Do you ever catch yourself holding your breath? If I am deep in thought, stressed, trying to figure something out, or juggling a bazillion things — I often realize I am holding my breath. Even when I am not completely holding my breath, I notice that my breathing can be shallow and short. Many of us don’t think twice about our breathing because it’s automatic — we are apparently doing it just fine if we are alive. However, just because breathing is involuntary and we are meeting oxygen demands doesn’t mean that we are breathing properly. Almost all of us underestimate the power of this essential function, and poor breathing habits can have a negative effect on our health.
The Benefits of Deep Breathing
You might be thinking, “I breathe all of the time so what’s the big deal?” Unfortunately, most of us are not taught how to breathe. In fact, we tend to lose the ability to breathe properly over time. If you observe a newborn baby or an animal you will notice that when they inhale their stomach rises and then falls on the exhale. This diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, utilizes the entire capacity of the lungs. As we go through life and experience stressors, our breathing becomes shallow and we only use the top portion of our lungs. So why is it important to breathe deeply?
- Massages our internal organs to help them to do their job, especially the liver, the stomach, and the intestines.
- Helps oxygenate the body, which increases alkalinity and makes it harder for diseases to thrive.
- Helps the lymphatic system and the lungs expel toxins.
- Relieves stress by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system—the relaxation system.
- Supports peristalsis, which is the mechanical pumping in the intestines. If you are constipated try deep breathing.
- Releases endorphins, our bodies’ natural painkillers.
- Improves sleep.
- Improves circulation and supports the heart so it doesn’t have to work as hard.
- Improves posture.
When we are stressed, angry, frightened, etc., our natural response is to take short shallow breaths from the upper lungs. This can activate our sympathetic nervous system — “fight or flight” response. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have spent the majority of our time in the parasympathetic (relaxed) state. Unfortunately, as we go through modern life, the majority of us default to “fight or flight” style breathing, which in turn supports a stressed state. By practicing particular breathing techniques, we have the ability to influence the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, by imposing rhythms on the breath voluntarily, it gradually induces those rhythms in the involuntary nervous system. Ultimately, practicing deep breathing can increase our parasympathetic state and decrease sympathetic reaction and have long-term health benefits.
Deep Breathing Practices
So how do you breathe? Sounds funny to ask but it is vital to know. One of the key elements in deep breathing is utilizing both the upper and lower lobes of the lungs. To practice for the first time, it can be helpful to lie on your back. Place your hands on your belly. Take a long slow inhale through your nose and your hands should rise. After you fill the lower portion of your lungs (keep breathing in) then allow your chest to rise. On the exhale, do the opposite. Allow your chest to fall first followed by the abdomen. Continue in a slow rhythmic cycle. You will notice that you can breathe in so much more oxygen using this style of breathing.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, a basic rule for breathing practice is to try to make your breaths deeper, slower, and more regular. To deepen your breathing, practice exhaling beyond your normal breathing sequence. Exhaling completely builds muscles between your ribs, and your exhalations will naturally become deeper and longer over time.1 In addition, by squeezing more air out you will automatically breathe more in. Weil recommends the following “4-7-8 breathing” technique as a way to improve your breathing rhythms:
- Put your tongue on the ridge of the tissue behind your front teeth.
- Forcefully exhale, making a wind noise.
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds,
- Hold your breath for 7
- Release air through your mouth for 8
- Repeat four times at least twice daily. You may increase to eight repetitions, but Weil discourages doing more than eight repetitions at a time.
Weil claims that this breathing technique is the most powerful anti-anxiety intervention you have available to you.2 You can’t be upset or anxious and perform this exercise at the same time. In addition to doing this breathing technique twice daily, try doing it during stressful moments in your day (working on overwhelming projects, listening to screaming kids, dealing with relationship conflict) in order to neutralize stress on the spot. It literally shifts the autonomic nervous system.
We have many opportunities in the day to practice deep breathing (remember using upper and lower lungs and exhaling completely are key). Some ways to incorporate deep breathing into your daily life:
- During a walk — this will rev up your internal fire and increase the health benefits of your walk.
- Practice Yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong — forms of gentle exercise that incorporate deep breathing.
- While driving — stopped at a red light? Breathe!
- When tired — take some deep breaths and watch as your energy returns.
- While you wait — can aid in hindering that impatient feeling that can arise.
- In a sauna — will enhance both relaxation and detoxification.
- In nature — adds extra benefits due to the negatively charged ions that are abundant in nature, especially when near moving water.
- Upon waking — can help you wake-up and expel built-up carbon dioxide.
- Before falling asleep — helps put the body into a deeply relaxed state.
For more insight into different breathing techniques that are great for health, I recommend the book The Tao of Detox: The Secrets of Yang-Sheng Dao written by Daniel Reid.
Breathe deep my friends!
- Andrew Weil, “The Art and Science of Breathing,” Weil Lifestyle, com, Retrieved on 15 February 2016 at https://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02039/the-art-and-science-of-breathing.html.
- Andrew Weil, “Anti-Inflammatory Health with Andrew Weil, MD,” lecture, Institute for Integrative Nutrition, New York, 5 January 2015.
- Daniel Reid, The Tao of Detox: The Secretes of Yang-Sheng Dao, (VT: Simon and Schuster, 2006).