It’s natural to breathe without thinking about it. It’s just what we do to stay alive. But we can choose to breathe with or without intention, and for many of us, the difference can be startling.
How often are you aware of your breathing? If and when you do zone in on your breath, is it shallow or deep? Are you relaxed or tense? Is your abdomen moving out on your in-breath and in on your out-breath? What muscles are you using when you do this? Is there tension in your chest, neck, shoulders or back?
If you breathe deeply, are you easily able to take a full deep breath through your lungs all the way down to your lower abdomen, before releasing it, in a fluid circular motion?
By taking the time to tune in and work on your breathing every day, you have the power to improve stress, lift your mood, lower blood pressure, increase lung and heart function, improve overall immunity, manage chronic pain and improve core strength.
Read on to find out how deep breathing can improve these and more.
Diaphragmatic breathing (belly/abdominal breathing)
Your diaphragm is an invaluable dome-shaped breathing muscle at the base of your lungs. As you breathe in, it tightens and shifts downwards, creating more room for your lungs to expand. The opposite happens when you breathe out.
As newborns, we instinctively know how to use our diaphragms when breathing. Babies expand their tummies and raise their chest when they breathe in and their belly contracts when they breathe out.
As we grow older, anxiety and stress cause us to hold tension in our body, breathe shallowly and hold our breath.
Shallow breathing restricts the diaphragm’s range of movement. Sucking in your stomach to look slimmer causes further tension.
But by taking the time to learn how to breathe correctly again, making deep diaphragmatic breathing a daily practice, you can start to reap the benefits.
Below is a list of the many ways it can improve your health, but first a small lesson on how to do it.
How to practice diaphragmatic breathing
1) There are two positions you can adopt, so pick the one that is most suitable for you. You can sit up in a comfortable position with relaxed shoulders, neck and head with your feet planted firmly on the floor. You can also lie down flat with your head supported by a cushion and your knees up (or place a pillow under your knees).
2) Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen just below your ribcage.
3) Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, all the way until you feel your stomach expand under your hand. Your chest should remain still.
4) As you breathe out, purse your lips (as if you are going to whistle), and contract your abdominal muscles, letting your stomach deflate as you let out all of the breath. Your chest should be as still as possible.
5) Don’t rush, stay calm and follow the natural rhythm of your breath. Think of the whole process as moving in a circular motion – as you breathe in, extending your stomach and breathing out, letting it deflate.
6) To start with, practise for five or ten minutes at a time and aim to do it a few times a day. Don’t be surprised if you find it challenging and quite hard work initially. With practice, you’ll start to find it easier and get into more of a flow.
7 ways deep breathing can improve your health
1) Managing stress, anxiety and depression
Breathing and stress is a two-way street. Feeling stressed creates a stress response, causing you to hold tension in your body and breathe less deeply. Conversely, shallow breathing keeps your body and mind in a continually stressed state.
Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, inflammation and poor health, so it’s essential to be aware of your stress levels and keep them in check.
Deep abdominal breathing is one way to do this. It triggers the relaxation response (the opposite of the stress response). It is a mentally active process that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system leading to pronounced feelings of calm and relaxation.
As you focus on your breath, it distracts your mind from troubling thoughts and feelings, encourages full oxygen exchange, reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, relaxes your muscles and slows everything down.
It can make intense situations feel less distressing and can help to increase self-awareness and being present in the moment.
Research shows that deep breathing can help to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with chronic stress and anxiety, such as muscular aches and pains, poor sleep, digestive issues, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.
It may also aid post-traumatic stress disorder.
2) Strengthens immunity
The stress response suppresses your immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to coughs, colds and other illnesses and infections. It lowers immunity by decreasing lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help to fight off infection.
Stress increases the production of cortisol, a stress hormone. When you are chronically stressed, your cortisol levels remain high (in an acute fight-or-flight situation, they would revert to normal levels once the danger had passed).
But prolonged stress leads to continued high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones in your blood, leading to increased inflammation and the potential to develop all manner of illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
Long-term stress leads to increased levels of inflammation and a depleted immune system that finds itself increasingly unable to cope.
So you can see how practising daily diaphragmatic breathing for stress relief has the knock-on effect of protecting your immunity.
Added to which, increased oxygen in your bloodstream from deep breathing encourages healthier organs, tissues and muscles. It also helps you to feel more energised.
