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Breathing for Life

Most of us do not think twice about our pattern of breathing...because it is automatic, right? Well, yes, unconsciously we all continue to breathe due to our autonomic nervous system but to what extent do we truly give ourselves what our bodies need for optimum health?

The effects of inhalation and exhalation extend far beyond the physical exchange of air in and out of the body...they extend to the workings of the heart and lungs as well as to subtle molecular processes through which the body’s energy production is maintained.

This leads us to a little recognized fact, that the importance of maintaining health is directly related to the quality of our breathing.

When we pay attention, we see that breathing is either...

• diaphragmatic or thoracic

• continuous or interrupted by pauses

• rhythmical or irregular...

all affected by either our physical or emotional state.

We have all experienced changes in our breathing under varying circumstances such as fear, anger, sorrow and physical each event affects the breath. Conversely, this relationship exists too, if we intentionally or unconsciously alter our pattern of inhalation and exhalation, it will affect our physical and emotional state.

Some of us have unintentionally set up physical responses to emotional triggers that over time become a habitual pattern of behavior. In other words, we interrupt a natural and healthy process of respiration. To correct the ill effects of this upon our mind and body we need to pay attention to our breath and practice quality breathing, however of us rarely take more than a couple deep breaths during an entire day, even when we’re not feeling stressed (and when is that?). And if you’re not taking deep breaths, you could be missing out on one of the simplest ways to drastically improve your health.

If we observe an animal being chased by a predator, after the long pursuit, if the animal runs free, we may notice their body physically quiver to reset their nervous system. The ability to literally "shake it off" is a natural response that some animals have to relieve stress and trauma, and rebalance their nervous system.

Although our most imminent dangers may be impending deadlines, road rage, financial insecurity or taxing schedules, our nervous system may still interpret our anxiety, stress and fear as a response to a potential life threat. The impact of this stressor over time may be detrimental to our long-term health, because we don't reset our nervous system, remaining in fight or flight. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, accelerating our adrenal glands, cortisol levels and hormonal balance, which can affect our aging process.

As newborns, we enter the world by inhaling. In leaving the world, we exhale. (In fact, in many languages the word “exhale” is synonymous with “dying.”) Breathing is so central to life that it is no wonder humankind long ago noted its value not only to survival but to the functioning of the body and mind and began controlling it to improve well-being.

But why does deep breathing work? It has to do with how your nervous system functions.

Even a simple understanding of physiology helps to explain why controlled breathing can induce relaxation. Everyone knows that emotions affect the body. When you are happy, for instance, the corners of your mouth turn up automatically, and the edges of your eyes crinkle in a characteristic expression. Similarly, when you are feeling calm and safe, at rest, or engaged in a pleasant social exchange, your breathing slows and deepens. You are under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect. Conversely, when you are feeling frightened, in pain, or tense and uncomfortable, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s various reactions to stress, is now activated. Less well known is that the effects also occur in the opposite direction: the state of the body affects emotions. Studies show that when your face smiles, your brain reacts in kind—you experience more pleasant emotions. Breathing, in particular, has a special power over the mind. Your breath isn’t just part of your body’s stress response, it’s key to it.

Here’s a quick and painless biology lesson: Your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls your rest-and-relax response. While both parts of your nervous system are always active, deep breathing can help quiet your sympathetic nervous system and therefore reduce feelings of stress or anxiety.

Controlled breathing, also known as “paced respiration,” “diaphragmatic breathing” and “deep breathing,” whatever you choose to call it, the dynamic at work is full oxygen exchange: more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide exits. It is a practice that enables more air to flow into your body and can help calm your nerves, reducing stress and anxiety. It can also help you improve your attention span and lower pain levels.

The diaphragm is the motor muscle of breath, which can be automatic, forced, or controlled. The diaphragm is assigned to multiple functions, both indirectly and directly, which go beyond breathing. It also promotes expectoration, vomiting, defecation, urination, swallowing, and phonation. The diaphragm influences the body metabolic balance and stimulates the venous and lymphatic return, thereby creating the correct relationship between the stomach and the esophagus to prevent gastroesophageal reflux. It is essential for correct posture and locomotion, as well as for the movement of the upper limbs. The diaphragmatic muscle influences the emotional and psychological spheres. The functions of the diaphragm do not stop locally in its anatomy but affect the whole body system. It can be called systemic breath. The main nerves of the diaphragm are the phrenic and vagus nerves. The diaphragm can have multiple utilities to improve the symptomatic picture of chronic diseases. In chronic diseases, a decline in cognitive activity takes place concomitantly with an alteration of the respiratory function observed in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), fibromyalgia, chronic heart failure (CHF), and chronic low back pain (CLPB).

The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.

Research shows that controlling breathing in this way triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and counter our sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response to daily stresses. In effect, the relaxation response is the anti-fight or flight response. Deep breathing helps you control your nervous system, which lessens your stress response — but it takes practice.

What follows are five science-based reasons for paying more attention to an ability most of us aren't maximizing.

1. Managing Stress.

This is the most direct application of controlled breathing and the one we hear about most. Our brains are routinely on high alert for threats in our environment—we’re wired to react defensively to anything that hints of imperiling us physically or psychologically.

Controlled breathing may be the most potent tool we have to prevent our brains from keeping us in a state of stress, and preventing subsequent damage caused by high stress levels. The relaxation response is a built-in way to keep stress in check.

2. Managing Anxiety.

The means by which controlled breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system is linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve—a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, responsible for mediating nervous system responses and lowering heart rate, among other things.

The vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that catalyzes increased focus and calmness. A direct benefit of more acetylcholine is a decrease in feelings of anxiety. Stimulating the vagus nerve may also play a role in treating depression, even in people who are resistant to anti-depressant medications.

3. Lowering Blood Pressure and Heart Rate.

Research suggests that when practiced consistently, controlled breathing will result in lower blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn results in less wear and tear on blood vessels. As described above, the vagus nerve plays a key role in this response.

Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate can help prevent stroke and lower risk of cerebral aneurysm.

4. Sparking Brain Growth.

One of the more intriguing research developments involving controlled breathing is that when it’s used to facilitate meditation, the result can be an actual increase in brain size. Specifically, the brain experiences growth in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory input.

The effect seems to be more noticeable in older people, which is especially good news because it’s the reverse of what typically happens as we age—gray matter usually becomes thinner. The result is consistent with other research showing an increase in thickness of music areas of the brain in musicians and visual-motor areas in the brains of jugglers. As in those cases, the key is consistent practice over time.

5. Changing Gene Expression.

Another unexpected research finding is that controlled breathing can alter the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

And this isn’t the first study linking controlled breathing to changes in genetic expression. A 2008 study indicated that long-term practice of the relaxation response results in changes to the expression of genes associated with how the body reacts to stress.

Breathing exercises also help to counter the accumulation of minor physical tension associated with stress. Therapists recommend doing them regularly during the day, during breaks or at moments of transition between two activities: you simply stop to adjust your posture and allow yourself a few minutes of quiet breathing. Therapists often suggest the “365 method”: at least three times a day, breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling) for five minutes. And do it every day, 365 days a year. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to providing immediate relief, regular breathing exercises can make people less vulnerable to stress, by permanently modifying brain circuits.

6. Detoxification.

Good breathing habits help the lymphatic system function properly, which encourages the release of harmful toxins. This cleanses the body and allows it to direct its energy to more productive functions.

In short, breathing is one of the most critical components to a healthy life. In the next part of this series; we will establish a deep breathing practice for your health.

In the meantime, let me know, do you already have a breathwork practice?


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