If you knew there was something you could do, right now that had the potential to profoundly improve your health, would you do it? What if you found out that this “something” takes almost no effort, can be done anywhere and without any special equipment, is completely safe, and best of all, won’t cost you a dime?
Our guess is that yes, you’d at least be willing to give it a try.
Well, you’re in luck, because that “something”...
is proper breathing!
Most people, and rightly so, would be skeptical of such a claim. Let’s get a closer look.
When asked, “What is the function of breathing?” many people might reply with a simple, “Breathing is to bring oxygen into my lungs so I can live.” And yes, they would be correct as oxygen delivery is a major function. There is also the reverse, as when you breathe out, carbon dioxide, a waste product that is produced from your body’s metabolism, is discharged from the body.
But breathing does more than just exchange gases, as vital as that is. Your breath helps to regulate the finely tuned acid/base balance of your body which must remain within critical limits to sustain life, and as unbelievable as this sounds, being able to breathe properly has even been linked to postural stability, balance and staving off a host of chronic diseases.
Perhaps it’s because you breathe so often that you take your breath for granted. The average person breathes 16 times a minute. This means that in an hour you take 960 breaths. In 24 hours, you will have breathed 23,040 times and will have taken 8,409,600 breaths in a year. If you live to the age of 80, you will have taken an astounding 672,768,000 breaths.>
So you can see that for something you do so often, even a very small change in the way you breathe can have a profound effect when multiplied over time.
Breathing is the only human physiological function that is both involuntary and voluntary. When you are busy or you are sleeping, your breathing is on automatic pilot (thank goodness!) And when you want to breathe faster, or slower, or even stop breathing for a bit, you can do that as well.
And think about this: your breathing is also intimately tied to your emotional state. When you are feeling down or depressed, you are likely to sigh heavily. Fearful or anxious? Your breathing is apt to be rapid and shallow. If you need to relax, a friend may suggest that you take a deep breath.
If you only make one change to how you breathe, make the conscious effort to breathe through your nose. There are huge benefits to inhaling and exhaling through your nose instead of your mouth. Air that is taken in through the nose is filtered, pressurized, warmed and conditioned with nitric oxide, and this process does not occur during mouth breathing. Enzymes present in our nasal passages are responsible for producing nitric oxide which then mixes with the incoming air.
In 1998 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a group of scientists for their research on the benefits of nitric oxide on cardiovascular health. It is now well understood that this gas, which causes blood vessels to widen and improves oxygen delivery throughout the body, is essential for the proper functioning of every one of our organ systems.
In fact there is a known link between low nitric oxide levels and many chronic diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, erectile dysfunction, and bladder problems.
Exhaling through your nose has the added benefit of slowing your breaths and improving oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in your lungs.
If you are breathing through your nose you are forced to use your diaphragm instead of your chest muscles. Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as “belly” breathing. You see, most adults breathe using their chests, pulling air in by expanding the chest cavity. This chest breathing pattern is the one most associated with stress, and the majority of adults have been breathing this way all their adult lives.
Babies, on the other hand, don’t move their chests much at all. If you watch a baby sleeping, the chest is relatively still, and the belly goes up and down. That’s because they are using their diaphragms, the layer of muscle separating the chest cavity from the belly cavity. But by the time you become an adult, this natural way of breathing is all but lost.
Diaphragmatic breathing is not only a more efficient way to breathe, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, propelling you into a relaxed and non-aroused state. Learning to belly breathe has other advantages as well, including increasing your metabolism and helping you to lose weight!
Here’s how to do it:
Note - A great time to practice is in bed just before going to sleep and again on awakening. When you lie down your clothing won’t bind you and your posture will not get in the way, as you are relaxed. Plus, you’ll likely feel less self-conscious practicing when you are in bed, as no one will see you. Even your bed partner, if you have one, doesn’t have to know!
Start by placing one of your hands with the palm down on your belly. Place your other hand, also with the palm down, on your chest. Now as you breathe in through your nose, simply focus on the movement of the air moving down into your upper belly, almost like you are blowing up your stomach like a balloon as you breathe in. The hand that is over your belly should rise with each breath in and the hand positioned over your chest should move very slightly or not at all.
You’ll need to practice this until it feels natural. Some people get a bit frustrated at first because it seems like this is the opposite of the way they usually breathe. Just be patient with yourself. Practice for a few minutes morning and evening and in a few weeks, your breathing pattern will naturally become more relaxed, easy, and comfortable.
Once you get the hang of belly breathing it will become second nature and you can consciously use it in any situation to quickly feel calmer, more relaxed, and in control.