Updated: Jan 2, 2021
It goes without saying that breathing is essential to life. Most of us would not be able to survive without air for more than a few minutes. In fact, our brain cells begin to die at around the 6-minute mark if deprived of oxygen. But breathing plays a much more complex and crucial role in our health than most of us realize. Yes, we see the link between deep breathing and stress relief, but what if I were to tell you that the way you breathe could also affect your blood pressure, heart rate variability, memory, alertness, concentration, mood, eye-hand coordination, immune function, regeneration, sleep quantity and quality, blood sugar levels, appetite, and even alter your gut microbiota?
The way we breathe matters
It is surprising to think that breathing, a skill we had learned since birth - one that is so essential to life, can be so poorly performed by many people in our modern society. More unfortunate is the fact that most of us aren’t even aware that we are not breathing optimally. This is because we don’t pay enough attention to our breaths. Breathing is so much more than just the act of taking air in and pushing air out of our bodies. The way we breathe influences almost all our biological systems.
Take the example of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing. The act of breathing via these two different routes stimulates differently the autonomic nervous system (ANS) - the part of the nervous system that regulates subconscious bodily functions, such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and so on. Deep nasal breathing is a more efficient way of breathing compared to mouth breathing as it pulls more air into the lower lobes of the lungs. This is important in delivering more oxygen from the lungs into the blood for circulation around the body. However, more interestingly, there are many receptors that activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the branch of the ANS that is often associated with the rest-and-digest response) located at the lower lungs. This is one reason why deep breathing through the nose can be so effective at alleviating stress and anxiety as the activation of the parasympathetic response helps to balance problems with over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the branch of the ANS associated with the fight-or-flight response) that is so prevalent in those of us dealing with chronic stress or disease.
Another piece of information that you may find fascinating is that deep breathing increases the flow of the Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) into and out of the brain. What does this mean? Well, let’s first have a look at what CSF is and what it does. CSF is a clear liquid that is found around the brain and within organs of the nervous system. This liquid is continuously being made and reabsorbed by the body. It acts as protection and cushioning for the brain and spinal cord; provides nourishment; and function to remove waste products from the brain. Knowing this, we can see why it is important that we want to keep this CSF flowing and circulating optimally around the brain and spinal cord.
A recent study has shown that breathing influences the amount and the rate of CSF flow into and out of the brain. It turns out that deep inhalations increase the movement of CSF into the brain, deep exhalations increase the movement of CSF out of the brain, while breath holding showed small but rapid “to-and-fro” movements of the CSF. This is significant as this means that if we begin to pay more attention to our breath and practice deep breathing, we can potentially better nourish the brain and support more efficiently its waste removal. CSF has also been shown to regulate brain states and alter behaviour and cognition. Imagine what this could mean for your brain when it is bathed in the vital flow of this fluid! This is especially important at night when we sleep, as this is the time when the brain does most of its cleaning and removal of waste and build-up from the day. Therefore, it would be immensely helpful if we can make use of deep breathing when we get our shut-eye. However, how can we breathe consciously when we are sleeping? It turns out that the breathing pattern which we set for ourselves during our waking hours sets the pace for our sleeping hours. All the more reason, we should practice mindful breathing as often as possible and build a good habit towards a healthy breathing pattern. This will help to balance out our nervous system, which in turn will alleviate stress and anxiety, improve sleep quality and quantity, while potentially enhancing CSF flow efficiency - nourishing the brain and nervous system.
