20 Sep The Power of Breath
Stress and anxiety from daily matters can wreak havoc on the body. The constant “always on the go” mentality found in modern American society often overlooks one simple yet extremely effective technique to settle the mind. This method is free, accessible anywhere, anytime, and offers an alternative to pharmaceutical medications.
That is the power of the breath.
Breathe is vital. It is what keeps us alive, our heart pumping, and our blood circulating. It is what brings us back to the present moment.
By focusing on the breath it enables the mind to clear itself of distractions, provide a greater ability to remain calm in crisis (1), aid in decision making (2), and express stronger interconnectivity (3) among all life forces. Through mindful breathing, the body is able to obtain significant mental and physical health benefits.
This may already sound familiar to you as these ancient eastern practices become widely popularized and integrated into western culture through various mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Each of these meditative techniques allows one to slow their brain waves, decrease heart rate, lower blood pressure, and tap into their unconscious mind.
But how exactly does it work?
Within each breath is a respiratory biofeedback loop between the heart and lungs that determines either the activation of your ‘flight-or-fight’ response or your ‘rest-and-digest’ response.
The inhale and exhale function of the breathing process (4) activates different parts of the nervous system. During the inhalation portion, blood is drawn to the lungs from the heart causing the body to overexert itself in order to pump blood throughout the rest of the body. As a result, the heart beat accelerates and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. The SNS initiates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response which pumps adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that fuel anxiety. These stress hormones alter the body by slowing metabolism and increasing blood pressure and heart rate. On the other hand, blood returns from the lungs to the body during the exhalation portion stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which acts as a biological break allowing your body to ‘rest-and-digest’. This aspect of the PNS, also referred to as respiratory vagus nerve stimulation (rVNS) (5) counteracts the fight-or-flight response by calming the autonomic nervous system and improving heart rate variability (HRV).
The inhalation/exhalation ratio that occurs within each breath cycle plays a crucial role in heart regulation and overall health. The fluctuation of the beat-to-beat intervals of a heart rate is known as heart rate variability (HRV) (6). It has been found that higher HRV is associated with lower chronic stress levels, improved cognition, and better overall health. It is also a means to index the vigour of vagus nerve responses and vagal tone (VT).
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve (7) is the longest nerve in the human body with multiple branches beginning at the brainstem and extending through just about every major organ in a wandering route down to the lowest intestines. It is the communicative channel that sends messages between the mind, brain, and gut. The vagus nerve is responsible for the calming effect of intentional breathing methods and explains the efficacy of the effects of contemplative practices on health and cognition.
During each exhalation, the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (Ach) into the bloodstream. This neurotransmitter was first discovered by German Nobel-Prize winning physiologist, Otto Loewi, in 1921. At the time, it was referred to as vagusstoff (or vagus substance). Heart rate variability (HRV) was able to effectively measure that once this vagusstoff was released, heart rate intervals instantly decreased, and the nervous system calmed. This is what is referred to as the “relaxation response.”
The Relaxation Response
One of the most effective and easiest ways to calm your mind and body is to activate this ‘relaxation response’ (8). The relaxation response can improve hypertension, insomnia, PMS, symptoms of menopause, pain, infertility, and cardiac arrythmias. It consists of two basic steps found in various meditative practices worldwide. The first step is through the repetition of either sound, words, prayer, phrase, or movement. The second involves the passivity of daily thoughts or distractions meaning to recognize any thoughts that may arise and let them pass through just as they had come.
One widely popular yogic breathing (pranayama) practice is diaphragmatic breathing (9) or deep breathing. This type of breathing switches the constriction of the breath from the throat to the diaphragm, located between the thoracic and abdominal cavities. In this type of breathing, air enters the lungs and the belly expands rather than the chest. This type of breathing is beneficial (10) as it lowers the effects of stress hormones like cortisol, lowers hearth rate and blood pressure, decreases oxygen demand, and strengthens the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing can even be used as a coping mechanism for people with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (11).
The 1:2 Inhale/ Exhale Ratio
Since acetylcholine (Ach) is released during the exhale, one way to ensure more vagus substance is released is to make your exhale slow and longer than your inhale. This slows your heart rate allowing your body more time for self-regulation and the ability to maintain homeostasis. The exhalation also releases toxins like carbon dioxide and any stale air that no longer serves you.
A simple way to keep count on inhalations and exhalations is to use the 1:2 ratio. Along with diaphragmatic breathing, inhale through the nose a set number of seconds. Then, purse your lips as you would blow a whistle and double the inhale count for your exhale. So, if the inhale is for three seconds then the exhale should be 6 seconds, if the inhale is 4 seconds then exhale for 8 seconds and so on and so forth.
These types of breathing exercises can be practiced on your own time just about anywhere. Even just a few slow conscious breaths can show significant improvement in overall health and cognition. Mindful breathing can not only bring pure awareness back to the present moment, but also to our own feeling and physical being. It can balance emotions, heighten awareness and intuition, and provide patience whilst improving concentration. Research suggests that this kind of breathing can even make you wiser (12) and live a longer more grounded life.
So, the next time stress or anxiety comes up just take a moment to breathe and exhale it all away.
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