The Importance of Breathing: How To Breathe Properly
By Sara Novak
Breathing isn’t something we often think about. It’s an automatic survival mechanism and healthy people do it around 8 to 12 times per minute. But many of us breathe much faster than this, around 25 times per minute, often as a response to stress and anxiety. We don’t even realize that we’re almost hyperventilating, not allowing the lungs to properly fill and release. On the other hand, when we’re feeling calm and relaxed and engaged in the moment, rather than planning for the future or stuck in the past, we’re under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system, where the breath is moving slowly and evenly.
Learning to fill your lungs to capacity makes for well oxygenated blood, plus it’s a built-in tool for dealing with stress in the moment. Too many of us take the importance of breathing for granted but here’s why we shouldn’t.
Table Of Contents:
- How Breathing Works
- Why Breathing Matters
- How To Keep Your Lungs Healthy
- The Benefits Of Breathing
How Breathing Works:
The lungs are an essential organ located below the ribs in the chest. They’re spongy, pink and full of life. When you inhale air into the lungs the oxygen from the air enters your blood. The speed of your breath is controlled by your brain which sends signals regarding the need for oxygen and the need to expel carbon dioxide. The diaphragm, intercostal muscles (between the ribs), abdominals, muscles of the face, and muscles of the neck all help us breathe. While the brain controls breathing, we don’t think about it because it’s controlled by the autonomic nervous system, also called the involuntary nervous system.
Breathing controls a life-giving process called the gas exchange. We inhale oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Oxygen is carried through the blood via proteins called hemoglobin. The heart then pumps that blood all over the body where oxygen is taken into the cells, allowing the body to function at its best.
Why Breathing Matters:
When we learn to slow down the breath we can control tension, relieve stress, and increase concentration. A study published in the Journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback found that “breathing techniques could be used as first-line and supplemental treatments for stress, anxiety, depression, and some emotional disorders.” By inducing stress resilience, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering.” Another study published in the journal of Depression and Anxiety found that “altered breathing may be useful as a physiological marker of anxiety.”
How To Keep Your Lungs Healthy:
You can’t breathe without healthy lungs. It’s all about taking the steps you need to take to keep your lungs in tip top condition. Here are some tips:
- Quit smoking and avoid second hand smoke. This is obvious but it must be mentioned as it’s the most important way to keep your lungs healthy.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Reduce indoor air pollution by minimizing dust and mold, avoiding toxic cleaning products, and choosing sustainable furniture that doesn’t off gas dangerous chemicals.
- Test your home for radon gas. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. A simple test of your home shows whether you’re at risk.
- Get an air filter. Keeping the air flowing in and outside of your home by opening doors and windows is ideal but an air filter can also be helpful.
- Practice deep breathing. Take a few minutes everyday to note how you’re breathing. Close your eyes, soften tensed muscles, and just watch the breath. If your breathing is shallow, take a few minutes to deepen and slow down the breath.
How you breathe matters. Over-breathing, or breathing too fast, doesn’t just cause tension externally, it causes internal strife similar to what a panic attack feels like. Shallow breathing causes chest tightness, increased heart rate, anxiety, headaches, asthma, stomach pain, depression, and chest discomfort.
The Benefits Of Breathing:
It may seem simple, but one of the easiest and least expensive ways to improve your health is to take a deep breath, or tons of them. Deep breathing has so many benefits. Here are just a few:
Anxiety can be a normal aspect of life. Maybe you have to give a speech in front of a crowd or you have a big upcoming test to prepare for. But when anxiety becomes all consuming and it’s difficult to focus your attention on anything else, that’s when you may have an anxiety disorder. Deep breathing is a simple and effective treatment for anxiety. Research published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found “clinical evidence for the use of yoga breathing in the treatment of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and for victims of mass disasters.” Another study published in the journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care found that “results indicated that the deep breathing protocol was effective in reducing anxiety levels in patients with bipolar disorder. The deep breathing protocol has no negative side effects and might be applied to decrease anxiety symptoms in individuals with bipolar disorder.”
