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ADVANCE Perspective: Respiratory Views

Didgeridoo Your Sleep a Favor

Published May 12, 2016 2:17 PM by ADVANCE for Respiratory Care & Sleep Medicine

By Tamer Abouras


There are few feelings as helpless as overwhelming as daytime fatigue and drowsiness. Speaking as someone who’s experienced a heaviness in my eyes sometime shortly after lunch since at least middle school, I can honestly say it’s a virtual no-win situation. Even a quick caffeine solution only forestalls the inevitable. Your eyes — and the rest of your body — want a little rest, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.


All sorts of resources exist for those of us who struggle with getting an adequate amount of sleep that will help us make it through a grueling, long day, but whether you have a diagnosed, underlying issue such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) or just (like me) have a little trouble falling asleep when you first lie down at night, the answers — beyond prescriptions of actual sleep medicine or products such as a CPAP mask — oftentimes seem a lot like guesswork. Is warm milk still a recommendation?


Still, out of all the unique methods and suggestions for improving your sleep, I’d have to concede that the latest one, currently running in a Men’s Journal article, may be the most novel I’ve ever heard of: better sleep through daily didgeridoo playing and practice.

SEE ALSO: Capnography & Sleep Apnea

Your first question is probably, “What’s a didgeridoo?” It’s a large woodwind instrument —  “a five-foot termite-hollowed tree trunk used for over a thousand years by Australian Aboriginal cultures to play droning notes for long durations using circular breathing,” as Men’s Journal’s Mark Hay puts it.


It’s that circular breathing, according to Milo Puhan, a researcher at the University of Zurich, which may serve as a miracle cure for the sleeping woes of many. Puhan and his team of researchers, “ … took 25 patients with mild OSA and had half of them randomly learn to play the didgeridoo from scratch, practicing five days a week, over the course of four months, while the other half kept living their life as usual,” according to Hay. “In the end they found that those who took up the didge made a dent in their sleep problems, while the control group did not, leading Puhan and company to speculate that the breathing practice involved may have strengthened their airways, easing nighttime respiratory obstructions.”


As for going out and procuring a relatively obscure instrument? Apparently, the respiratory workout and inherent benefits of circular breathing aren’t exclusive to the Aboriginal woodwind section.


“Last year, Michael G. Stewart, MD, MPH, FACS, and a few collaborators published a follow-up study to see how circular breathing works — and whether it functions consistently across people and instruments,” Hay said. “They wound up proving that the skills and muscular control Kenny G once used to play a 45-minute-and-47-second note on a saxophone are the same as those used to play a didge.”


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According to Stewart, professor and chairman of the department of otolaryngology — head and neck surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College, this relatively new theory shouldn’t be considered ironclad or some kind of magical bullet just yet. “Many people with sleep breathing problems have excessive, redundant tissue,” he said, so “muscle tone is only a small part of the issue” for a large number of people with sleep issues.


Still, in terms of the risk versus reward aspect of circular breathing as a treatment modality, Stewart contends that you really have nothing to lose — and potentially lots to gain — by giving it a try.


“This might help a few patients a large amount, or help a lot of patients just a little,” says Stewart. “And [it] certainly should not harm.” 


If this does catch on, I want to be the first to introduce a nickname for this method: the long-term lullaby.

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