Breathing is essential for life. It's at the heart of most bodily functions — and key to maintaining optimal physical and mental health.
Sounds easy enough since we all regularly inhale and exhale without thinking about it. But the trouble is most of us are breathing all wrong — that is, too shallowly — according to experts. And because respiration is such an automatic function, it's easy to keep on ignoring it.
The result is our bodies and brains are taking a hit that could be avoided if we just paid a little more attention to the air going in and out of our lungs. Here's everything you need to know about the health benefits of deep diaphragmatic breathing and how to do it right.
Don't waste your breath
If you practice yoga or meditate you already know that conscious breathing (also called controlled breathing, focused breathing and abdominal breathing) is a key element of both practices. It's been used for millennia to help practitioners stay present, cultivate mindfulness and enhance inner vitality and energy.
Now scientists are confirming what ancient masters have proclaimed for eons. Breathing right is absolutely essential for nurturing a healthy body and mind. That's because it affects your nervous system, which is in contact with every cell in your body. Which means that how you breathe has a direct impact on all your organs, your immune system, your memory, your digestion, your sleep and even your level of anxiety and stress.
Unfortunately, most of us are doing it all wrong. We pull air into the top of our lungs, but don't fill them to capacity by sucking it down into the lower regions.
Shallow breathing usually begins in childhood when we start school and park ourselves in a chair all day. Sitting affects posture, which, in turn, affects breathing.
Many of us also spend a lot of time clenching in our guts to make ourselves look thinner and sometimes as an unconscious brace against perceived threats in our everyday lives. Bottom line: Culturally reinforced shallow chest breathing has come to feel normal. But it's not.
And it's not good for you either. When your lower lungs don't receive enough oxygenated air, it sends signals to your brain that all is not well. You begin feeling anxious and stressed. And according to Headspace.com, it becomes a vicious cycle — life's stresses causes you to breathe shallowly, and the act of breathing shallowly sends signals to the nervous system that you're stressed.
Unfortunately, this self-reinforcing loop takes its toll on your body, everything from weakening your immune system and raising your blood pressure to diminishing your cognitive function and causing fatigue.
Shallow breathing is linked to several health problems. You can reverse course and boost your health by learning to fully oxygenate your lungs. (Photo: Minoru Nitta [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The good news is learning to breathe correctly is easy. Better yet, you don't have to be a yogi or meditation aficionado to enjoy the benefits, and you don't need special equipment or a unique space to practice in. Just a few minutes a day of deep abdominal breathing wherever you happen to be is all you need.
As Belisa Vranich, a psychologist and author of the book "Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve your Mental and Physical Health," recently told the New York Times, "Breathing is massively practical. It's meditation for people who can't meditate."
The science of breathing
The latest research shows that good breathing habits offer multiple health payoffs. Here are a few:
It creates a sense of calm. Scientists recently uncovered an actual brain-breathing connection that seems to influence emotions. According to Forbes, researchers in a 2016 study accidentally uncovered a neural circuit in the brain stem that's directly impacted by the pace of breathing. The findings show that slow, controlled breathing diminishes activity in the brain and calms it (promoting feelings peace and well-being), while rapid and erratic breathing ramps up brain activity and feelings of stress.
It curbs hypertension. New research has also found that breathing slower raises your "baroreflex sensitivity." This is how your body controls blood pressure through heart rate. The good news is that controlled breathing can help reduce blood pressure, giving a big boost to your overall cardiovascular health.
It enhances memory. According to another recent study, the rhythm of your breathing also stimulates electrical activity in the brain that improves how clearly you think and remember things and how swiftly you react in arousing or emotional situations. In particular, participants were able to identify fearful faces and remember objects better if they saw them when inhaling rather than exhaling. However, this was only true when they inhaled through their noses. Breathing on the out breath or via the mouth wasn't helpful. In other words, focused breathing with lots of nasal inhalation (which is how we tend to breathe in stressful or frightening situations) heightens the brain's memory functions and helps us identify potentially harmful stimuli.
It boosts immune function. Chronic stress is known to inflict tremendous wear-and-tear on the body if left unchecked. That's why health practitioners have long recommended practices like deep breathing to induce the relaxation response in patients with hypertension, diabetes and other medical conditions. This parasympathetic nervous system reaction dampens the body's "fight or flight" reaction to stress and promotes healing. A study shows that mind/body techniques like deep breathing also fight against disease by triggering beneficial changes in the expression of genes that regulate immune function, energy metabolism and the efficiency of insulin secretion (which improves how the body processes blood sugar).
It alleviates depression. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that several weekly yoga sessions with deep breathing exercises eased depression symptoms in participants after 12 weeks and boosted their levels of an anti-anxiety brain chemical.
Now, take a deep breath
Learning to breathe properly isn't hard, and it's something you can be mindful of throughout the day by noticing when your breathing is shallow and taking a few moments to inhale deeply and exhale fully.
Diaphragmatic breathing involves filling your lungs fully on the inhale, expanding your belly, and emptying your lungs fully on the exhale. (Photo: Remedial Class [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
But to really reap the most mental and physical health benefits, you'll also want to dedicate focused time every day to a short deep-breathing and relaxation session. Here's how:
1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable, quiet place. This can even be at your desk at work or anywhere you can find space for a short interlude of mindful concentration.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of five, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise. Expand your abdomen fully.
3. Pause for one second.
4. Breathe out slowly through your nose or mouth to the count of six, allowing your lungs to empty completely and your abdomen to contract.
The aim is to breathe deeply in and out five times per minute and do it for 10 to 20 minutes a day. You can also split it into two breathing sessions.
In addition, you also have the option of combining this practice with other relaxation techniques including guided imagery, yoga, mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation — but it's not necessary.
Learn more about proper diaphragmatic breathing from Vranich in this TEDx Talk video.