It’s funny — most of the time, it is so automatic, we rarely think about breathing unless we’re out of breath. Yet breathing is one of the most natural and fundamental processes of life. Imagine this — we do it up to 22,000 times a day but most of us spend our entire lives breathing the wrong way.
What is breathing?
Breathing is the mechanism that enables air to be brought into your body from outside and into your bloodstream to be utilized as a fuel for the body. There is a simple but complex process that enables you to have conscious and automatic control of your breath. The importance of breathing is linked directly to the importance of one element your body needs constantly: oxygen. When you inhale, a large muscle called the diaphragm flexes downward to help draw air into your lungs. Your lungs are one of the largest organs in your body. They work together with the rest of your respiratory system to keep your body’s cells supplied with necessary oxygen.
In general, you need to look for a few things that can make a difference:
1) Nose only. Every breath you take should go in and out through the nose. When you breathe through your mouth, the lungs get a lot more “unfiltered” air that is raw, cold, dry and full of viruses and bacteria.
2) Use your diaphragm. The air you breathe in through your nose should go all the way down in your belly. 70–80% of the inhaling should be done by the diaphragm so that your breathing is nice and deep.
3) Relax while breathing. A stressed and tense way of breathing leads to a lack of oxygen which, in turn, makes your body and brain even more stressed.
4) Find your rhythm. Everything has a natural rhythm — the ocean waves, the seasons, the moon. Your body is no different so optimal breathing is no different: When everything is in tune, your body functions at it’s very best.
A Deep Breath
When the speed of normal, quiet breathing is deliberately reduced, the result is deep breathing. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing the body and calming the mind and emotions. It can even cleanse the blood and promotes positivity.
Most of us are prone to shallow breathing, or chest breathing, bringing minimal breaths into the lungs, but usually drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm. Over time we end up with less oxygenation of the blood and build up toxins along with stress. Shallow breathing is often associated with anxiety which can cascade into hyperventilation and dizziness. Does this sound familiar to you or anyone you know? Yes, we can all get caught up in this uneasy cycle of breathing.
Why Deep Breathing is Important
1. Deep breathing can boost your immune system and improve your overall health for free! Mindful breathing can help fight the progression of autoimmune diseases. It also helps to build your NK (natural killer) cells which combat foreign invaders from attacking your body. This is not a quick fix but consistency has proven to have a positive effect.
2. Relaxes the mind and body by causing a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a reduction in the heart rate and relaxation of the muscles. Activating the parasympathetic (relaxation) response of our nervous system and turning off the sympathetic (stress- think fight or flight) response is key to managing high cortisol levels caused by stress.
3. Improves the quality of the blood due to its increased oxygenation in the lungs. This aids in the elimination of toxins from the system.
4. Increases digestion and assimilation of food. The digestive organs such as the stomach receive more oxygen and hence operates more efficiently.
5. Improves the health of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, nerve centers, and nerves. This is due again to the increased oxygenation and hence nourishment of the nervous system. This improves the health of the whole body since the nervous system communicates to all parts of the body.
6. Rejuvenates the glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands. The brain has a special affinity for oxygen, requiring three times more oxygen than does the rest of the body.
7. Rejuvenates the skin making it smoother and reduces wrinkles.
8) The lungs become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems.
9) Reduces the workload on the heart. The result is a more efficient, stronger heart that operates better and lasts longer. This also means reduced blood pressure and less heart disease.
10) Can assist in weight management. If you are overweight, the extra oxygen burns up the excess fat more efficiently. If you are underweight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands.
Yoga and meditation practitioners, as well as holistic medical practitioners, are clear that yogic breathing exercises can quickly increase our energy, release stress, improve our mental clarity, and improve our physical health.
The quantity and quality of the breaths you take cannot only affect the bodies subtle energy channels but can also determine one’s state of mine. Due to lack of information or attention, the average person’s energy channels may be partially blocked resulting in increased worry, fear, uncertainty, conflict, tension and other negative emotions. When we free the breath to flow at continuously smooth and steady level, the mind is calm, positive and enthusiastic.
Is your breathing shallow or deep?
Take a few moments now to become aware of your breath – is it deep or shallow, smooth or choppy?
Have you ever observed a newborn baby? His or her stomach gently rises and falls as they breathe in and out, steadily and peacefully.
Now observe your breath again, now that you’ve been thinking about it for a minute – has it got any longer or smoother?
General Breathing Exercises
The Soft-Belly Technique
Most people take about 15 breaths per minute, but when you’re fretting, you should aim for six or seven slow, deep ones. Try inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, while keeping your stomach relaxed. To help yourself focus, slowly say the word soft in your head while inhaling, and speak the word belly as you breathe out. This technique can stimulate your vagus nerve, a central part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which runs through your abdomen and chest, and back to your brain stem.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
Alternate nostril breathing is practiced by breathing through one nostril at a time and is perfect for those who find themselves in a lot of stressful situations like commuting to work or managing a busy schedule. Not only does this technique calm the nerves, it supports the lungs and respiratory system and brings our right- and left-brains into balance.
Check here for easy instructions on how to do alternate nostril breathing.
Close the eyes and focus on tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the knees, thighs, glutes, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes—all while maintaining deep, slow breaths. To stay on track – breathe in through the nose, hold for a count of five while the muscles tense, then breathe out through the mouth on release.
As a functional and integrative nutritionist, I am also aware that along with breath work techniques, taking some supplements and changing your dietary habits can also help you breathe easier. Often, I’ve seen the dietary habits be at the root of digestive problems contributing to poor breathing function.
Supplements for Breathing
There are a few supplements I highly recommend to my patients to help them with breathing issues, especially when they are experiencing any kind of nasal congestion or constant dry cough.
I was helping a patient in my Westchester, NY office who was experiencing a consistent post nasal drip and stuffy nose, preventing him from breathing properly. In addition, he had a constant dry cough that had him hacking for several minutes repeatedly throughout the day. After assessing him, I put him on a few key supplements to help with his breathing symptoms. Within a month, his dry cough was reduced. However, we didn’t stop there because the underlying cause of his breathing symptoms inevitably led us to investigate his gut issues.
As numerous supplements may be effective for breathing problems, here are some supplements to get started.
• Antioxidant with vitamin A, C, and E
• Vitamin D with added vitamin K for better absorption
• Taking a daily supplement of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) can help improve the use of oxygen at a cellular level
• MSM contains the sulfur-supplying compound methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). MSM is helpful in modulating histamine release and inflammation. It brings oxygen into the blood cells which can help to increase breath capacity.
It is also essential to maintain good dietary sources of nutrients such as vitamin A or its precursor, beta-carotene. This nutrient is beneficial to maintain your lungs and keep them functioning normally for improved breathing.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will provide you with the best source of vitamin A and its precursor beta-carotene and other carotenes. To get your beta-carotene, look for foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach and leafy green vegetables. Another good reason to eat a diet that includes more whole foods and vegetables!
Your breath is your life and the better you are breathing the better you will feel overall — every day. Need support? Contact me today and let me help you find your way to your deeper more nourishing breath and health.