Around the world, masks are coming off and people are enjoying full, deep breaths once again. Those deep inhalations may be more important than you realize.
While breathwork was once seen as the purview of ancient yogis and new-age gurus, scientific evidence now suggests that it can be used for a variety of common physical and mental afflictions, including addiction, trauma, pain, and acute and chronic stress.
If that sounds difficult to accept, you may be overlooking the fact that your body runs on food, water, and air. Breathing is responsible for an endless series of biochemical reactions that keep you moving, thinking, and feeling.
And while you can live for weeks without food and days without water, you can’t live for more than a few minutes without air. So imagine what would be possible if we were to learn how to harness this most vital life source.
And what about using breathwork for binge eating and food addiction?
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is rarely cited as a primary tool of conventional treatment for binge eating and food addiction. Yet there are studies that demonstrate how breath affects diverse mental afflictions and disorders. Diaphragmatic breathing has a direct effect on lowering cortisol levels. Cortisol is sometimes known as the “stress hormone.” It’s intimately tied to our flight-or-fight response and engages the sympathetic nervous system, which takes us out of the rest and digest state of the parasympathetic nervous system. That fact, among others, has given more mental health professionals incentive to incorporate breathwork into their protocol.
The very first skill we teach clients who have struggled with binge eating and food addiction—sometimes for decades—is proper breathwork. While we use other tools as well, our clients have reported significant shifts in their eating habits using breathwork alone. Some of these shifts include feeling more peaceful and at ease around food, identifying hunger and fullness signals, regulating emotional responses around food, and relief from feelings of compulsion or obsession to eat when not hungry.
Founder of BreathGuidance and breathwork expert Dani Mae explained the science behind the occurrence of such significant shifts.
“Breath awareness supplies tools to acknowledge, measure, and adjust when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or seeking distraction and comfort,” Mae said. “Your breath is directly related to both expressing and influencing your autonomic nervous system and therefore systems like digestion and stress response. By increasing breath awareness and applying breathwork, you can reduce your urge to binge as a response to subconscious habit patterns and/or stress.”
Focusing on your breath and physically altering your breath patterns can be used as a technique to anchor your mind and body into your present moment, allowing you to make conscious decisions from a place of self-awareness.
If you’re angry, you may take some deep breaths before you react. Similar principles can be applied to eating habits and food choices. If you find yourself experiencing patterns around food that feel out of control, breathwork facilitates a slowing down of those patterns so you have control over previously automatic behaviors. It also allows for the space and time to rewire your thoughts around food and make choices that align with your goals.
Mae explained the science behind this phenomenon.
“By increasing the length of your breathing rhythm (slow, deep breaths) you increase your CO2 tolerance, which is directly linked to your ability to handle stress and anxiety,” she said. “The higher your CO2 tolerance, the more equipped you are to handle stress.”
Because patterns of binge eating, food addiction, and food obsession all have stress as a common factor, breathwork allows the practitioner to calm down and slow down enough to feel more in control of their mind and body.
There are additional positive side effects of breathwork on both a physical and mental level. Mae has trained diverse types of health professionals to facilitate various types of breathwork for their patients and clients. She said that with regard to those struggling with binge eating, breathwork can help with regulating emotions and stress, as well as aid digestion, elimination, and other body functions by supporting the body to maintain optimal functioning.
“By slowing and deepening your breaths, you’re working out your thoracic diaphragm which is your primary muscle of respiration,” she said. “This workout stretches and strengthens your diaphragm, which gives you increased capacity to massage your digestive organs like your stomach and intestines. Certain types of breathing patterns make digestion more efficient by encouraging intestinal action and supplying more blood and oxygen to the digestive process.”
Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to support positive results in terms of emotional, mental, and physical benefits. Mae described why this may be the case.
“Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce stress hormones, relieve common GI complaints, and increase vagal tone,” Mae said.
One study found that even the length of your inhale versus your exhale breath can affect your physical and mental state. Our clients learn diaphragmatic nasal breathing, with the duration of the exhale lasting longer than the inhale, for a relaxation effect.
Mae recommended this type of breathing pattern as well, citing the science behind it.
“Extending the length of your exhale (longer than your inhale) will reduce your heart rate and activate the rest and digest response,” she said.
“When that response is activated in your nervous system, you receive the benefits of being able to think more clearly and feel more calm in your decision-making process. This practice is also widely used for those who are in recovery from past traumas.”
A simple practice you can try at home is using diaphragmatic breathing before, during, and after eating, to help keep your nervous system engaged in the “rest and digest” response. If you notice yourself speeding up or feeling chaotic around food, simply pause and return to the breath until you feel calm again.
When you practice this technique while eating, try to bring your awareness to your physiology and note any changes. This practice, combined with complementary techniques and the appropriate professional support, can help you create a calmer and healthier relationship with food, one breath at a time.