How we breathe affects almost every process in the body, from digestion to memory to exercise recovery. It has a profound impact on the nervous system, which communicates directly and indirectly with every cell in the body. The message that the nervous system communicates to the body depends on the messages that it receives from our internal and external environments.
This is why we play one of the most important roles in determining the quality of our own health. When we breathe more than once every four seconds, we tend to experience more anxiety, stress, and pain. As the anxiety, stress, and pain increase, so does our breathing rate. This creates a repetitive cycle of chronic stress in the body.
Luckily, there is something we can do to reverse this process: Take a deep breath.
To do this, we start by letting go of as much air from our lungs as we can, then inhale to expand our lower abdomen and rib cage while keeping our shoulders relaxed. This and many other controlled breathing patterns can create 10 profound effects in the body.
1. Exercise Recovery
How we breathe has a substantial impact on our ability to recover from exercise. But before we can explore how breathing impacts recovery, we must first understand how our bodies respond to exercise.
When we exercise, our sympathetic nervous system activates to increase our breath rate and mobilize energy stores. This increases the delivery of oxygen and energy to our tissues, allowing us to continue exercising.
This activation is extremely beneficial during exercise, but if it continues after we’re done exercising, recovery will take much longer. Taking shallow breaths that only fill the chest keeps the sympathetic nervous system activated. This breathing pattern tells the brain that we are still in a state of stress even while we are trying to recover.
With the sympathetic nervous system activated, the parasympathetic nervous system, which aids in the secretion of digestive fluids and lowers the heart rate, will struggle to do its job. Throughout our lives, our nervous system is switching between the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system, depending on the demands we place on our bodies. In times of danger or activity, our sympathetic nervous system activates to meet the demand. When we are no longer active or in danger, we switch over to our parasympathetic nervous system to rest and digest.
To activate the parasympathetic nervous system and improve recovery from exercise, we can take deep diaphragmatic breaths into our lower abdomen. This type of slow, controlled breathing can even elicit better recovery than just sitting and breathing normally.
Dutch life coach Wim Hof, known as the “Ice Man,” has used breathing techniques to withstand freezing temperatures without shivering or getting sick.
2. Pain Sensitivity
Pain is a sensation that our brain creates to protect us from threats. Along with our initial response to a threat of increased breathing and muscular tension, our sensitivity to pain increases, serving as a mechanism to keep us alert and safe from danger.
However, our brains cannot tell the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat. While we may not be able to keep real threats from happening, we can control the body’s response to perceived threats.
To do this, we must activate our parasympathetic nervous system with slow, controlled breaths. When we take slow, controlled breaths, the body’s response to the perceived threat will decrease and the brain will reduce the amount of pain and tension in the body.
3. Immune System Response
Although chronic shallow chest breathing can increase pain, stress, and tension, intermittent power breathing (such as Hof’s breathing techniques) can be used to create an anti-inflammatory response.
Hof has used these breathing techniques to perform physical feats in extreme cold, such as climbing Mount Everest while wearing shorts. This doesn’t mean that we should sprint up a mountain naked, but it does exemplify the power that certain breathing techniques can have over the body.
A study led by Matthijs Knox of the Nijmegen Institute for Infection, Inflammation, and Immunity looked at Hof’s breathing techniques.
The first technique is described as cyclic hyperventilation. For an average of 30 breaths, the subjects exhaled and held their breath for about two to three minutes, then inhaled deeply and held their breath for 10 seconds.
The other breathing technique consists of deep inhalations and exhalations, each followed by holding the breath for 10 seconds. While holding the breath, the subjects tightened all of their muscles.
These breathing techniques trigger the release of the hormone epinephrine and the suppression of the body’s immune response, thereby reducing inflammation.
Stress stimulates the release of glucocorticoids, hormones that increase energy but impair our ability to form and retrieve memories. This explains why we struggle to find the right answer when we are anxious during a test or a job interview.
