There’s increasing interest from a scientific perspective in breathing techniques. Look up breathing techniques on the internet and you’ll find a number of articles promoting the importance of breathing strategies for our health, ranging from lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation and relieving stress. Is this true? The answer seems to be yes!
Let’s be very clear. We have to breathe to live and our breathing is autonomous. It happens automatically without any conscious effort. Every function in our body, from digestion to moving and even to thinking (!), needs oxygen. Our bodies produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. Your inhale draws air into the body, allowing oxygen to enter the body via the lungs. Your exhale forces air out of the lungs allowing carbon dioxide to leave the body.
Why breathing is a bit of a no brainer for staying alive (!), certain breathing techniques are associated with better health and this is why scientific studies have focused on trying to understand this link.
Breathing Techniques associated with better health:
Nose or mouth? Nose is best!
The conclusion is that it is better to both inhale and exhale through the nose. The nostrils help to filter air, removing some of the pathogens, while at the same time, allowing your airways and blood vessels to open up, increasing blood flow and overall lung volume.
Fast or slow? Slow and steady please!
A controlled slower breath seems to be better for optimal respiration as this helps to ensure full oxygenation which in term lowers heartbeat, blood pressure as well as other possible health benefits. The aim is 6 – 10 breaths a minute!
Shallow or deep? Deep and controlled is the way to go!
When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to take shallow and fast breathes. This can trigger our sympathetic nervous system which helps us to manage our stress. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. It helps us to manage this stress by accelerating our heart beat, sending fuel to our muscles (so we can run away!) and blood towards our hearts.
However, deep breaths with equal inhales and exhales trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our rest and digestion response, the complete opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. This type of breathing helps us to relax and unwind. Ideally, we should be aiming for deep and slow breaths, where and when possible.
How do breathing techniques reduce the risk of disease? The super hero is the vagus nerve!
Along with better oxygenation and reduced stress, some studies also link slow and deep breaths with reduced levels of inflammation, and a lower risk of chronic disease. Breathing techniques, particularly with a focus on a long controlled exhale, help to stimulate the vagus nerve.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is a long nerve which runs from the brain stem through to the digestive system. It is involved in the parasympathetic nervous system so one of its functions is to help with relaxation and digestion. It also helps to regulate our immune response. Stimulation of the vagus nerve, helps to control levels of inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s immune response to a pathogen or injury. It triggers redness, heat, swelling and pain as part of the healing process, helping to send immune cells to the injured tissue. (The pain response helps to ensure that we protect the injured part!). Inflammation is a necessary part of the immune system response at a particular point in time and once the injured part of the body is repaired, the inflammation response should be dampened down. If inflammatory cells hang around, they can damage healthy cells and tissues, increasing the risk of certain ‘chronic diseases’ such as cardiovascular disease.
And to bring all this together, with a drum roll, here’s a breathing exercise you can try:
- Sit or lie on the floor in a comfortable position
- Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Shut your eyes and start to take deep and slow breaths, breathing all the way into your abdomen, feeling the hand on your abdomen rise and fall with your breathe.
- Try inhaling through the nose to the count of 4, pausing for a couple of counts and then exhaling through the mouth to the count of 6.
- Repeat a couple of times and notice if you can feel yourself relaxing (and tapping into your vagus nerve!). This is a good exercise to do a couple of times a day.