How Breath and Health are Connected
Deep Breathing and Physical Health Benefits for Stress and Anxiety
You know you depend on breath to live, but did you know you can live better by breathing more intentionally? Shallow, interrupted breathing is correlated with several poor health conditions. We can prevent and even reverse these conditions by purposefully breathing for health and vitality.
Health Benefits of Breathing Deeply
Breath and health are connected. It is important to listen to your breath. Stress, anxiety and physical conditions such as COPD, asthma, obesity or heart disease can lead to shallow, interrupted breathing. This type of breathing signals to the body we’re in danger, activating the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response. Entering fight or flight mode triggers even greater stress, thus kicking off a negative bio-feedback loop. Thankfully, it’s within our power to interrupt this cycle. Because breath is always with us, mindful breathing for better health is an easy and effective tool to use.
Studies on deep breathing exercises for health have found it lowers blood pressure, reduces instances of migraines, can be helpful in treating chronic constipation, and makes it easier for people with COPD to exercise. Taking intentional full breaths improves quality of life for those with heart failure, cancer and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
- Breath and Movement
Focusing on breathing makes it easier for us to be active, a key ingredient for good health. When we’re mindful of breath we’re better able to withstand intense exercise, less likely to get injured during exercise, and our heart rate slows down, allowing us to move more efficiently, conserving energy. Breathing deeply also strengthens our core, improving our stability. Exercise can benefit our meditation practice, and we can extend our meditation into our exercise.
- Breath and Sleep
Proper breathing addresses a variety of conditions by helping us sleep better. In a 2015 study, patients who spent just 20 minutes on slow breathing exercises before bed fell asleep sooner, woke up less often throughout the night, and were able to fall asleep again faster when they did wake up. When we sleep better, our physical and mental health improves considerably.
- Breathing for Heart Health
Synchronization between the rhythm of your breath and your heartbeat, is called cardiac coherence. When we’re stressed and breath becomes irregular, so does our heartbeat. Synchronization between the two decreases. Meditating on slow, deep breathing can turn this cycle around, leading us back to a state of cardiorespiratory synchronization. Cardiac coherence is strongly associated with a healthy nervous system and enhanced communication between body and mind.
- Breath and Stress
Breath improves our health thanks to its significant role in reducing stress. Breathing deeply puts pressure on the vagus nerve, signaling to the body we’re safe. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which stops the release of stress hormones and returns us to a balanced state. Less stress means less systemic inflammation, improved immunity, and overall better health. Reducing stress also improves our mental health.
Deep Breathing for Mental Health
There’s a reason why meditation and other relaxation techniques focus on breathing slowly and fully. It’s because this type of breathing works well to settle and calm both the body and the mind. Mindful breathing improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has been successful in the treatment of eating disorders. Indeed, meditation on the breath has many benefits.
- Breath and Anxiety
When we have trouble breathing, anxiety and panic follow. The reverse is also true. By mindfully and patiently taking full, diaphragmatic breaths, we can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. In part, breath meditation minimizes anxiety by focusing our attention on the act of breathing. Shifting neurological resources to the breath limits activity in the regions of the brain where worry and rumination take place.
- Breath and Depression
Those with COPD, asthma or otherwise limited capacity for full, healthy breaths are more prone to depression. In one study, patients who practiced 2 hours of breathing exercises over the course of 2 weeks not only reported fewer depressive symptoms at the end of their protocol, but with home practice sessions, maintained these positive results 6 months later.
Deep Breathing for Health
To practice breathing meditation for better health, the best place to start is with breath-focused meditation. To begin, sit up tall, breathe in and out through your nose, and observe your breath. At first, just take note of your breathing without changing it.
- Is your breath short or long?
- Is your breath shallow or full?
- Are your breaths even or irregular?
- Where in your body do you feel your breath?
- Is it all in your chest, or are you breathing into your belly?
Over time, try gently altering your breath by breathing more deeply into your belly, or extending the length of your exhale breaths. Practice deep breathing for 1-3 minutes, then return to normal, mindful breathing for the same length of time. Repeat at least 3 times per session.
After a few weeks, notice if your normal breath pattern has changed and if you feel better. Contemplate which comes first; change in the breath, or changes to your physical health and your state of mind? And while you’re contemplating, think about our online meditation class on mind-body health. Click on the banner below for more!