Deep breathing calms you down. What else can it do for your health?
By Dr. Janelle Louis, ND
You may have noticed an uptick in the amount of people recommending deep breathing over the past several years. The practice is commonly recommended to highly stressed individuals as one of many relaxation techniques that play important roles in calming the mind and reducing stress and anxiety.
But why exactly is this? How does taking deeper breaths affect our state of mind? And, most importantly, what else can it do for us? In this post, I’ll share an overview of deep breathing, including how to breathe properly, why breathing deeply is important, and how breathing deeply affects the nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems.
What is deep breathing (and why does it even matter how you breathe)?
If you’ve ever watched a baby sleeping on his or her back, you’ve probably noticed that babies breathe differently from most adults—their abdomens expand when they inhale and contract when they exhale. This is because healthy babies are born knowing how to breathe deeply using their diaphragms. As we grow older and adopt unhealthy practices like poor posture and sucking our abdomens in, our breathing patterns change. Instead of the health-producing belly breathing we tend to do in early life, our breaths become increasingly shallow.
This is problematic because extending, holding, and slowing your breaths, each of which is involved in deep breathing, stimulates an important nerve in the body called the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it helps your body to shift away from a sympathetic nervous system response and toward a parasympathetic response.
Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that controls our “flight-or-flight” response. Your parasympathetic nervous system is the part that is associated with resting and digesting. In other words, deep breathing helps move your body and mind away from a state of stress and chaos, and toward a state of peace.
What conditions make it difficult to breathe deeply?
Certain health concerns and states of being can promote more shallow breaths instead of deep, diaphragmatic breathing. For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, can lead to problems with the diaphragm, which then lead to more shallow breaths.
In COPD, air can become trapped in the lungs. When this happens, the air pushes down on the diaphragm. This can prevent the diaphragm from working the way it should. When the diaphragm’s ability to contract and expand is restricted, it becomes flattened and weak. The body then enlists the help of the neck and chest muscles to assist with breathing. This leads to chest breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing.
Non-pathological conditions that lead to excessive tightness of the chest and neck muscles can also encourage more shallow breathing. For example, maintaining a posture where your shoulders are rounded and your head is extended forward (such as occurs when we work on computers for extended periods of time) can cause our chest and neck muscles to tighten and our lower thorax muscles to contract. When this happens, it restricts the diaphragm’s full range of movement and promotes more rapid, shallow breaths.
A helpful breathing exercise for diaphragmatic breathing
If you’ve been in the habit of taking shallow breaths, a great way to start developing a new breathing pattern is by implementing 4-7-8 breathing. Here are the steps to completing this exercise:
- To begin this breathing exercise, you’ll want to empty your lungs of carbon dioxide, as much as possible. Do this by exhaling as deeply as possible.
- Next, you’ll need to breathe in through your nose for 4 full seconds.
- Then, hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Finally, exhale forcefully through your mouth with your lips pursed for 8 seconds.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for up to 4 cycles.
Can strength training help you breathe better?
To support deeper breathing over time, it’s important to strengthen the erector spinae muscles, which run up and down your back and neck, extending as far upward as the back of the head.
As the name implies, these muscles help keep the spine straight. They oppose the chest and neck muscles that become overly tight when we have forward head posture, preventing the diaphragm from functioning properly. Exercises that strengthen the erector spinae muscles also support optimal posture over time, which then supports deeper breathing.
The prone superman is an exercise that helps to strengthen the erector spinae muscles. Here are the steps to completing this exercise:
- First, lie face down on the floor or another firm surface.
- Then, use your back muscles (and not your arm and leg muscles) to raise both arms and legs off the floor in one smooth motion as though you are gliding through the air.
- You’ll need to hold that position for two seconds, and then slowly lower your limbs.
- Repeat eight to twelve times.
Another way to support deep breathing in the long run is to correct any postural problems you notice while sitting or standing. To do this, you’ll need to do your best to keep your head and shoulders aligned throughout the day.
Whenever you notice your head in front of your shoulders, take note and realign them. When sitting, be sure to engage your back muscles by sitting upright and not slouching. It will be difficult to stay on track at first if you aren’t in the habit of maintaining good posture, but as you pay attention to your body and correct your posture throughout the day, optimal posture will become a habit.
What are the other health benefits associated with deep breathing?
In order to understand how and why deep breathing leads to other health benefits, we need to revisit the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve, meaning it originates in the brain. This nerve then travels through the face and descends through the chest all the way down to the abdomen. It serves a variety of different purposes within the body. In fact, the vagus nerve plays a critical role in regulating our nervous, cardiovascular, and immune systems. Because deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, it also leads to other important health benefits as it relates to these body functions.
How does deep breathing affect the nervous system?
Diaphragmatic breathing has positive effects on mental and emotional health. For example, deep breathing has been demonstrated to relieve stress, as evidenced by a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol in response to breathing deeply.
In addition to calming you down when stressed, one week of deep breathing in another study led to significant decreases in symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Amazingly, these effects continued for at least 24 weeks after the week-long breathing practice ended. Deep breathing also leads to an increase in attention span after as few as 15 minutes of breathing exercises.
How does deep breathing improve cardiovascular health?
Because of deep breathing’s effect on the vagus nerve, it has been demonstrated to improve high blood pressure and slow heart rate. The practice positively impacts the cardiovascular system by enhancing blood flow from the veins of the body back to the heart. This increased efficiency of venous return increases energy and enables the body to clear metabolic waste from the blood more quickly and more efficiently.
Can deep breathing regulate your immune system?
Deep breathing also has beneficial effects on the immune system. For example, one study found lower levels of multiple inflammatory messengers (interleukin-1β, interleukin-8 and monocyte chemotactic protein-1) in the saliva of individuals who had engaged in deep breathing.
Although these inflammatory messengers are important for normal immune system function, elevated levels have been associated with multiple chronic conditions, including autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Because of deep breathing’s effects on these inflammatory messengers, the practice has been suggested as a non-pharmacological approach to improving these chronic conditions.
Deep breathing, in conclusion
In conclusion, it’s possible for us to breathe in a way that supports optimal wellness and for us to breathe in a way that doesn’t.
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing not only calms us down, but it also improves our mood and helps us devote sustained attention to various tasks. Deep breathing has other important physiological effects on the body, including decreasing blood pressure and heart rate, enhancing blood flow and venous return, and optimizing inflammation levels. In order to harness the beneficial effects associated with deep breathing, we can start by implementing deep breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique, today.
Dr. Janelle Louis is a licensed naturopathic doctor who specializes in helping people with childhood trauma overcome the chronic health concerns they are at increased risk for developing, including mental health conditions, reproductive concerns, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic syndrome. Dr. Louis is committed to ensuring that her patients live their healthiest lives in the present in spite of their difficult pasts.