The Science of The Breath

Breathing is everything. Rather, correct breathing is everything.

It can be the difference between a super-strong pain-free body and one that’s under constant Cortisol distress and full of instability.

When you take a deep breath in and your diaphragm contracts down, it stimulates the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, this sends a message back up to the brain telling you to relax. Lots of wonderful things happen when we relax. We sleep better,  food digest better, the process of waste products elimination is better, and even sex is better.

So, what happens if you have a shallow breathing pattern and the top of your chest and shoulders move primarily when you take air in? Say hello to your friend Cortisol — your body is thrown into a flight or fight stimulus! No one needs that extra stress, life is hard enough, so let’s break it down a bit more and get you into a correct deep breathing pattern.

How do you take a deep breath?

Although many people feel a deep breath comes solely from the expansion of the chest, chest breathing (in of itself) is not the best way to take a deep breath. While most of us never give breathing a second thought, the way we draw breath can affect our physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Breathing correctly is the path to self-healing. Besides transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide through the bloodstream, how else do you think the breath contributes to our health and well-being?

Reducing stress, sleeping better, or relieving pain – all may be as simple as becoming conscious of our breath. Deep breathing techniques can change our life!

Becoming conscious of our breath

Poor breathing habits can lead to negative health consequences—our body’s organs cannot work to their full potential without plenty of oxygen and the proper elimination of carbon dioxide. Many common health ailments such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches, anxiety, stress, chronic pain, depression, asthma, and insomnia. can be at least alleviated or completely controlled simply by making a conscious effort to breathe slowly and deeply.

Breathing properly can reduce stress levels, improve workouts and boost your immunity to infections and illnesses. Poor breathing can contribute to panic attacks and even conditions like insomnia and depression.

So, what can we do to reverse these obviously undesirable effects? Simply pause and become aware of the incoming and outgoing breath. Allow the breath’s rhythm to the center, ground and calm you. Just Breathe Consciously! 

Conscious breathing is a great form of meditation that can be easily practiced anywhere, anytime! 

Test #1: Place your hands surrounding your rib cage right under your chest and take in a big breath of air. Your ribs should move out in the front, sides, and back. Did you feel them move? They should move a lot! Maybe you only felt some of your ribs move? Did the ribs on the back left under your thumb not move as much as the right? No? There’s the source of that neck or midback tightness you’ve been feeling. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Step one: Get your ribs to expand out in a 360 fashion when you breathe.

Test #2: Did your diaphragm contract down in a deep breathing pattern with great rib expansion? Did you feel expansion right under your ribcage or did your ribcage move followed by your shoulders and your belly suck in? Now, I want you to drop a couple of fingers down under your ribcage while leaving one or two on top. Take a deep breath in. Did it expand out into your fingers right under your ribcage?

Breathing is absolutely essential to life, but it’s often overlooked as a necessity for good health. Practicing conscious breathing can help us to improve our sleep, reduce stress, and boost overall health.

Breathing properly can reduce stress levels, improve workouts and boost your immunity to infections and illnesses. Poor breathing can contribute to panic attacks and even conditions like insomnia and depression. Conscious breathing is a great form of meditation that can be easily practiced anywhere, anytime! Simply pause and become aware of the incoming and outgoing breath. Allow the breath’s rhythm to the center, ground and calm you.

Breathing is most unique as compared to other visceral (e.g. digestion, endocrine, or cardiovascular) functions in that it can also be regulated voluntarily.

Cellular metabolism (reactions in the cell to produce energy) for example, is regulated by oxygen provided during breathing. There is clear evidence that controlled breathing techniques can affect oxygen consumption and metabolism (Jerath et al., 2006). In fact, much of the aim of pranayama breathing (yogic breathing) appears to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its sympathetic (excitatory) dominance. Pranayama breathing has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and psychological or stress-related disorders (Jerath et al., 2006). Jerath and colleagues add those investigations regarding stress and psychological improvements support evidence that pranayama breathing alters the brain’s information processing, making it an intervention that improves a person’s psychological profile.”

Slow pranayama breathing techniques show the most practical and physiological benefit, yet the underlying mechanism of how they work is not fully elucidated in the research (Jerath et al., 2006). However, Jerath and colleagues hypothesize that “the voluntary, slow deep breathing functionally resets the autonomic nervous system through stretch-induced inhibitory signals and hyperpolarization (slowing electrical action potentials) currents…which synchronizes neural elements in the heart, lungs, limbic system and cortex.” As well, investigations have demonstrated that slow breathing pranayama breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system, thus slowing certain physiological processes down that may be functioning too fast or conflicting with the homeostasis of the cells (Jerath et al., 2006).

Thus, one meaningful aspect in learning breathing techniques is the awareness in the difference in smooth, even breathing to erratic breathing. Modifications in respiratory patterns come naturally to some individuals after one lesson, however, it may take up to six months to replace bad habits, and ultimately change the way one breathes (Sovik, 2000). The general rule, often noted in studies, and particularly observed by Gallego et al. (2001) was that if a voluntary act is repeated, “learning occurs, and the neurophysiological and cognitive processes underpinning its control may change.” Gallego et al. continue that while some changes can be made, the need for longer-term studies is warranted to better understand the attention-demanding phases involved with these breathing changes.

To summarize, Sovik suggests the characteristics of optimal breathing (at rest) are that it is diaphragmatic, nasal (inhalation and exhalation), smooth, deep, even, quiet and free of pauses.

Final Thoughts
The research is very clear that breathing exercises (e.g. pranayama breathing) can enhance parasympathetic (inhibit neural responses) tone, decrease sympathetic (excitatory) nervous activity, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health (Pal, Velkumary, and Madanmohan, 2004). 

 

 

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