Do you ever take time out to consciously breathe? Many of us focus on moving regularly, healthful eating and optimal sleep as a foundation for resilience and performance. However, how we breathe can have a profound effect on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. This is something James Nestor explores in his book: "Breath: The new science of a lost art."
In this book the author explores the history, physiology, and various aspects of breathing and it's impact on human health and well-being. Nestor reveals that many modern humans have developed suboptimal breathing patterns, often characterized by shallow and inefficient breathing through the mouth instead of the nose.
He highlights the importance of nasal breathing and it's benefits, including:
Improved Oxygenation: Nasal breathing allows for better filtration, warming, and humidification of inhaled air, increasing oxygen uptake in the lungs and enhancing overall oxygen delivery to the body.
Enhanced Lung Function: Breathing through the nose promotes diaphragmatic breathing, which helps strengthen the diaphragm muscle, improves lung capacity, and optimizes the exchange of gases in the respiratory system.
Better Nitric Oxide Production: Nasal breathing stimulates the release of nitric oxide, a molecule with various physiological effects, including widening blood vessels, improving blood flow, and supporting immune function.
Reduced Stress Response: Nasal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing the body's stress response compared to mouth breathing, which can trigger a more fight-or-flight, sympathetic response.
Nestor also explores the potential benefits of breathwork practices, such as controlled breathing exercises, meditation, and techniques from ancient traditions like pranayama. These practices can help individuals become more aware of their breathing patterns and potentially improve respiratory health, mental well-being and resilience to stress.
Breathing & Stress
Breathing is something that us humans do automatically, however it is also an activity that we can consciously control. Breathing and stress are closely interconnected. Our breathing patterns can both influence and be influenced by our stress levels. At this point it would be helpful to explore our nervous system and the physiology of stress.
The autonomic nervous system, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, controls our involuntary bodily functions, including breathing and stress responses. The sympathetic branch is associated with the "fight-or-flight" response, activating during stressful situations, while the parasympathetic branch promotes relaxation and counteracts stress.
When we experience stress or anxiety, our breathing tends to become shallow and rapid. This type of breathing pattern activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering physiological changes associated with the stress response. It can further perpetuate feelings of stress, tension, and anxiety.
In some cases, stress or anxiety can lead to hyperventilation, characterized by rapid and deep breathing. Hyperventilation can disrupt the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, leading to physical symptoms like dizziness, lightheadedness, and tingling sensations. These symptoms can further contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.
On the other hand, conscious and intentional breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve plays a significant role in activating the relaxation response in the body. Overall, the vagus nerve acts as a powerful mediator of the relaxation response, helping to counterbalance the effects of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response).
According to research, beathing at the rate of five to six breaths/ minute helps our physical, mental & emotional health. Breathing in and out over the space of 10 seconds hits a physiological sweet spot that connects the breathing related movements of the body to blood flow, blood pressure and the concentration of oxygen in the blood. It tips the autonomic nervous system from “rev up” to “calm down”. Simply doing diaphragmatic breathing- also known as “belly breathing” is enough to make this happen all on its own.
The vagus nerve (one of the longest nerves in the body) originates from the medulla in the brainstem and runs to many vital organs including the heart, lungs (diaphragm), and gut. It serves as a vital conduit that relays information back and forth to the brain, with updates about what is going on in the body and information about how we should think, act and feel. It also regulates inflammation and the immune based mind body connection.
Remarkably, it’s possible to use your breath to train your body to react more healthily to stress, both in the moment and in the longer term, by virtue of the way that it changes the vagus nerve. Over time, practicing slow breathing can change your baseline level of stress reactivity to a point where you “freak out” less often and recover more quickly when you do.
By consciously adjusting our breathing patterns, we can influence our stress levels. Slowing down the breath, focusing on longer exhalations, and practicing mindful breathing can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reduce the physiological markers of stress, and promote a sense of calm and well-being.
Breathing Techniques for Managing Stress
There are many breathing techniques that can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and manage stress effectively. Here are a few techniques you can try:
Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing): This technique involves breathing deeply into the diaphragm, allowing the abdomen to expand on the inhale and deflate on the exhale. Focus on slow, controlled breaths, emphasizing the exhalation to engage the parasympathetic response. Around 5-6 breaths/ minute hits the sweet spot
Box Breathing: Inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale through your nose for a count of 4, and hold the breath out for a count of 4. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes. Box breathing helps calm the mind, reduce stress, and promote balance.
