By Dr. Will Cole
Take a deep breath. Chances are you feel a lot better. While many of us recognize that we feel better after taking a deep breath, not a lot of us understand why we do. But the thing is, the mind-body connection is very real and as a functional medicine practitioner, it is my job to bridge the gap between mental and physical health.
Breathwork is one tool that has been utilized over the years to naturally bring awareness back to the present moment while also tangibly alleviating stress, anxiety, and a variety of other health problems. What might seem like a new-age practice, breathwork actually has a lot of scientific evidence to back up its use in the wellness world. Let’s take a deeper look at how breathing can play a role in elevating your overall health.
What is breathwork?
Breathwork is a type of practice that involves intentionally changing the way that you breathe through a variety of controlled practices. There are many different ways to practice breathwork, each designed to achieve their own unique outcome. Breathwork can also be a very spiritual practice with roots in a lot of yogic traditions. However, breathwork has been utilized by many in the natural health world regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs.
Benefits of breathwork
1. Improves lung health
Deep breathing exercises can help maintain healthy oxygen levels but they also expand your lung capacity similarly to exercise. This can be especially important during cold and flu season and for older populations who are more susceptible to pneumonia and other lung problems.
2. Lowers blood pressure
Your vagus nerve travels from the base of your brain down into your abdomen and researchers suspect that deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. This is important considering activation of the vagus nerve has been shown to help lower blood pressure and heart rate.
3. Calms inflammation
Breathwork has been shown to have some incredible anti-inflammatory capabilities. Studies have shown breathwork can decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha and IL-6 along with an increase in anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10.
4. Reduces stress
Your vagus nerve also influences your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is responsible for restoring balance in the body after periods of stress. By stimulating that through breathwork you are increasing parasympathetic tone while also lowering cortisol levels - the body’s stress hormone.
5. Helps you refocus
Under stressful conditions, breathing gets shallower, which further perpetuates stress and anxiety. Breathwork brings you back to the present moment by allowing you to pause so you can refocus on the situation at hand in a calmer state.
6. Aids in PTSD recovery
Certain types of breathwork practices such as diaphragmatic breathing have been shown to be an effective treatment for PTSD long-term.
Types of Breathwork
While there are a lot more breathwork practices you can do, these are three of my all-time favorites for their specific benefits. These are great beginner practices to help you get started if you are new to breathwork.
1. 4-7-8 breathing
4-7-8 breathing is incredibly simple and you can do it anywhere such as while you’re cooking or at work. To start, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. This type of breathing has been shown to:
Reduce asthma symptoms
Bolster stress management
Reduce aggressive behavior
2. Box breath
Also known as square breathing, this more forceful breathwork practice became popular with Marines and athletes for its ability to help you feel relaxed while still giving you a boost of energy. Start by inhaling through the nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale from your mouth for 4 seconds, and end by holding your breath for 4 seconds. You will repeat this four times.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing
Many people don’t realize that in healthy lungs, the diaphragm does most of the actual work when breathing. Therefore it’s important to focus on strengthening your diaphragm for optimal lung health. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie flat on the floor with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds, making sure your stomach expands rather than your chest. Next, purse your lips and exhale for 2 seconds while pressing on your stomach. Repeat a few times.
Breathwork is a great tool to incorporate into your daily routine since it can be done anywhere without any expensive equipment. Tune into your body and let your breath calm your mind while improving your overall health.