Breathe in. Breathe out. We do this all day, every day without a thought. Now with the introduction of face masks into our daily life this seemly simple function has now become the focus of concerned health advocates and many natural therapists. Do you wonder how the obstruction of normal breathing, especially deep breathing, may be affecting your health (aside from protecting you from infectious diseases)?
Keep reading to find out, plus what you can do to regain healthy breathing and take advantage of its numerous health benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety, improving your respiratory and cardiovascular system, balancing high blood pressure, helping you digest food better and even slowing down the effects of ageing.
So why should you do this? Simply put, extra oxygen does wonders for the body and mind. It cleanses, opens, replenishes and soothes different parts of your body and mental state to bring about optimal health.
There are a vast number of methods and practices that focus on the breath. They all concentrate on various aspects of health and mental wellbeing. Many are easily available and easy to learn. Some you can do on your own and others are best practiced with a trained professional. It all depends on how deep you want to go.
Deep Breathing Benefits
The lungs have a big job, sending oxygen into the bloodstream to be delivered to every cell in the body. As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts to take in oxygen. However, if you're not breathing deeply, the lungs eventually may lose some of their elasticity, causing air build-up in the lungs.
This air build-up reduces the space in which the diaphragm can contract. The end result can be shallow breathing patterns that hinder the lungs' ability both to take in oxygen and deliver it to the blood. You also may start resorting to using the neck, back and chest muscles to assist with breathing, leading to muscle fatigue and soreness.
In contrast, deep breaths increase the lungs' capacity to push out excess air and function optimally. With regular deep breathing, you can expand your diaphragm muscle and the air pockets within your lungs. The lungs are then able to clear out toxins and deliver oxygen to the blood at a greater rate. With this oxygen boost, your body gets the oxygen it needs for exercise, proper cell function and a range of other bodily processes.
Deep breathing has a number of benefits that affect your entire body. It’s the basis for almost all meditation or relaxation techniques, which can lower your stress levels, reduce your blood pressure, and regulate other important bodily processes such as irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety, and sleeplessness.
Here are a few benefits to deep breathing:
Improves Mental State - Decreases stress, increases calm.
The quality of our breath helps to relax the mind and enhance the ability to learn, focus, concentrate and memorize. The brain requires a great deal of oxygen to function and increased intake of oxygen helps us to achieve clarity and feel grounded and productive. It also relieves stress, anxiety, depression and negative thought patterns. The benefits of breathing properly can help us overcome addictive patterns of behaviour and eating disorders, as well as igniting creativity and passion.
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us into a relaxed state. It functions in the opposite way to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight response. Deep breathing also ups your endorphins, the “feel good” chemical.
Slows Down the Effects of Ageing.
It’s a universal truth that a happy face is more beautiful than a stressed or angry one. Even better news: breathing deeply slows the aging process by increasing secretion of anti-aging hormones! By reducing stress, it improves our mood, elevating the levels of serotonin and endorphins. ‘The Telomere Effect’ by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel discuss a 2013 study by Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department, which discovered that people who meditate daily for four years have longer telomeres – the protective caps found on the end of chromosomes – than those who do not. Short telomeres have been linked to premature cellular aging.
Stimulates the Lymphatic System.
The lymphatic system depends on the downward pressure, muscle movement, and the benefits of breath to keep flowing so that the body can be cleansed. Deep breathing can play an important role in protecting the body from bacteria, viruses and other threats to our health. Around 70% of our toxins are released from our body through our breath (the other 30% is through bladder and bowels.). Carbon dioxide is a natural waste product of our body’s metabolism. The benefits of breathing deeply help the systems in the body to process this more efficiently. If you do not breathe fully, your body must work overtime to release these toxins.
Oxygen is the most essential natural resource required by our cells. We can go without food for up to 40 days and without water for 3 days, yet we can die after just a few minutes of not breathing. From a purely physical point of view, breath equals life. The more oxygen that is in the blood, the better our body functions which, in turn, improves our stamina.
Lowers Blood Pressure.
As your muscles relax, this allows your blood vessels to dilate. This dilation improves circulation and lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing also slows and regulates the heart rate, which also helps with lowering your BP.
