to have control over our ability to pick a strawberry protein smoothie over a sausage sandwich with jelly.

I struggle with this too and find that the defenses go down when the stress goes up. On most days when I go to work it is to my preventive cardiology practice. Usually the stress is not too great there as I am the “master of my domain” in that element. 

Some days are different however because I also serve as an expert in courtroom proceedings, using my medical knowledge to testify. Not long ago I was about to walk into court as an expert witness on a $1 billion dollar medical patent lawsuit. Each table had 15 lawyers from the largest firms in the country.  My testimony would go on for hours and was going to be taken by Mr. S, famous for his loud red ties, his flamboyant mannerisms, and his ability to make witnesses shake.  I knew my stuff cold but I needed to steady my nerves. So what did I do? Did I reach for the glazed donut? 

No, I did not. Rather, I leaned against the wall, closed my eyes, and took my self through a practice of breathing that takes under 90 seconds and has served me well to bring balance back to the moment. 

What was the relaxation practice I used before I pushed the heavy wood doors open into the courtroom?  It was the 4-7-8 relaxation breathing sequence. I learned the 4-7-8 breathing practice from the writings of Drs. Andrew Weil and Tierona Low Dog.

The technique shifts the autonomic nervous system away from the sympathetic predominance that makes our hearts race and our palms sweaty when we face a stressful moment. That may also make us grab a garbage food bar out of the vending machine to cope.

The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique

The 4-7-8 breathing allows the parasympathetic nervous system to be predominant. The relaxing breathing exercise is done in the following manner:

  1. Sit up straight in a chair
  2. Place the tip of your tongue up against the roof of your mouth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
  3. Breathe in silently through your nose to the slow count of 4
  4. Hold your breath to the count of 7
  5. Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making a slight audible sound
  6. Repeat the 4-7-8 cycle another three times, for a total of four breathing exercises

Can breathing really work to train our nervous system to find a calm place from which we can manage life more successfully?  Thousands of years of practice in many religious traditions support that it does.  Recent scientific studies also confirm the benefits.  For example, subjects taught to breathe slowly and deeply as a mind-body practice show beneficial changes in the autonomic nervous system favoring parasympathetic relaxation, document changes increases in skin temperature from better artery flow, and reveal reductions in blood pressure compared to control subjects.

That day in court went well. After I used the 4-7-8 breathing sequence, I entered court, was sworn in, and performed at my peak testifying calmly for the next 5 hours.  I think if you will practice, you can benefit from this important tool also. Svatmarama wrote in the Hatha Yoga Prakipika that “when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath”.  This ancient wisdom still rings true today.  I hope it helps you manage stress, make better decisions on your nutrition, and even get along with your family and peers. That would be a habit useful to learn.

About Dr. Kahn

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from the University of Michigan, Dr. Kahn now serves as a Clinical Professor of Cardiology at Wayne State University and Founder, the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity. He opened GreenSpace Cafe in Ferndale, MI along with his son Daniel, the largest plant-based bar and restaurant between the coasts. His first book, The Whole Heart Solution, is now a Public TV special. He can be found at