Control Your Breathing, Calm Your Brain
The way we breathe, fast, slow, shallow or deep is intricately tied to our body as a whole, sending messages that affect y mood, stress and the immune system.
Breathing is easily ignored, and revered at the same time. It is instinctual to advise someone to “take a deep breath” if they are feeling anxious, stressed or fearful.
Breathing has for the most part been looked at in terms of automatic brain stem processes, but it is becoming increasingly clear that higher brain mechanisms are also involved, although the link is not very well understood.
“Therapeutic techniques have used conscious control and awareness of breathing for millennia with little understanding of the mechanisms underlying their efficacy,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Neurophysiology.5
They conducted an experiment asking participants to count how many breaths they took for 2 mins. During this frame, their brain activity, which was monitored by EEG, showed a more organized pattern, or “increased coherence,” in areas linked to emotion than occurred during a resting state.
Still other research hinting at the deep ties between breathing and your brain came from a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, which showed that natural breathing is not simply a “passive target of heightened arousal or vigilance.”
For instance; our breathing rate changes when we are anxious or engrossed in a mentally challenging task. But the study suggests these changes, rather than being the result of your mental state, may actually be actively used to promote changes in your brain, including those that control goal-directed behaviors.
In short, the rhythm of breathing leads to changes in your brain that may heighten your ability to make emotional judgments or form memories.
For instance; people were better able to identify fearful faces during inhalation through their nose, as opposed to when they were exhaling through their mouth. The same was true for remembering images.
Current research suggests the benefits of controlled breathing may also include improved health conditions ranging from insomnia and anxiety to PTSD and depression. I
n a preliminary study presented in May 2016 at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas, researchers found 12 weeks of daily yoga and controlled breathing improved symptoms of depression similar to using an antidepressant.
Not only did the participants’ symptoms of depression significantly decrease but their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter, simultaneously increased.
Controlled breathing exercises have also been found to modify stress coping behaviors and initiate appropriate balance in cardiac autonomic tone, which is a term that describes your heart’s ability to respond to and recover from stressors.
Also intriguing is a Y 2016 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which found yogic breathing reduces levels of proinflammatory biomarkers in saliva.
Controlled breathing is also a way to trigger your relaxation response, which is essentially the opposite of the fight-or-flight response, as it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn may slow down the heart rate and digestion while helping one feel calm.
By evoking our body’s built-in relaxation response we can actually change the expression of our genes for the better, including in areas related to energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, the inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.
Slow breathing also reduces blood pressure and enhances baroreflex sensitivity, a mechanism to control blood pressure via heart rate, in people with high blood pressure. The finding was so strong that researchers suggested slow breathing “appear[s] potentially beneficial in the management of hypertension.”
The human body breathes automatically, it is both an involuntary and a voluntary process.
We can alter the speed and the depth of breathing for instance, as well as choose to breathe through your mouth or nose, and these choices lead to physical changes in your body.
Short, slow, steady breathing activates your parasympathetic response while rapid, shallow breathing activates your sympathetic response, which is involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones.
If the goal is to relax, many people enjoy pranayama, or yogic breathing, which has been practiced for thousands of years for purposes of enhancing health.
Pranayama can be done using nostril breathing, abdominal breathing or vocalized breathing.
Pranayama breathing involves 3 phases: inhalation, retention and exhalation, each of which can have varying lengths and tempos. The middle phase, retention is said to be an important part of the breathing process and helps enhance the level of vital energy in the body.
According to a study in the International Journal of Yoga: “Slow and deep breathing is efficient as it reduces the ventilation in the dead space of the lungs. Shallow breathing replenishes air only at the base of the lungs in contrast to deep breathing that replenishes the air in all parts of the lung. It decreases the effect of stress and strain on the body by shifting the balance of the autonomic system predominantly toward the parasympathetic system and improves the physical and mental health. Many researchers have found pranayama to be beneficial in treating stress-related disorders … The effects of pranayama, when practiced with kumbhaka, are substantially more than pranayama practiced alone.”
The study involved 12 weeks of modified slow breathing exercise in a modified pranayama form, with equal phases of inspiration, breath holding and exhalation (1-to-1-to-1 ratio).
Following the study, and compared to a control group that did not receive any intervention, the slow breathing group had reduced perceived stress and improved cardiovascular parameters, such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Even in the moment, slowing our respiratory rate to 6 breaths per min for a period of 5 mins has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure and result in a small reduction in heart rate.
“Slow pace bhastrika pranayama (respiratory rate 6 min) exercise thus shows a strong tendency to improving the autonomic nervous system through enhanced activation of the parasympathetic system,” researchers explained.
Learn to Breathe!
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