Whether the stress is from a lion chasing us or a job interview, our bodies react in the same way every time by releasing glucocorticoids. These hormones prepare the body to fight or run, not to come up with the right answer to a question.
This is when deep breathing can save the day. When we are anxious, we can improve our brain function and reduce our anxiety just by taking slow, controlled breaths. This lets our brain know that we are safe and our body can relax. In this relaxed state, we can easily access the answers we need and form new memories.
5. Ability to Relax
When we concentrate on deepening our breath, we create a relaxed state. In this relaxed state, we will be able to dissociate from our thoughts and emotions. This allows us to meditate easily and reap the benefits of meditation.
Meditation provides a plethora of benefits, including increased prefrontal cortex thickness and function. But it is hard for most of us to simply sit and meditate. Our minds are flooded with thoughts, emotions, and things to do. Ten minutes may feel like 100 minutes, but there is a way to make those 10 minutes into the most blissful experience of our day. We can do this by starting our meditation with controlled breathing.
6. Digestive System Function
When we are in a stressed state, all of our digestive processes are reduced. This is because our body is focused on removing the threat or removing ourselves from the threat. Once there are no threats, our brain will allow us to rest and digest.
If we take shallow breaths and rush through our meals, we make it harder for our bodies to digest food. Rushing through meals can cause stomach aches, nausea, and diarrhea in the short term. If we have prolonged stress, we can aggravate chronic diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and heartburn.
To improve the body’s digestive function, we must activate the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing down our breathing.
7. Joint Mobility
When we breathe rapidly into our chest, we can alter the function of our postural muscles. The primary purpose of these muscles is to provide strength and stability to the bones and joints. When the postural muscles are recruited to take on the task of breathing as well, they become stiff due to being overworked. This will then restrict motion in the joints that the overworked muscles effect.
For example, during a shallow chest breath, a muscle called the trapezius, which covers part of the neck and the upper back, may try to help expand the chest. If this is our most common breathing pattern, then our trapezius will be chronically tight, pulling the shoulders up toward the ears. This can cause neck tension that limits neck mobility.
By taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, we can decrease joint stiffness and improve joint function.
8. Joint Stability
Many musculoskeletal injuries, especially those resulting in low back pain, are caused by a lack of stability. Spinal instability is commonly the result of shallow chest breathing patterns. When we breathe into our chest, our diaphragm, deep core muscles, and back muscles do not activate effectively, leading to instability in our spinal structure.
Ideally, our movements should be accompanied by diaphragmatic breaths, which cause the deep postural muscles of our back and core activate, ensuring stability.
9. Sensory Acuity
The acuity of our senses changes throughout the day. One of the causes of the change in our sensory acuity is the state of our nervous system. When we are in a state of stress, we tend to overwhelm ourselves with past regrets and future concerns. This significantly reduces our sensory acuity.
Taking deep breaths will indirectly increase our sensory acuity by keeping our attention on the present moment. When we focus on something in the present moment, like our breathing, we can bring ourselves back to what’s happening now instead of stressing about the past or future.
10. Neck Issues
Neck pain is correlated with dysfunctional breathing. Shallow inhales into the chest cause the shoulders to rise toward the ears. During this type of breathing pattern, muscles around the neck, like the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid, activate to pull the shoulders up when these muscles would normally be relaxed.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, an average adult takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute. This equates to breathing between 17,280 and 28,800 times per day.
If our most common breathing pattern is to overuse our neck muscles, that means that these muscles are being used 17,000 or more times than they should be used throughout the day. Imagine all of the extra work that these muscles have to do. This is why dysfunctional breathing patterns are a major cause of chronic neck tension and pain.
When we take a breath, our lower abdomen should expand before the chest, and the shoulders should remain relaxed. This allows the neck muscles to take a break at the right time and to function properly.
Tyler Ardizzone is a pain relief specialist and writer on health and psychology. He combines everything that he has learned through his practical experience as a body work therapist and personal trainer to provide guidance. For more about Ardizzone and his services, visit FreeToTransform.com.