Man outside taking a deep breath

The importance of our breath and nasal breathing

Short, shallow breathing often occurs when we are stressed. We often forget to use our nose and breathe in and out through our mouths instead. When we are stressed, we are often advised to draw in a big deep breath and take our time in exhalation. When we are undertaking vigorous exercise, our breathing becomes deeper and more rapid as we try to draw as much oxygen into our systems as possible.

Breathing is largely a mindless activity which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system. When and how we breathe is largely due to circumstances – for example, running away from danger would involve a lot of heavy breathing, whereas when we sleep, our respiration rate typically slows.

The desire to breathe is triggered by carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Carbon dioxide is produced as a by product of metabolism and controls blood pH and “respiratory desire”.

Stress that drives us to shallow breathe can produce a cyclical effect where the breathing in response to stress tends to perpetuate it, rather than relieve it. This drives a response from the sympathetic nervous system, which is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that primes us for activity, response or “flight or fight”.

The long term effect of this cyclical pattern can drive chronic stress within the body and have a flow on effect to the mind. Stress can show up in the body as chronically sore muscles and joints – with shallow breathing, the neck and thoracic spine are most affected. Mental health issues such as panic attacks and anxiety also share links with shallow breathing as part of their aetiology.

Shallow breathing can therefore impact our ability to concentrate, relax and gain adequate recovery if the sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated. Learning to breathe deeply using a diaphragmatic breath, encourages activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes stress reduction, reduction in blood pressure, muscle relaxation and increased energy overall.  The simple action of taking longer to exhale, rather than inhale through the nose has a calming effect as it stimulates the vagus nerve.

Many Lifestyle Medicine practitioners understand the benefits of nitric oxide as a blood vessel vasodilator that come from eating a whole-foods plant based diet. When we breathe in through our nose we also produce nitric oxide which enhances distribution of oxygen in the lungs.

The importance of “the breath” has been highlighted in ancient practices such as yoga. Several studies have been undertaken studying the benefits of yoga in an attempt by Western cultures to scientifically validate how some Eastern practices work.

“Pranayama” is the yogic term for “breath” and most yoga exercises incorporate pranayama front and centre. Pranayama teaches us to engage the diaphragm and skilfully slow our breathing down. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which engages our parasympathetic system.

Engaging pranayama with yoga postures teaches participants control of the breath, improves focus and reduces stress. Studies have found benefits for the effects of pranayama alternate nostril breathing in activating both parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Tai Chi is another ancient practice which marries breathwork with movement and helps us to slow down and control our breathing. The praying, chanting and meditation in the practice of Zen Buddhism also has a similar effect.

Research has given us a greater understanding of the body’s biochemistry, biomechanics and brain function. We can learn to change our habits and rewire our brains to use breathing effectively in the management of stress and other conditions such as hypertension. We can also breathe with more awareness to improve posture, motor patterning and control.

A focused approach examining how you breathe during the day, while you sleep and when you exercise may be a cost effective way of managing stress and improving sleep. There is growing evidence showing the negative impacts of dysfunctional breathing and there are ways to learn how to retrain our breathing habits, and the benefits can be immediate.

Deepak, Sinha et al. (2013).  “Assessment of the Effects of Pranayama/Alternate Nostril Breathing on the Parasympathetic Nervous System in Young Adults”. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. May 7 (5) (821-823)

This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.

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