The benefits of deeper breathing include increased blood flow in the digestive tract, which encourages intestinal action and improves overall digestion, alleviating irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. In addition, deeper breathing results in a calmer nervous system which in turn enhances optimum digestion.
Improves Respiratory System.
One of the benefits of breathing deeply is that it helps to release tension in the diaphragm and primary breathing muscles, relieving many long-term respiratory issues such as asthma and breathlessness. It opens up the chest, releasing tension from the intercostal muscles and around the scapula, erector spinae and trapezius muscles, allowing for a more relaxed posture.
Improves the Cardiovascular System.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing tones, massages and increases circulation to the heart, liver, brain and reproductive organs. In one study of heart attack patients, 100% of the patients were chest breathers whose breathing involved very little diaphragm or belly expansion. Another study found that patients who survived a heart attack and who adopted an exercise regime and breath training afterward experienced a 50% reduction in their risk factor of another heart attack over the following 5 years.
While exploring all the options of breathwork to find which one meets your specific needs, here are a few techniques and practices to get you started…
4 Breathing Techniques
1) Diaphragmatic Breathing
Also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing. It is a type of breathing exercise that helps strengthen your diaphragm, an important muscle that helps you breathe.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped respiratory muscle found near the bottom of your ribcage, right below your chest. When you inhale and exhale air, the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles around your lungs contract. The diaphragm does most of the work during the inhalation part. During inhalation, your diaphragm contracts so that your lungs can expand into the extra space and let in as much air as is necessary. Muscles in between your ribs, known as intercostal muscles, raise your rib cage in order to help your diaphragm let enough air into your lungs. Muscles near your collarbone and neck also help these muscles when something makes it harder for you to breathe properly; they all contribute to how quickly and how much your ribs can move and make space for your lungs.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilise blood pressure.
The most basic type of diaphragmatic breathing is done by inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth. Here’s the basic procedure for diaphragmatic breathing:
1. Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor, your bed, or another comfortable, flat surface.
2. Relax your shoulders.
3. Put a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach.
4. Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds. You should experience the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen, making your stomach expand. During this type of breathing, make sure your stomach is moving outward while your chest remains relatively still.
5. Purse your lips (as if you’re about to drink through a straw), press gently on your stomach, and exhale slowly for about two seconds.
6. Repeat these steps several times for best results.
2) Nostril Breathing
Nostril breathing can help to reduce agitation and anxiety. It protects us from various harmful external particles like dust, bacteria, and microbes via tiny little hairs called cilia. These hairs clean, warm, and humidify the incoming air and guard us against as many as 20 billion outside particles daily. Nostril exhaling creates more air pressure and slows the exhalation down because it is a smaller orifice than the mouth. This helps the lungs optimize oxygen intake. It helps us engage our diaphragm more efficiently. Nostril inhalation increases nitric oxide intake, which helps ensure smooth transportation of more oxygen throughout the whole body.
1. As you breathe you close off one nostril and take air in slowly through the other.
2. Then switch, closing off the second nostril while breathing through the first.
3. Repeat the process until you begin to feel calmer.
3) 4-7-8 Method
The 4-7-8 breathing technique, also known as “relaxing breath,” involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. Dr. Andrew Weil, the developer of this technique, believes this breathing pattern can reduce anxiety, help people get to sleep, manage cravings and control or reduce anger responses.
1. Before starting the breathing pattern, adopt a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth.
2. Empty the lungs of air.
3. Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds expanding your abdomen area.
4. Hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
5. Exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds. Use your hand to push all of the air out of the stomach.
6. Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.
Dr. Weil recommends using the technique at least twice a day to start seeing the benefits sooner. He also suggests that people avoid doing more than four breath cycles in a row until they have more practice with the technique.
A person may feel lightheaded after doing this for the first few times. Therefore, it is advisable to try this technique when sitting or lying down to prevent dizziness or falls.
The total number of seconds that the pattern lasts for is less important than keeping the ratio. A person who cannot hold their breath for long enough may try a shorter pattern instead.
Please Note: There is limited clinical research to support these claims about 4-7-8 breathing or other breathing techniques. The evidence is limited to anecdotal reports from satisfied users.
