Let’s all take a moment for a collective sigh of disappointment over why it is we must become aware and proactive about nearly everything our body does–even deep breathing.
It’s natural. It’s automatic. It’s something we barely think about. And yet, a lot of us are breathing in less than ideal ways. Luckily, a little effort in improving breathing patterns goes a long way in boosting the body’s vitality–from keeping us calm and tranquil to helping us lose weight and feel better.
Why Deep Breathing is Important
Breathing is essential to existence – it is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die. Inhaling provides oxygen to the brain and exhaling gets rid of waste products and toxins from the body. With bad breathing patterns, we may be allowing toxic substances to stagnate in our bodies and damaging vital organs. Meanwhile, most of us are only using one-third of our actual breathing capacity, which means we have a lot of room for improvement.
Inhaling air activates our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Blood is drawn from the heart into the vasculature of the lungs, creating a deficit of blood for the rest of the body. The heart compensates by increasing the heart rate and pushing more blood to the body. Exhaling activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Blood returns to the body from the lungs and the heart slows back down. The increase and decrease of the heart rate during inhalation and exhalation, respectively, is a sign of a healthy heart. Slow, deep, and mindful breathing emphasizes the exhalation part of breathing – the one that triggers the PSNS, which relaxes the heart and is associated with happiness, better stress management, and improved cognitive performance. The PSNS counters the SNS’s fight or flight response to daily stresses.
Breathing is easily affected by our surroundings. If we perceive something as threatening or stressful, we begin to experience rapid, shallow breathing. Many of us have busy lifestyles that are easily reflected in our breathing patterns – we talk fast, move fast, and, thus, breathe fast.
If you ever watch a child sleep, you’ll notice how fully and gracefully he or she inhales and exhales. The diaphragm expands and contracts strongly and rhythmically. This is in stark contrast to how most of us learn to breathe into adulthood. Over time, it’s as if our bodies have forgotten how to inhale and exhale properly, and instead we breathe nervously and chaotically as if agitated, unfocused, and hurried.
Take a Deep Breath: How Deep Breathing Techniques Save Your Life
When you are visibly nervous and frazzled, you’ll often be told to take a deep breath. This recommendation can be life changing, not only in the moment, but in every moment.
Deep breathing, often referred to as “paced respiration” or “diaphragmatic breathing”, has been scientifically shown to help manage stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rate, boost brain health and growth, and even change genetic expression.
The PSNS stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the bran to the abdomen and is responsible for facilitating nervous system responses and reducing heart rate. The vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that is linked to increase concentration and relaxation. Controlled breathing also results in lower blood pressure and heart rate, which help in preventing heart disease. But the brain is in on the fun too – one study showed that meditation, paired with deep breathing, led to brain growth! Even more groundbreaking was the association between deep breathing and genetic expression. Research shows that deep breathing changes the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion.
And if all those perks weren’t compelling enough, try the deep breathing diet. That’s right: lose weight by breathing deeply, 15 minutes per day.
Step-By-Step Deep Breathing Technique
Whenever you have time in your day to set aside at least five minutes, engage in this deep breathing exercise.
- Sit in a position that is comfortable.
- Breathe in and exhale from your mouth, trying to release as much air as possible from your body.
- Inhale through your nose to a mental count of four. While you inhale, focus on expanding the area of your torso at the top of your abdomen and at the bottom of your ribcage. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. Place your hand over your diaphragm and make sure to feel it rise as you inhale. Do not inhale through your belly or chest.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for a mental count of eight, releasing as much air in your as possible.
- Repeat this sequence at least 3 more times until you feel relaxed.