Can’t Sleep? There’s a Didgeridoo for That

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For millions of people around the world, daytime drowsiness seems inevitable. Thanks to conditions like sleep apnea or (a partner’s) loud snoring, some folks wander through the day like low-fi zombies even after a full night’s sleep. Yet a little-known piece of medical research, published out of Switzerland about a decade ago, suggests that there may be an unexpected aid for at least some suffering from these physical annoyances: daily didgeridoo practice.

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If you just cocked an eyebrow, your skepticism is well founded. As with everything “traditional,” there’ve long been folks trying to peddle the didgeridoo — 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 a miracle cure. Didge-boosters have claimed that meditating to, receiving a vibratory massage from, or playing one can do anything from improving concentration to alleviating asthma to helping to treat or cure all forms of cancer. And there’s some low-grade evidence to support the idea that didgeridoo practice can help asthmatics. But many claims beyond that lack all evidence, lying on a line spectrum from wishful thinking to quackery.

Yet when Milo Puhan, a researcher at the University of Zurich, heard claims about the effect of didgeridoo practice on sleepiness and snoring from a music instructor, rather than dismiss them, he and a small team put them to the test. The team took 25 patients with mild obstructive sleep apnea 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.

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.

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Fortunately for those not keen on the notion of purchasing a giant slab of wood to stop snoring, the breathing practices involved in Puhan’s study aren’t exclusive to the didgeridoo. Last year, Dr. Michael G. Stewart and a few collaborators published a follow-up study to see how circular breathing works — and whether it functions consistently across people and instruments. 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. In other words, anyone can get a respiratory workout just by practicing circular breathing with most wind instruments, in meditation, or on its own — sans hollow eucalyptus tube.

Before anyone gets too excited about solving all their sleep problems with some fancy lung play, Stewart cautions that, while it makes sense that breathing exercises and respiratory strengthening could improve sleep, the young theory “is not proven or fully accepted at this point.”

“Many people with sleep breathing problems have excessive, redundant tissue,” he adds, so “muscle tone is only a small part of the issue” for a large number of people with sleep issues.

For all his cautions, though, Stewart thinks didgeridoos, other wind instruments, and circular-breathing-as-sleep-aids deserve further study. He also thinks it might be worth giving one a shot if you’re on the market for something to help you (or a jackhammer-nosed partner) sleep sound.

“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.”  

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