Breathing is something we take for granted – we do it every minute of every day of our lives. But how many of us truly engage in deep and controlled breathing?
This technique, which involves slower, more meaningful inhalations and exhalations, may be the secret to overall health and longevity.
The average adult takes 15 to 20 breaths per minute, yet medical textbooks suggest the normal rate for adults is just 12 breaths. Older textbooks provide lower values – between 8 and 10 breaths per minute!
It would appear that our modern, rushed lives have influenced our breathing too. Why not take the time to slow down and discover the health benefits that regular deep breathing exercises can bring?
1. Less Stress
We’re often told to take a deep breath when stressed or anxious for a reason – it really works to calm the mind!
Stress or fear triggers our sympathetic nervous system to kick into action, causing us to secrete the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline – this is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
By breathing deeply, taking in plenty of oxygen, we can call on the parasympathetic nervous system to switch off these hormones, thus reducing stress and increasing calm.
Focusing on our breathing also helps to keep us in the present moment, allowing us to switch off from the thoughts and fears which are causing our stress.
One of the greatest benefits of deep breathing is its ability to aid detoxification of the body. When we take shallow breaths we’re not ridding the body of as much carbon dioxide – the waste product of gas exchange – as we can.
If we don’t efficiently remove carbon dioxide through breathing, other organs must take over the task, causing additional stress and increasing our risk of illness.
The lymphatic system is also responsible for removing toxins and waste products, this time from our cells. As the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own built-in pump like the heart does, it relies on both breathing and movement to do its job.
3. An Alkaline State
The pH level of the body plays a huge role in keeping disease and illness at bay. Because of poor diets, toxic environments, and sedentary lifestyles, the acid-base balance (which determines pH) isn’t optimal in many people.
Aside from eating an alkaline-forming diet, regular practice of deep breathing is one of the most effective ways to alkalize your body. Not only is the waste product carbon dioxide (which is excreted during exhalation) acidic; but stress is known to disrupt the natural alkaline state of the body.
Learn more about maintaining alkalinity in the body here.
4. Lung Benefits
Just like lifting weights can benefit the muscles, regularly working out the lungs can bring great relief to many respiratory problems like asthma, and bronchitis.
In fact, the American Lung Association lists breathing exercises as being extremely useful when it comes to combating conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive condition that makes it hard to breathe.
In those with reduced lung function, stale air builds up in the lungs, leaving less room for the diaphragm to contract and take in new oxygen. When the diaphragm cannot work to full capacity, muscles in the neck, back and chest must pick up the slack. Breathing exercises can help remove old stale air from the lungs and improve diaphragmatic function.
5. Improved Posture
Poor posture can be linked to shallow or incorrect breathing, particularly as neck, back and chest muscles play a role in facilitating breathing in those with an under-functioning diaphragm.
As you practice breathing deeply, you may find you sit and stand taller and straighter. Better breathing leads to better movement as muscular tension is reduced, and the weight on joints is more evenly distributed.
6. Natural Pain Relief
There’s a reason expectant mothers are told to practice modified paced breathing in the weeks leading up to their due date – it’s the body’s natural pain management system!
Deep breathing releases endorphins which boost our mood and naturally kill pain. Taking in more oxygen also promotes better blood flow and energy release, which gives us the boost we need to manage pain and physical exertion.
In a 2010 study comparing the effects of breathing on pain management in both healthy women and those with fibromyalgia (a condition that causes chronic pain), it was found that both groups of women rated the pain of hot probes as less intense when they breathed deeply than when they breathed normally.
7. Increased Cognitive Function
When controlled breathing is used in meditation, it can actually increase brain size!
Research has shown that the brain experiences growth in the areas associated with attention and the processing of sensory input. This type of breathing may have greater impact on the brains of older adults, which can offset some of the natural decline in gray matter that this age group experience.
However, as with many of the benefits of deep breathing listed here, consistency over time is key.
8. Happiness & Mental Clarity
Deep breathing is a form of meditation, which is known to promote mental clarity and greater happiness.
By focusing on the rhythms of the breath, and the rise and fall of the chest, your mind can truly switch off from the outside world and focus inward.
This type of breathing also switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the excitatory and stress-inducing neurotransmitters, leading to relaxation and a quiet mind.
9. Boost Energy & Balance Blood Sugar
Sometimes, all it takes to invigorate and motivate is a few deep breaths, which is why this type of breathing exercise can be so useful for those suffering from fatigue and exhaustion.
Controlled breathing improves the oxygen flow in the blood, giving you more energy and keeping you alert.
It may also help stabilize energy levels by controlling blood sugar. In a recent study, those who practiced diaphragmatic breathing for 40 minutes after eating a high-calorie meal prevented the feeling of fatigue that usually follows such eating behavior.
Researchers discovered that deep breathing stimulates the production of insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels.
Discover more natural energy boosting tips here.
10. Better Digestion
When stressed and in ‘fight or flight mode’, the body focuses its energy on what it considers vital actions, while shutting down all other ‘unnecessary’ systems – including the digestive system. This is why stress can trigger symptoms of indigestion, bloating, constipation, and other signs of gastrointestinal distress.
By breathing deeply before eating, those who are stressed or who experience any signs of digestive discomfort can activate the parasympathetic system, putting the body into a relaxed state where it can digest food efficiently.
11. A Healthier Heart & Circulatory System
Taking in more oxygen means the heart and other vital organs can function more efficiently. In fact, deep breathing can bring many of the same benefits of aerobic exercise because they both work to deliver an increased oxygen supply.
With an increase in oxygen comes improved circulation and the benefits that can bring.
Research suggests that consistent controlled breathing helps to lower blood pressure and heart rate, which leads to less wear and tear on blood vessels.
12. Weight Loss
According to an Australian study published in the BMJ in 2014, when weight is lost, the majority of it is breathed out as carbon dioxide! This may explain why exercise is so efficient at aiding weight loss, although deep breathing may have a similar effect.
Dr. Robert Girandola, professor of Exercise Science at the University of Southern California, also believes that deep breathing can help people lose excess weight. In a recent study, Girandola found women burned 140% more calories with this technique than if they were on an exercise bike!
Although we still require regular workouts for a healthy body, deep breathing may be a useful adjunct to exercise and a healthy diet for weight loss.
Of course, stress, poor digestion, sluggish detoxification systems, and fluctuating blood sugar levels are all known to hinder weight loss, so deep breathing may work on several levels to help shed those extra pounds.
13. Better Sleep
Those who have trouble falling asleep may want to focus on their breathing at bedtime. By being in the here-and-now, letting go of the worries of yesterday or tomorrow, you can experience a sense of relaxation and calm which may help you drift off.
Some experts even believe that breathing techniques can help you fall asleep in just 60 seconds!
How to Practice Deep Breathing:
While the thought of practicing breathing – something we do every minute – may seem ridiculous, truly restorative and controlled breathing is a learned habit. Here’s how you can get started:
- Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit. Become aware of your normal breathing pattern first, so you can use it to gauge what a deeper, more controlled breath might be like.
- To take a deep breath, place your hand on your abdomen and breathe in through the nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as your lungs fill with fresh air. Hold this breath for three counts, and breath out slowly through your mouth. The exhalation should be longer and slower than the inhalation, as this releases more carbon dioxide and elicits a more relaxing effect.
- Practice this once or twice a day for 5 to 20 minutes, or as often as you need to, depending on the health conditions you want to focus on. For example, if you suffer digestive discomfort, try to breathe deeply for a few minutes before meals.