4) Mindful Breathing
This involves becoming aware of your breath and focusing on it. It does not involve trying to change the way you breathe. However, the act of focusing on the breath usually slows down breathing patterns, making you feel more relaxed. As you focus on how air moves in and out through your lungs, mouth and nose, it becomes a form of calming meditation.
Tips to Get Started and Keep Going
It's important to practice deep breathing techniques in an active state so your body can readily experience the benefits. You cannot properly and consciously practice deep breathing while asleep, for example, or while slumped over on the sofa watching television. Be sure to sit up tall or lie down flat so your diaphragm is not constricted and unable to inhale and exhale fully.
Even just a few minutes of deep breathing daily can help you to reduce stress, improve lung function and experience other health benefits. Start with about five minutes a day and work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes for optimal results. With practice, your body may more readily turn to deep breathing rather than rush to the stress response.
Creating a routine can be a good way to get in the habit of deep breathing exercises. Try the following to get into a good groove:
· Do your exercises in the same place every day. Somewhere that’s peaceful and quiet.
· Don’t worry if you’re not doing it right or enough. This may just cause additional stress.
· Clear your mind of the things that are stressing you out. Focus instead on the sounds and rhythm of your breathing or the environment around you.
· Try to do them at the same time each day to reinforce the habit.
Controlled, deliberate deep breathing should not be confused with ‘big breathing,’ which is taking in bigger-than-necessary volume breaths. This leads to over-breathing and can seriously mess with the delicate balance of the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange taking place inside your body and inside every cell.
Over-breathing or hyperventilation can cause you to expel too much carbon dioxide, which impairs blood flow to the brain. This can make you feel lightheaded or experience tingling sensations. Hyperventilation can lead to a state called hypoxia, low oxygen levels in your cells and tissues. Less oxygen means our cells don’t produce as much energy, and the end result is that we feel tired, fatigued, and lethargic. Lack of oxygen can make it difficult to concentrate and remember things.
Drawbacks of mouth breathing: Chronic mouth breathing can lead to chronic over-breathing and chest breathing. Mouth breathing signals to your brain that carbon dioxide levels are quickly decreasing, so the body produces more mucus as an attempt to get you to breathe more slowly.
Chronic mouth breathing can alter your facial structure and change your facial features. For example, it can make your face and jaw more narrow and droopy, which can lead to obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.
Chronic mouth breathing dries the mucous lining of the airways, and it doesn’t warm or moisturise air as nostril breathing does, so it also doesn’t protect from pathogens and allergens either. Mouth breathing can lead to trauma to soft tissues in the airways as well as enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
Temporary mouth breathing due to a cold, for example, is not the same as chronic mouth breathing, which involves a learned state. This will require some reprogramming of habits and behaviours to correct.
With our lives taking an unexpected turn towards protecting us from outside diseases we have no control over. We fail to realise how this protection could be affecting other parts of our health.
Deep breathing is one of our easiest, most convenient and natural tools to combat issues like stress and anxiety, reduce high blood pressure, aid digestion, improve respiratory and cardiovascular systems and even slow down the effects of ageing. The secret to optimal breathing lies in the top part of your belly. There, at the bottom of your rib cage, you’ll find your diaphragm – the most important muscle in the entire breathing process. Most of us think we know how to breathe optimally and deeply. But the truth is that most of us are doing it wrong.
By breathing deeply, you allow the diaphragm to drop downward, the rib cage to expand and create more space for the lungs to inflate. By mastering the art of deep breathing, increased oxygen floods into the body, eventually helping the heart pace to slow down to create feelings of calmness and relaxation.
Deep breathing should be slow and gentle. Remember to fill the abdomen, not just the chest. A simple way to make sure you are doing this is to place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Breathe deeply and make sure your hand on your stomach is rising. Try to be aware of your breath, heartbeat and to release tension from your body. Sometimes it’s easier to lie down or sit comfortably in a chair.
Can’t find time for these techniques? Consider ways to sneak them into your schedule, like right when you wake up and go to sleep, travelling home from work, in the shower, or even put a reminder on your phone or a post-it note on your bathroom mirror or computer monitor at work.
So what are you waiting for? Take a deep breath in and out!