The Physiological Sigh: Take 2 consecutive inhales through the nose: one big inhale, followed by another inhale (with no exhale in between), to maximally inflate your lungs. Then exhale all your air until you are lungs-empty, via your mouth. This technique rapidly shifts your autonomic nervous system from a state of elevated arousal and agitation toward a state of feeling calm. According To the Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, “It is the fastest way to calm down in real time. Even just 1-3 physiological sighs can allow us to stay in or return to a calmer state.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Then, close your left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril, close it with your thumb, and exhale through your left nostril. Repeat this cycle for several rounds. Alternate nostril breathing helps balance the autonomic nervous system and promote relaxation.
Remember, consistency and regular practice are key to experiencing the benefits of these breathing techniques. It's important to find what works best for you and adapt the techniques to your own comfort level. If you have any specific health concerns or conditions, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare professional or a certified breathing specialist before starting any new breathing practices.
Postscript- Breathing & Relaxation Response
Over the last nine months I have been enjoying getting back into regular swimming. Besides the cardiovascular workout, what I love is the feeling of relaxation after getting into the water. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, moving mindfully is a great way of eliciting the relaxation response. Connecting with your body, it’s stroke and breathing is a great way to focus the mind.
For one, you can’t be distracted by technology, relentless notifications and email. Before a swim session I can often find myself in an anxiety breathing pattern, short, frequent, shallow breaths. Such shallow and erratic breathing is common and has been given the name “email apnoea.” Invariably after a swim, I notice that my breathing is deeper and comes more from the belly (diaphragmatic breathing). Looking closely at the science, it’s likely that this shift into the relaxation response is partly due to the very focused nature of my breathing.
Although I am not using nasal breathing in the pool, there is a particular rhythm that helps shift me to a more parasympathetic nervous response. My alternate side breathing necessitates that I inhale for one stroke and then exhale for three. This three to one exhale/ inhale ratio helps shift my nervous system towards a rest and digest dominance, post workout. If you are looking for an efficient use of your time to get some mindful movement and breathing work, in my experience you can’t beat swimming!
Postscript- Nasal Breathing & Sleep Apnoea
Sleep apnoea is something that has impacted my breathing and sleep over the last 15 years. Some 10 years ago after continual “nudging” from my wife, I consulted a sleep physician, had a sleep test and was fitted with a Manibular Advancement Device. My genetics has afforded me a narrow airway that is prone to obstruction when sleeping on my back. When sleeping with my mouth guard, it helps displace the jaw forward and allows my airway to remain open and function normally.
Anyone who has experienced the effects of prolonged sleep apnoea, know how the continual fatigue and brain fog impacts decision making and cognitive function, but can also be a risk factor for mental health (anxiety & depression), metabolic health (insulin resistance & diabetes) and cardiovascular health (heart attack & stroke). It is a serious condition that requires specialised help and continual monitoring.
Recently my wife noticed me snoring again and this coincided with a period of regular sinus inflammation resulting from allergies. None of this comes as a surprise. When seasonal allergies hit, incidences of sleep apnoea and breathing difficulties shoot up. The nose gets stuffed up and we default to mouth breathing which exacerbates these problems. When we put our head on the pillow, gravity pulls the soft tissues in the throat and tongue down, closing off the airway even more.
Interestingly, mouth breathing, cause the body to lose 40 percent more water. This can result in waking up constantly parched and dry. One would think that the moisture loss would decrease ones need to urinate, however the opposite is true! Disturbed sleep affects our sleep cycle and the amount of deep sleep we experience. When we experience our deepest more restful stages pf sleep, our pituitary gland secretes hormones that control the release of adrenaline, endorphins, growth hormone and other substances including vasopressin. Vasopressin is also known as the antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which communicates with the cells to store more water.
But if the body has inadequate time in deep sleep as it does when you experience chronic sleep apnoea, vasopressin will not be secreted normally. The kidneys will then release water, which triggers the need to urinate and signals to our brain that we should consume more water. We get thirsty and then we need to pee more. A lack of vasopressin may well explain my need to visit the bathroom multiple times and continual thirst through the night! This knowledge has “nudged” me once more to connect with my sleep doctor, consult an allergy clinic and experiment with taping my mouth at night! Please note, there are a few physicians that are proponents of mouth taping in the aforementioned book, however more studies are currently in the pipeline to measure safety and efficacy of such an intervention for sleep apnoea.