The Health Benefits of Deep Breathing: 9 Ways it Supercharges Your Body and Mind
BY REBECCA DENNIS
photo: chiara cremaschi
Breathing heals on many levels, and understanding how it performs this function is good for our mental and physical well-being. Our breath constantly converts our life-sustaining energy, taking in oxygen, invigorating red blood cells and expelling carbon dioxide, which is a metabolic waste product.
By breathing deeply, you allow the diaphragm to drop downward, the rib cage to expand and create more space for the lungs to inflate. By mastering the art of deep breathing, increased oxygen floods into the body, eventually helping the heart pace to slow down to create feelings of calmness and relaxation.
In a nutshell… breath detoxifies, releases toxins and strengthens the immune system
Around 70% of our toxins are released from our body through our breath. Carbon dioxide is a natural waste product of your body’s metabolism. The benefits of breathing deeply help the systems in the body to process this more efficiently.
1. Breath Increases Energy
Oxygen is the most essential natural resource required by our cells. We can go without food for up to 40 days and without water for 3 days, yet we can die after just a few minutes of not breathing. From a purely physical point of view, breath equals life.
2. Breath Improves the Respiratory System
One of the benefits of breathing deeply is that it helps to release tension in the diaphragm and primary breathing muscles, relieving many long-term respiratory issues such as asthma and breathlessness. It opens up the chest, releasing tension from the intercostal muscles and around the scapula, erector spinae and trapezius muscles, allowing for a more relaxed posture.
3. Breath Calms the Nervous System
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us into a relaxed state. It functions in the opposite way to the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight response.
4. Breath Strengthens the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system depends on gravity, muscle movement, and the benefits of breath to keep flowing so that the body can be cleansed. Deep breathing can play an important role in protecting the body from bacteria, viruses and other threats to our health.
5. Breath Releases Muscle Tension
When we are stressed or experience uncomfortable feelings such as anger or pain, our breath becomes shallow and our muscle tissues contract. Deep breathing helps to release this.
6. Breath Improves the Cardiovascular System
Deep diaphragmatic breathing tones, massages and increases circulation to the heart, liver, brain and reproductive organs. In one study of heart attack patients, 100% of the patients were chest breathers whose breathing involved very little diaphragm or belly expansion. Another study found that patients who survived a heart attack and who adopted an exercise regime and breath training afterward experienced a 50% reduction in their risk factor of another heart attack over the following 5 years.
7. Breath Elevates the Digestive System
The benefits of deeper breathing include increased blood flow in the digestive tract, which encourages intestinal action and improves overall digestion, alleviating irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. In addition, deeper breathing results in a calmer nervous system which in turn enhances optimum digestion.
8. Breath Affects Our Mental State
The quality of our breath helps to relax the mind and enhance the ability to learn, focus, concentrate and memorize. The brain requires a great deal of oxygen to function and increased intake of oxygen helps us to achieve clarity and feel grounded and productive. It also relieves stress, anxiety, depression and negative thought patterns. The benefits of breathing properly can help us overcome addictive patterns of behavior and eating disorders, as well as igniting creativity and passion.
9. Breath Keeps Us Looking Youthful
It’s a universal truth that a happy face is more beautiful than a stressed or angry one. Even better news: breathing deeply slows the aging process by increasing secretion of anti-aging hormones! By reducing stress, it improves our mood, elevating the levels of serotonin and endorphins. The Telomere Effect by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel chronicles a 2013 study by Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department, which discovered that people who meditate daily for four years have longer telomeres – the protective caps found on the end of chromosomes – than those who do not. Short telomeres have been linked to premature cellular aging.
Is There Anything the Breath Cannot Do?
In a word, no. Good breathing benefits us by helping us feel more confident and able to let go of old belief systems and negative thought patterns that no longer serve us. Releasing old stories and past dramas previously held on to on a subconscious level gives us new emotional depth. By expanding our awareness inside, breathing has a spiritual effect too, deepening yoga and meditation practice, creating inner peace, and leading us to higher states of consciousness. As if that isn’t enough, it can also reinvigorate sexual energy, deepen creative expression, improve sleep patterns and lower blood pressure.
