We’ve all heard that breathing and meditation is a great way of feeling more calm and relaxed, but did you know that spending a few minutes each day using various breathing techniques can also have a significant impact on your health?
That’s because when you breathe deeply, you are able to down regulate the body’s fight-or-flight response, and return your body to normal, healthy functioning.
Jerry Gore, MD, a physician at the Center for Holistic Medicine, explains that your body’s nervous system includes the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response), which kicks in when we perceive danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which serves to calm and relax us.
In his book, Holistic Medicine, Dr. Gore explains that when we are in a fight-or-flight response, our body tries to protect us by:
- Directing more sugar and fats to enter the bloodstream to provide fuel for quick energy
- Increasing the heart rate and blood pressure to get more oxygen to the cells in a hurry
- Activating blood-clotting mechanisms to protect against bleeding from an injury
- Increasing our muscle tone so we can fight or run away
- Shutting down digestion so that the blood is diverted from our organs of digestion to the muscles of action
“All of that is great if you’re running away from a tiger in the woods, but not so great in the modern world where we can often feel like we’re in a constant state of stress,” Dr. Gore says.
Many studies have shown that long-term exposure to stress can lead to a host of medical conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, asthma, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety and more.
Luckily, Dr. Gore says simple breathing exercises can make a huge difference. “Breathing quiets the fight-or-flight stress response and it shifts brain function from the amygdala — the reptilian, fear-based experience — to the pre-frontal cortex, which is the higher, human part of the brain for a more mature and measured experience,” Dr. Gore explains.
By employing simple breathing techniques, Dr. Gore says you can improve a wide variety of medical conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Respiratory problems
- Muscle tension and tension headaches
- Immune response
- Mood swings
Is Breathing the Same As Meditation?
Although most meditation techniques usually use some type of breathing technique, breathing and meditation are not exactly the same. Dr. Gore says many people get intimidated by the idea of trying to meditate because they are too concerned about whether they are doing it “correctly,” but almost anyone can sit down and just breathe. “And breathing does have a meditative effect,” he says.
How Often Should You Do It?
For maximum benefit for your body, Dr. Gore recommends doing five minutes of breathing techniques three times a day. “But even if you do it less, it’s all helpful,” he says.
Once you get into the habit of doing breathing techniques, Dr. Gore says you’ll likely start using this tool whenever you need to. For example, you can use it to balance your immune system when you start feeling rundown by lowering your cortisol levels. Or you may use it if you have an injury or muscle cramp to lessen the pain.
4 Breathing Techniques to Try
So now that you know how breathing techniques can improve your health, here are a few methods you can try. With all of these, Dr. Gore recommends trying to keep your breathing smooth without any pauses, breathing through your nose, and keeping your breathing quiet instead of noisy.
- Abdominal breathing (belly breathing) – Lie flat on the floor or on a bed and place your hand on your abdomen with the bottom of your hand at the level of your belly button and breathe in and out, feeling your abdomen rise and fall. Make sure the breath is continuous without any pauses or jerkiness, having the inhalation go continuously into the exhalation. This method is especially helpful in allowing you to fall asleep.
- Breath awareness – Focus your mind on the spot where the upper lip and the nose intersect. Become aware of the breath as it exits and enters both nostrils at the same time. Sense how the air feels cooler coming in and warmer going out. Again, try to make sure that your breathing is smooth and continuous. This method is good if you are preparing to meditate, or if you are trying to reduce anxiety.
- Progressive muscle relaxation – Lie down on the floor and breathe in, tensing the muscles in your feet. Then breathe out, releasing the tension in your feet. Do it again, moving slowly up your body and tensing and releasing all of the parts of your body from your calf muscles to your thighs, buttocks, back, arms, hands, shoulders, neck and head. This technique is great for reducing aches, pains and muscle soreness.
- Equal breathing – Sit in a comfortable position in a chair, and breathe in, counting as you do. Then breathe out for the same amount of time. Don’t make the pace of your breathing too fast or too slow. It should be a good, natural pace that you will be able to maintain for about five minutes. Make sure your breathing is as smooth and continuous as possible.
Have any other breathing techniques you like? Share them in the comments section below.