Sleep is a quiescent behavioral state during which complex homeostatic functions essential to health and well-being occur. Insomnia is a very common psychiatric disorder leading to a myriad of detrimental effects including loss of concentration, memory, and performance as well as disease. Current pharmaceutical treatments can be expensive, impairing, unhealthy, and habit-forming. Relaxation techniques, such as meditation target the brain and body in contrast to pharmaceutical interventions which solely target neurotransmitter systems in the brain. In this article we present a viewpoint on the treatment of insomnia that techniques of slow, deep breathing (0.1 Hz) in adjunct to sleep hygiene and relaxation therapies may be highly effective in initiating sleep as well as facilitating falling back asleep. The autonomic nervous system is integral to sleep initiation, maintenance, and disruption. Understanding the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and sleep physiology along with the nature of sleep itself remains a challenge to modern science. We present this perspective in light of a prevailing "dysevolution" theory on the pathology of insomnia that proposes hyper-arousal characterized in part by chronic sympathetic hyperactivation and/or parasympathetic hypoactivation disrupts normal sleep onset latency, sleep quality, and sleep duration. We additionally discuss physiological mechanisms responsible for the effectiveness of the breathing treatment we describe. A better understanding of these mechanisms and autonomic pathologies of insomnia may provide support for the effectiveness of such techniques and provide relief to sufferers of this health epidemic.
Keywords: autonomic nervous system; cardiorespiratory synchronization; evolutionary mismatch hypothesis; hyper-arousal; insomnia; paced breathing; slow breathing.