Do You Know How to Breathe?
‘Knowing’ how to breathe might seem obvious!
Breathing is something we humans do on average 25,000 times a day and for the most part without any conscious effort.
But just because it’s an involuntary function, it doesn’t mean that you can’t control it. Think about a time you’ve felt a bit agitated or in a state of panic – you may have been encouraged to take a slow, deep breath to help you calm down.
Knowing that the breath can change your emotional state in the moment is one thing. Even more powerful to understand is that it’s something you can harness to improve your overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Connecting Breath to Health
Every system in the body relies on oxygen and the way you breathe has a huge impact on your health.
‘Effective’ breathing helps to regulate functions like heart rate and blood pressure. It can also improve mental clarity, support digestion, improve sleep, reduce stress, and improve your body’s immune response. Breathing techniques can also help to reduce your perception of pain.
The way you breathe also affects how much stress is put on your body when you move. Steady breathing can enhance core stability, reduce the risk of muscle fatigue and injury and help you build endurance for strenuous exercise.
Breathe More Deeply
If you are sitting down for long periods of time or experience a busy, stressful life the chances are that you’re shallowbreathing. Over time, taking in short breaths through the mouth that only lift the chest area is not good for your body. It can weaken your respiratory muscles and create tension in your upper body, altering your posture.
To breathe effectively, you need to breathe slowly and deeply through the nose. This is also known as diaphragm-, abdominal- or belly-breathing. The ideal rhythm is about six breaths per minute which probably means slowing down your breath a little. To achieve that slower rhythm, breathe in for a count of five and breathe out for five.
The Science of Breathing
Your brain and body need oxygen to work. Oxygen comes into the body by breathing in air and it’s transported around the body in the blood stream.
Your body is constantly monitoring oxygen levels and send signals to your brain which then tells you how often and how deeply to breathe.
If you sense danger or are being physically active, you start breathing more quickly. This activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and makes the heart pump faster so it can deliver extra oxygen to your muscles. Faster breathing also stimulates the production of cortisol, which increases glucose in the blood stream. The extra oxygen and the glucose combine to give you a quick burst of energy so you can run!
When you’re calm and resting your breathing is much slower. This stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Your heart rate slows and cortisol levels reduce which unblocks your wellbeing hormones – dopamine and serotonin. Your muscles and your brain relax.
The Art of Breathing
The challenge that many of us have in today’s world is that we’re either in a ‘stress response’ too often or we can’t turn it off quickly enough. A sustained level of cortisol is damaging to both physical and mental health.
The good news is that you can take back some control and calm the body and the mind when you focus on your breath. By slowing it down you can override the system and tell your brain that you’re no longer in danger.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, angry, or have trouble sleeping…try the 4-7-8 breath
This breathing pattern was developed by our Integrative Medicine colleague in the USA, Dr Andrew Weil. It’s based on an ancient yogic technique called ‘pranayama’.
To do it, breathe in through the nose for a count of four, hold for a count of seven (without tensing your body) and breathe out of the mouth for a count of eight.
It might seem difficult to achieve at first but do stick with it. After a round or two it becomes much easier as the body relaxes into it. Aim to do about four or five rounds and no more.
If you need to boost your energy…try the 4-4-4-4 breath
This is also known as the Box Breath because it helps to imagine drawing the four sides of a box as you inhale, hold, exhale, hold for equal counts of four.
Repeat this cycle for about five minutes to feel the energising effects.
This exercise can lower blood pressure, provide a sense of calm and improve your mood but it will also keep you energised, motivated and alert.
A pro tip to enhance any breathing exercise you do is to visualise drawing nourishing energy from the earth into your body on the inhale and releasing negative thoughts or energy on the exhale.
Don’t forget to breathe deeply into your belly to get the most benefits!