But this is not all! It wouldn’t be complete to talk about the effects of breathing on health if we didn’t touch on the nasal cycle. Now you may not normally notice this, but we have a nasal cycle where we experience a periodic partial congestion in one nostril and partial decongestion in the other. This means that we cycle through periods of predominantly breathing through one nostril, followed by periods of breathing through both nostrils, and finally switching to the other nostril. The nasal cycle, on average, lasts for around 2.5 hours and repeats throughout the 24 hour period. So why is this important? Well, we are beginning to understand that everything in the body is connected to each other in one way or another. The different body systems work to regulate each other in order to maintain homeostasis in the body as a whole. In this way, the nasal cycle is one of these physiological phenomenons that can influence many other body cycles/rhythms that are important for health, including sleep, dreaming, appetite, mood, and hormone secretions - such as the cortisol cycle, which regulates stress. Now, it turns out that our brain also has its rhythm where periodically one hemisphere of the brain is predominantly more active than the other. The interesting thing here is that the pattern at which it cycles through the left and right hemisphere correlates to the nasal cycle. It has been shown that when the right nostril is more dominant, there is higher activity in the left-hemisphere of the brain. The left-brain is linked to linear, rational thinking, assertiveness, concentration, mathematical problem solving, verbal tasks, athletic activity, and so on. The left-brain is also linked to more sympathetic (fight-flight) activity. When there is left nostril dominance it is associated with right-brain activation. The right-brain is linked to creative thoughts, intuition, spatial tasks, non-linear thinking, appreciation of art and music, and present-awareness. The right-brain is linked to more parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) activity. The really fascinating thing is that by knowing how to control the nostril dominance when you breathe, you can actually alter your brain and nervous system activity! We are finally understanding why many Yogic breathing exercises such as right nostril breathing, left nostril breathing, and alternate nostril breathing can have such powerful effects on a wide range of symptoms like blood pressure, cardiovascular health, insomnia, stress, and anxiety.
What can we do to cultivate a better breathing habit?
1. Pay attention of your current breathing patterns
Before we can change anything, we need to be aware of the current habits that we subconsciously fall into. We can do this by being more mindful of how we are breathing throughout the day, for example: how do we breathe during specific times of the day/night; how do our breaths change with different activities; and how breathing alters with our changing moods/emotions? Until we consciously pay attention to what we are presently doing, it will be hard to change anything that is so used to running on auto-pilot. And because breathing is something that, most of the time, happens subconsciously, we will need to make an extra effort to be conscious of it if change is to take place. It may be helpful to set alarms or reminders at certain times of the day where you will be prompted to take a short moment to check in with yourself - what is the pace of your breathing; are you breathing through the nose or mouth; are you breathing into the belly or the chest; are your shoulders tense; are you short of breath; any other sensations/observations?
2. Practice deep breathing
As you are paying attention to, and maybe even journalling, your current breathing habits, use this time to consciously shift your breath and practice deep, nasal breathing:
Whenever possible, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for a couple of minutes
Come to a position where you can maintain a tall spine
Relax the shoulders, close your eyes or keep a soft gaze
Take a deep breath in through the nose - feel that breath travel all the way down into the belly, allowing the belly to expand
Slowly breathe out through the nose, extending the exhale for as long as you are comfortably able (do not force your breath)
Find a comfortable rhythm of breathing
Continue with this breath for 3 to 5 minutes
Become aware of any changes to your mood, stress/anxiety, mental thoughts, or any physical sensations in your body
The more you practice deep breathing, the easier it will become for you to access a feeling of peace and calm whenever you may need it. Also, as you become more and more apt at catching your old breathing habits and making a conscious effort to change them, your body will gradually shift to the new habit you are trying to form. In time, there will be less of a need to work hard at altering your breathing as you will automatically be utilizing the proper breathing technique. You will also be able to self-regulate whenever you notice the feelings of stress, anxiety, or just feeling out of sorts to instinctively come back to your calming, deep, nasal breaths.
3. Set a routine
Even if you have been successful in catching your old breathing habits and making the effort of shifting to a new one, it would still be of benefit to set aside some time each day to practice your deep breathing. This would be a time for you to explore your breathing practice at a deeper level. In fact, this is essentially a breath-centered meditation which will allow you to be present and mindful; help you tap into your parasympathetic response to bring about healing, restoration, and rejuvenation; help to alleviate stress and anxiety; enhance your focus and concentration; improve your sleep; and more. You will be so much more in tune with your body so that you may eventually be able to sense potential threats that could throw your body out of balance and act on them before they have a chance to manifest. Wouldn’t you want to develop your intuition so that you can sense how you are feeling, foresee your reactions, and have the tools to allow you to stay in control? This is what a regular breath meditation can potentially do for you.
Do keep in mind that whenever you practice a new breathing exercise, it is important to listen to your body. Also be aware that even if many people may benefit from a particular breathing technique, you may find that it doesn’t have the same effect on you - and that is okay. You may need to do a little exploring to find the right breathing exercise for you. Do not continue with an exercise if you feel uncomfortable, dizzy, hyperventilate, or experience any other undesirable symptoms. Never force your breath. As with starting anything new, it may feel a little odd or strange at first, approach this with self-love, non-judgement, and be patient with yourself!
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