As I fight off this glorious monster of a chest cold, it has caused me to reflect on the mundane but necessary importance of breathing.
According to the World Health Organization, recent data showed that more than 235 million people have asthma. More than 384 million have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sometimes called emphysema. Common pulmonary (respiratory) disease triggers include exposure to tobacco smoke, viral illnesses, and environmental exposures. I am sure there are plenty on the East Coast and Canada who can attest to this as their skies lay covered in wildfire smoke and look like they live on Tatooine.
This rattle of mucus I have from this cold has had me focus on the mechanism of breathing. When you take a breath, the air you breathe in passes through a membrane found in a honeycomb of tiny air sacs called alveoli, deep in your lungs. The oxygen taken from the air is then transported throughout your body to your brain, muscles, and other vital organs. This provides your body with much-needed energy. It seems that I only reflect on this when the system goes awry.
The importance of breathing
The importance of this typically innate, or natural, breathing reflex was recently touted in many books, including Peter Attia’s Outlive, the Skerrits’ Built to Move, and James Nestor’s Breath. Its power has been well known to yoga devotees who practice pranayama – the act of controlling one’s breath to go from an aroused to a relaxed state.
Breathwork, the intentional practice of controlling and manipulating one’s breath, has recently grown in popularity as a powerful tool for enhancing overall well-being. Ancient civilizations recognized its significance, and modern research is shedding light on the physiological and psychological benefits of conscious breathing. So let’s explore the importance of breathwork and provide techniques that can be instituted at home for immediate and lasting benefits.
How breathwork works
Breathwork operates on the principle that your breath is intimately connected to various body systems, including your nervous and cardiovascular systems, and emotional regulation. Scientific studies, such as those conducted by researchers at Stanford University (Dr. Mark Krasnow et al. in Science, March 31, 2017), show the origins of our breath “pacemaker” deep in the brain stem. Additional work (by Siegel and Huberman, published January 17, 2023, in Cell Reports Medicine) showed that “cyclic sighing,” also referred to as the “physiologic sigh,” performed for just 5 minutes daily can induce relaxation responses, reduce stress levels, and enhance cognitive functions.
Breathing helps with stress reduction too
Controlled breathing can relieve stress. Dr. Andrew Weil used controlled breathing when training elite Navy Seals before combat. Jerath Ravinder proposed a mechanism by which pranayama breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (Med Hypothesis in 2006). This is the part of the nervous system that encourages your body to relax, particularly after periods of stress or danger. This breathing promotes a state of calm, reduces how much oxygen your body consumes and your heart rate, and impacts your stress hormones like cortisol. This produces a positive effect on your mental health and overall well-being.
In Frontiers in Psychology June 2017, Xi et al. published an article showing that conscious breathing practices can also enhance focus and concentration by increasing oxygen flow to the brain.
Additionally, breathwork can allow people to better manage their emotions, reduce anxiety, and experience increased emotional resilience. In the journal Frontiers on Neuroscience, Sept 7, 2018, Andrea Zaccarro et al. published a systematic review of the benefits of breathwork focusing on pranayama and paced breathing (less than 10 breaths per minute), and its effects seen on EEG and functional MRI. EEGs, or electroencephalograms, measure electrical signals in the brain, and functional MRIs of the brain show blood flow changes. Breathwork may also control symptoms of anxiety and improve sleep.
In addition to these benefits, several studies found that pranayama breathing can improve asthma control for some people. In one study, researchers found that 20 minutes of practiced breathing, once or twice a day for one month, improved pulmonary function and quality of life (International Journal of Yoga, Tarun Saxena Jan-Jun 2009; Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Feb 2020).
Practicing breathwork at home
Do you want to try breathwork? Here are some techniques you can try at home.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing:
Inhale deeply through your nose, letting your abdomen expand. Exhale slowly through the mouth. This technique encourages a full and relaxed breath, reducing tension and stress. The books Outlive and Built to Move review this technique.
A simple yet effective technique, box breathing involves inhaling for a count of four, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and then pausing for another four counts before repeating the cycle. This method promotes calmness and balance.
Alternate nostril breathing:
Close one nostril while inhaling through the other, then switch sides while exhaling. This helps balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain and encourages a sense of harmony.
Take in a full deep breath through the nose. After a short pause, quickly sniff in additional air and then allow prolonged expiration through the mouth.
Anecdotally I have found that practicing these different forms of breathwork has helped calm my coughing episodes.
This resurgence in interest in breathwork has provided a no-cost tool to empower people to take charge of their physical and mental well-being. Supported by scientific research, breathwork offers an array of benefits. They range from stress reduction and enhanced focus to emotional regulation and improved immune function. By incorporating simple breathwork techniques into their daily routine, people can experience immediate positive effects and establish a foundation for long-term well-being.
The information in this blog is provided as an information and educational resource only. It is not to be used or relied upon for diagnostic or treatment purposes.
The blog does not represent or guarantee that its information is applicable to a specific patient’s care or treatment. The educational content in this blog is not to be interpreted as medical advice from any of the authors or contributors. It is not to be used as a substitute for treatment or advice from a practicing physician or other healthcare professional.