3) Maintains and improves lung capacity and function and can aid COPD
As we age, our lung capacity and function reduces.
Diaphragmatic breathing fills every part of your lungs and is a useful practice for maximising your lung capacity (the amount of oxygen you take in with each breath).
Deep breathing also activates nitric oxide on your paranasal sinuses, helping to regulate lung function.
People suffering from COPD don’t have as effective a diaphragm and consequently have difficulty breathing. Research supports the use of deep breathing exercises for improving the breathing pattern and ventilatory efficiency of COPD patients.
It has been shown to increase lung volumes, respiratory motion, and blood oxygenation and reduce respiratory rate.
If you have COPD, ask your doctor to show you how to apply diaphragmatic breathing best. The COPD Foundation has a recommendation of how to do it.
4) Improves blood pressure and may help symptoms of heart disease
Deep breathing slows your heart rate and reduces blood pressure, at least in the short term. Managing stress plays an important role when it comes to controlling your blood pressure naturally, along with other healthy lifestyle changes.
Stress, including stress-related anger, can also affect heart health. Left unchecked it may cause irregular heart rhythms, damaged arteries, increased cholesterol levels, an increased risk of coronary heart disease (or its progression) and increased inflammation.
Deep abdominal breathing daily, a few times a day, is one effective thing you can do to relieve stress and its harmful effects.
Some studies also support the use of deep breathing in heart patients. For example, researchers found that the regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing significantly improves heart rate variability with a favourable prognosis in ischemic heart disease patients who have diabetes.
5) It may help to improve cognitive function
The locus coeruleus in the brain has established functions in both attention and respiration. In a recent study, researchers found that focused deep breathing affects levels of the stress hormone noradrenaline, which in the right amounts can create new connections between cells in this area of the brain.
This may be partly responsible for attentional, emotional, and physiological improvements. According to Michael Melnychuk, PhD, lead of the study, it is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing, you can optimise your attention level.
Another recent study showed that nasal breathing improved memory recall and emotional judgement.
Healthy subjects were more able to recognise fearful expressions and retrieve visual object memories while breathing through the nose. This changed when they switched to mouth breathing.
6) Improves posture and strengthens your core
By using your breath to fully stretch your diaphragm, filling up your abdomen as you breathe in and deflating it as you breathe out, your deep abdominal muscles extend and contract as your diaphragm moves up and down.
Breathing in this way uses all these muscles to their full capacity, increasing their flexibility, strength and range of motion. Strengthening these core muscles encourages better posture and stability, also helping to prevent conditions such as lower back pain.
7) Helps to alleviate chronic pain
Deep breathing can improve your tolerance to exercise and minimise the risk of injury. It can also help you to manage chronic pain (persistent pain that has continued for longer than three months despite conventional treatment).
Living with any type of chronic pain can become incredibly wearing. It can cause fatigue, poor sleep, anxiety, depression and muscle tension (which can exacerbate the problem further). It can also impinge on, or completely alter, the way you function in life.
Regularly practising diaphragmatic breathing can help to relieve chronic pain by relaxing tension in the body and shifting both the mental and physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
By focusing on your breath, you can help to distract yourself from the pain and any other stressful thoughts, relaxing the mind and body.
Pain can inhibit tissue oxygenation. For example, with lower back pain, when muscles are chronically tensed, it restricts blood flow and oxygen to that area. This can compound the problem as lactic acid, and other toxins build up.
Deep abdominal breathing improves circulation and oxygenates your blood more effectively, carrying oxygen to the cells and tissues where it is needed, encouraging healing.
There are so many benefits to daily deep breathing that anyone can gain from it. It has a profound effect on stress, and the knock-on effect is improved immunity.
It can help people suffering from chronic illness to manage both their anxiety and pain and is an effective way to improve lung capacity as you age. If you or anyone you know suffers from COPD, then this could be immensely helpful. Just ask your doctor to show you how to do it.
Diaphragmatic breathing may help to protect your cardiovascular health and can also lower blood pressure, at least temporarily. It is undoubtedly a useful way to naturally manage your blood pressure alongside other healthy lifestyle practices.
And let’s not forget that it can also energise you and has the potential to sharpen your brainpower. All you need to do to start reaping the benefits is sit or lie down and start breathing. What are you waiting for?
Written by Rebecca Rychlik, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
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Deep abdominal breathing daily, a few times a day, can help to relieve #stress and its harmful effects.