Get Healthier With Every Breath You Take


Learning the benefits of proper breathing and trying different breathing techniques are simple but effective ways to improve mental and physical health. 
Most of us pay little attention to the breaths we take in and out, said Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang, an integrative pulmonologist in private practice in Encinitas, California. “But what’s a bit more miraculous about breathing is that, contrary to a lot of other bodily functions, we can also control our breathing.” 

Breathing Basics 

Breathing both affects and is affected by the nervous system. Breathing and heart rate are regulated by the same parts of the brain, and each “talks” to the other to work in sync. 

Changing how much we inhale affects more than just the amount of oxygen we get. When we inhale, our lungs expand, and pressure on the heart and blood vessels changes. That stimulates sensory nerves that, in return, affect how hard we breathe.

A threat – such as an attacking tiger or an angry boss – triggers the “fight or flight” response. “Along with that comes the increase in heart rate, the increase in sweaty palms and the increase in muscle tension,” said Liang, who also is a voluntary assistant professor at the University of California San Diego and a mindfulness teacher. We breathe faster, and blood rushes to the muscles as the body braces for action. That’s the work of the sympathetic nervous system.

Conversely, when we’re relaxed, we breathe more slowly. Heart rate decreases, blood vessels dilate and more blood flows to the gut to help with digestion. This “rest and digest” response is managed by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Breathing is affected by these systems. But by consciously slowing our breathing, we can manipulate them. Research suggests that controlled breathing can trigger the “rest and digest” response by stimulating the vagus nerve, which controls many involuntary functions, including heart rate.

Benefits of Better Breathing

Daniel Craighead, a cardiovascular physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, led research demonstrating just how much a specific breathing activity can affect one important measure of health: blood pressure.

"When we breathe, that actually impacts how much blood is ejected from our hearts,” said Craighead, an assistant research professor in the department of integrative physiology. 

Other research has shown that deep breathing can improve blood glucose in healthy people. Breathing exercises also have been shown to bolster mental health by lowering stress and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. Just learning to manage stress has its own health benefits.

Controlled breathing is also a well-established tool for pain control, Liang said. Pain, for most people, is perceived as a threat. “It's something that stresses our body out,” she said. Mindfulness and breathing have been shown to help decrease pain, she said, by calming the sympathetic nervous system and encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system.

There are limits to what controlled breathing can do, Liang said. For example, deep breathing may not provide much relief for severe pain resulting from a traumatic chest injury or a blood clot in the lungs. And controlled breathing cannot cure severe depression or anxiety or treat serious psychological problems, although applying mindfulness and deep breathing may help with symptoms.

Techniques to Try

Controlled breathing techniques have many benefits to overall wellness. Anyone with a medical condition related to the heart or lungs or who has a mental health condition should check with a health care professional before trying any method.

Some breathing exercises include:

  • 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale through your nose for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale through your mouth for eight. Making the exhale longer than the inhale helps to activate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Pursed-lip breathing: Inhale, then exhale through your mouth through pursed lips, as if you're blowing out birthday candles, two to four times longer than your inhale. Pursing the lips creates pressure that opens the airways a bit, Liang said, and the long exhale helps get rid of unexchanged gas in the lungs and makes room for more fresh air.
  • Box breathing: Inhale through the nose for four counts, hold your breath for four more, exhale for four, then hold for four. “When you breath-hold, that increases your carbon dioxide level temporarily. And when you increase your carbon dioxide level in your bloodstream, that decreases your heart rate. And so it helps to bring on that parasympathetic physiology online as well.” Liang recommends box breathing for people who need to remain focused and alert, yet calm — for instance, before a big test or speaking to a large audience.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Place both hands on your abdomen, inhale through the nose, letting the abdomen balloon out, and exhale through your mouth. Liang said that the focus on the abdomen and hands makes this approach helpful for people who get anxious if they have to focus too much on their airflow. 

Source: American Heart Association