Reduces Pain Perception
Deep breathing has also been shown to reduce our own perceptions of pain. I know this to be true because I had two natural births without pain medication and used deep breathing to work through the intensity of labor. Research backs up my personal experience. A study published in the journal Pain Medicine “suggests that the way of breathing decisively influences autonomic and pain processing” and changes our mental perception of the pain we’re feeling. This is likely the result of breathing to soften tense muscles. When you tense up as a result of pain, you’re more likely to intensify the discomfort you’re feeling in the moment.
Helps Patients With COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) causes damage to the lungs that can’t be reversed. Its symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, and a chronic cough. In all, about 95 percent of patients with COPD were smokers at one time. A study published in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, found that deep controlled breathing exercises reduced the symptoms of COPD in patients.
Reduces Blood Pressure
Often times elevated blood pressure can be an acute stress response. When we’re in fight or flight mode, one of the symptoms is the constriction of blood vessels and an increased heart rate. The combination of these two factors can increase your blood pressure which is an indication of heart disease. On the other hand, deep breathing can slow the heart rate and reduce constriction of the blood vessels. A study published in the The Medical Journal of Malaysia found that both listening to music and deep breathing exercises were associated with a clinically significant reduction in blood pressure. Additionally, a study published in the journal Chest found that patients that practiced deep breathing exercises before surgery experienced improved outcomes with regards to pulmonary activity.
Reduces Inflammation In The Body
According to Harvard Health, there are two types of inflammation in the body: chronic and acute. Acute happens when your body dispatches white blood cells to the scene of a crime. For example, a scraped knee where white blood cells are necessary to fight infection and heal the scrape. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, occurs in response to other unwanted substances in the body, such as toxins from cigarette smoke, an excess of fat cells, or cholesterol-rich plaque. “Your body perceives this plaque as abnormal and foreign, so it attempts to wall off the plaque from the flowing blood.” A study published in the journal BMC Complementary Medicine and Theories found that less “salivary cytokines,” an indicator of chronic inflammation, were detected after a deep breathing session.
Nerve growth factor is a substance that helps with the maintenance, proliferation, and health of neurons. It’s crucial for the health of our cells. A study published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics found that after a yogic breathing session, participants not only had more saliva (an indicator of reduced stress) within that saliva, participants had increased levels of NGF, an indicator that deep breathing helps with the preservation of the body’s cells.
Helps With Insomnia
If you’re having some trouble getting to sleep, consider a deep breathing sesh. Deep breathing can help soften the stress in your mind, especially when racing thoughts are keeping you up at night. For a double whammy, take 5-10 minutes of deep breathing coupled with a nightly meditation session. This can help reduce the cortisol coursing through your body as well as helping to slow the heart rate and other stress reactions. Laying down in bed and listening to relaxing music as you breathe deeply can also help you get to sleep and stay asleep longer.
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Breathing Techniques To Try Out:
First of all, learning to breathe is all about noticing when your breath is shallow and taking a few minutes to reconnect to the breath. It’s even more helpful to activate the breath a few times a day so that its relaxing impact on the parasympathetic nervous system is ongoing. Sitting for a few deep breathing sessions a day is a great tool in dealing with chronic stress. Plus, it helps you feel better and places you square in the present moment, where all the good stuff happens.
Alternating Nostril Breathing
Cover the right nostril and inhale for 1-2-3, hold for 1-2-3, and cover the left nostril exhaling out of the right nostril for 1-2-3. Inhale into the right nostril (covering the left nostril) for 1-2-3, hold for 1-2-3, exhale releasing the nostril. Switch back and forth like this for 10 minutes. Alternative nostril breathing is a great exercise to try before meditation. It helps to calm the entire central nervous system down making it easier to sit for a period of time in meditation.
Inhale for 1-2-3 and exhale for 1-2-3-4-5. Keep breathing this way for five minutes. You can add counts to the inhales and exhales, but just make sure that the exhale is longer than the inhale. By having longer exhalations than inhalations you can calm the body down almost instantaneously. This is a good breath technique to try when you’re feeling an acute stress response coming on and you want to slow down the central nervous system immediately.
Breathe into the belly and fill it with air, expand and breathe into the ribs, filling the ribcage with air, and finally breathe into the chest, filling the chest with air. With each breath, fill the stomach, ribs, and chest with air and as you exhale go in the opposite direction, releasing air from the chest, ribs, and stomach. Continue breathing this way for 5 minutes. This is a good breathing technique to try before a yoga practice.