Early Breathing Patterns
Most of us are not using our whole respiratory system to breathe. In fact, many of us use just 33%, a mere third of our total capacity. The next time you look at a newborn baby as they sleep, take note of the way their whole body is breathing and how their breathing is connected. Their back, tummy and chest move together with no blockages.
Toddlers usually breathe into their chests and their bellies. The breath moves consistently, like an ocean wave ebbing and flowing.
Each human being is unique, with a unique breathing pattern illustrating our story, where we are in the world, and how we perceive ourselves. Everyone’s breathing has a story that encompasses birth trauma, early childhood experiences, parental authority, school peers, and angst from our teenage years and early adulthood.
So what kind of breather are you?
Some of us are chest breathers while others are belly breathers. Then there are those who breathe more in the midsection. By opening and clearing the restricted breathing pattern, we can breathe more freely and easily.
Our breath represents how we flow in life. As we open and expand our breath, we have more energy and support for the body’s natural healing abilities. Our primary breathing muscles are the diaphragm, intercostals, scalenes and abdominals,yet some of us are working really hard with the upper chest muscles, which creates tension here. There can be tightness in the diaphragm, which is attached to the deep-seated core muscle, the psoas (from the Greek word meaning ‘loin region’), and if this becomes tight, the hips also become constricted.
If we consider the way we breathe a metaphor for how we live our lives, it becomes obvious that as we restrict our flow of breath, we impede our natural flow. By focusing our intention on reaping the benefits of breathing, we begin to experience a relationship with our life force, our creative power. Once we revive this creative flow, we begin to nurture our bodies and minds, and the fear and pain we’ve internalized as a result of toxins or destructive thought patterns is transformed into love and joy.
A Guide to Breath Patterns
We become shallow breathers during periods of stress, when we are depressed, when we’ve not had much sleep, have had a bad day at work or the kids are acting up.
If you breathe in the upper chest, you could be an over thinker who spends a lot of time in your head. If the heart area is closed, you may be protecting yourself in relationships or in life from being hurt. Often, this leads to holding back from true passion and relates to our connection to our heart and to the ability to do what we love.
Those who are not breathing in their bellies often don’t feel grounded and can be a bit spaced out. This category of breathers often has strong-willed parents and tends to consist of people-pleasers who put others before themselves and experience low self-esteem. Belly breathing is our connection to personal will and power. Belly breathers tend to be more grounded and present. When experiencing the benefits of breathing in our belly, we are more connected to our body.
Exercise: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Lie on the floor in Shavasana or Corpse Pose, on your back with legs comfortably spread and the arms relaxed alongside the body. Feel and connect with the ground beneath your body, placing both hands on your lower abdominals, just below your rib cage.
Start by focusing on the inhale and exhale and notice the rise of the inhale and the fall of the exhale. Breathing in through your nose, your belly rises, and breathing out through your nose, the belly comes down. Allow there to be a pause between each breath.
Can you feel the breath in your belly? If not, try bending your knees, keeping your feet on the ground. This will help the breath to come down into the lower abdominals.
Can you feel the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe? Imagine as you inhale that there is a balloon inside or a ball of light expanding with each breath. This is a deep diaphragmatic breath.
If you are having difficulties feeling the breath in your belly, then you can try this: find a heavy book or a large bag of rice. Place this on your belly and put your hands on top.
Now as you inhale, gently push the weighty object into your hands and keep it there as you breathe in and out. You can ask a friend or family member to observe you while you are doing this.
This article is excerpted with permission from the book And Breathe: The Complete Guide to Conscious Breathing by Rebecca Dennis.
About The Author
Rebecca Dennis is a breath coach and a workshop leader. She practices these exercises herself and has used breathwork to manage depression without medication for years. Dennis studied with Transformational Breath founder Judith Kravitz and other influential trainers throughout the world. She lives in London, England. She is the founder of breathingtree.co.uk.