Ounce of Prevention | Breathing for better health
The average person breathes over 20,000 breaths per day (15 breaths/minute, every 60 minutes, every 24 hours). Breathing is fundamental to all our physical and mental functions. The respiratory system powerfully influences our heart and circulation while supporting our digestive and lymphatic systems.
On a moment-to-moment basis, your nervous system responds to your breathing pattern even while you sleep. Yet although it is so important, breathing can happen unconsciously or can be brought under our deliberate control.
For thousands of years, ancient traditions like Yoga have stressed the critical importance of proper breathing for good health. Modern medical science has now recognised breath-work as a complementary wellness tool in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and in lowering blood pressure. But there are important details involved in healthy breathing.
BREATHE FROM YOUR BELLY
The two main breathing patterns are thoracic or chest breathing, and abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. The former uses the muscles of the chest while the latter employs the diaphragm and is far more effective. The diaphragm is a large tent-like muscle that contracts to suck air into the lungs. In abdominal or belly breathing, the belly rises with the in breath and sinks back down with the out breath. Breathing with the chest muscles uses more energy while moving less air.
BREATHE DEEP AND SLOW
Breath control allows you to influence various nervous responses in your body. Depending on the rate and the depth of the breath, a special part of the nervous system (the autonomic nervous system) sends signals to its two branches: the calming parasympathetic branch (rest and digest) or the alarming sympathetic branch (flight or fight). Rapid or shallow breathing strongly increases the sympathetic stress response, while breathing slowly (less than 12 breaths per minute) increases the parasympathetic relaxation response.
Deep breathing raises levels of oxygen in our blood while lowering the level of carbon dioxide providing a wide range of health benefits.
BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE
Yoga students understand that the nose is for breathing and the mouth is primarily for eating. By design, nasal breathing and mouth breathing facilitate totally different physiological responses in the body. Breathing through the nose activates the parasympathetic nervous system, while mouth breathing encourages the sympathetic nervous system. Mouth breathing even elevates the heart rate and encourages the release of stress hormones into our bloodstream.
In addition, you get more oxygen into your blood by breathing through your nose. This because there is a gas called nitric oxide in the sinuses of human beings. In 1998, one of my mentors, Dr Louis Ignarro, shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the importance of nitric oxide. When this gas is produced in the sinuses, it follows the air inhaled through the nose down into the lungs.This only occurs with nasal breathing and not with breathing through the mouth.
The many benefits of nitric oxide include:
- Improved blood flow and lowering of high blood pressure
- Enhanced nervous system function
- Reduction in pain and inflammation
- Assistance with weight loss
- Increase in energy and improved digestion
- Benefits to the immune system function
We can choose to become aware of our breath. Consciously follow the passage of air from when it enters your nostrils all along your air passages to your lungs and then follow it all the way back out again. Notice things like the rising of your belly and chest as you breath in and their sinking as you breath out. Tune into the gentle sound of the breath as it flows in and out. Turning your attention inwards can have a powerfully calming and relaxing effect as it increases your parasympathetic response.
A SIMPLE BREATH-CONTROL EXERCISE
There are many types of breathing exercises with varying degrees of difficulty and benefit. Try this simple breathing exercise:
Sit or lie in a comfortable position where you can be undisturbed for ten minutes. Focus your attention on your breath. Draw the breath in through your nose down into your abdomen until you feel the breath fill your belly and chest. Hold the breath for a moment then exhale, through your nose, until all the breath is expelled from your lungs. Breathe in to a count of five, hold the breath for a count of fifteen and exhale to a count of ten.
Apply this three-part breathing exercise for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening right before bed. Notice the relaxing effects as the body and mind respond to this breathing pattern. My stress management CD, 'A Time to Relax', provides detailed instructions.
I fully agreed with acclaimed alternative health guru Dr Andrew Weil when he stated, "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."