Taking a moment to focus on your breathing can have a profound effect on both your physical and mental health. The simple act of deep breathing floods the body with much-needed oxygen while promoting relaxation. Read on to learn about the science behind deep breathing, how it affects the brain and body, and tips for making it a daily habit.
An Introduction to Conscious Breathing
Breathing is an automatic bodily process that happens about 20,000 times per day. Most of the time we don’t even notice it. However, when we consciously control our breathing patterns, we can leverage this natural process to optimize health and performance.
Deep breathing refers to abdominal breathing where the diaphragm fully expands allowing the lungs to take in maximum oxygen. This is contrasted with shallow chest breathing which fails to take full advantage of lung capacity. Consciously practicing deep belly breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting systemic relaxation.
Taking time to focus on your breath each day comes with a host of evidence-backed benefits:
- Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- Decreases stress by activating the body’s relaxation response
- Improves respiratory and cardiovascular health
- Boosts immune function
- Increases energy and mental alertness
- Enhances emotional regulation and positivity
In the following sections we’ll explore the physiology behind why mindful breathing is so advantageous as well as actionable strategies to make it a habit.
The Respiratory System: Anatomy and Function
Before diving into breathing techniques, it helps to understand how oxygen makes its way into the body and why deep inhales are valuable.
The Pathway of Air
During inhalation air travels through various tubes down into microscopic air sacs called alveoli. It’s here where gas exchange occurs between air and blood before circulation transports oxygen throughout the body.
- Nose & Mouth: Entry points for air to enter respiratory tract
- Pharynx: Passageway for both food and air
- Larynx: Contains vocal cords and opens to allow air into trachea
- Trachea: Major airway traversing neck and branching into bronchi
- Bronchi: Two main stems carrying air into lungs
- Bronchioles: Smaller branches spreading throughout lung tissue
- Alveoli: Tiny grape-like sacs where oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange occurs
Understanding this anatomy allows us to trace each inhalation as it brings oxygen into circulation.
The Mechanics of Breathing
There are both voluntary and autonomic processes underlying respiration. Inhalation and exhalation alternate thanks to feedback loops managed unconsciously by the respiratory center in the medulla oblongata.
However, we also have conscious control over our breathing patterns. Using willpower to take fuller, slower breaths triggers systemic changes that relaxation elicits.
The main muscle of breathing is the dome-shaped diaphragm. When it contracts, the diaphragm moves downward creating more space for the lungs to expand on the inhale. Engaging abdominal muscles helps forcefully exhale spent air.
Deep breathing requires utilising the full capacity of the lungs. Shallow, chest-focused breathing fails to take advantage by limiting air intake. Conscious, belly-driven breaths ensure maximum oxygen.
The Science of Deep Breathing
Research regarding mindful breathing continues yielding positive implications for health and wellbeing. Disciplined practice fundamentally alters physiology.
Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Deep breathing flips the body’s script by dialing down the sympathetic stress pathway in favor of its opposite parasympathetic relaxation mode.
The autonomic nervous system is comprised of competing activation (sympathetic) and relaxation (parasympathetic) branches. Stress triggers the sympathetic pathway, releasing cortisol and adrenaline inducing the fight-or-flight response.
Slow, deep breathing taps the brake by signaling the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. As the primary conduit of the parasympathetic pathway, the vagus nerve plays an instrumental role. Input from specialized neurons help regulate heart rate, digestion, inflammation and other involuntary processes.
Diaphragmatic breathing also increases vagal tone – a measure of parasympathetic activation leading to lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
Impact on the Cardiovascular System
The boost in vagal tone from paced deep breathing translates into measurable heart health improvements:
- Lower Blood Pressure: Less strain and tension decreases blood pressure.
- Improved Heart Rate Variability: Ability of heart to adapt to changing circumstances.
- Decreased Risk of Ischemia: More oxygen reaching heart muscles.
Better Brain Function
With increased oxygen saturation from complete lung expansion, deep breathing optimizes cognition and emotional regulation:
- Boosts Brain Oxygen: Encourages growth of brain cells.
- Stimulates Parasympathetic Response: Promotes alpha brain waves associated with wakeful relaxation and mindfulness.
- Limits Stress Hormones: Curtails anxiety and depression.
- Enhances Pre-Frontal Cortex: Bolsters willpower and decision making centers.
The takeaway is that purposeful full breaths signal a cascade of positive effects — both mental and physical. Making it a consistent practice potentiates widespread benefits.
Breathing Techniques to Know
There are a variety of methods to engage in mindful breathing. Finding a comfortable technique and committing to daily practice is key. Here are three easy, beginner-friendly deep breathing exercises to try:
The quintessential belly breath. Follow these steps:
- Find a relaxed position, sitting or lying down.
- Place one hand on your chest, the other on your stomach.
- Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your abdomen press into your hand.
- Exhale completely allowing abdomen to sink inward.
- Repeat for 2-5 minutes spacing breaths evenly.
Diaphragmatic breathing pulls air down deep into lungs by engaging abdominal muscles. Goal is to keep chest still while belly expands and contracts.
This technique builds upon diaphragmatic breathing by providing a structured inhalation-retention-exhalation rhythm.
- Exhale completely through your mouth.
- Close lips and inhale quietly through nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold breath for 7 seconds.
- Exhale completely through mouth for 8 seconds.
- Repeat cycle up to 4 times.
The 4-7-8 method brings awareness to the breath’s pathway in and out of lungs. Extended exhale activates the parasympathetic response.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Traditionally used in yoga, this practice brings balance by isolating sides of the nasal cavity:
- Use right thumb to close off right nostril, inhaling through left.
- Close left nostril with right ring finger, release right nostril, exhale through right.
- Inhale again through right nostril.
- Close right nostril, release left nostril, exhale through left.
- Repeat 5-10 cycles.
Alternate nostril breathing has a profoundly calming effect. Focusing on breath isolation promotes synchronization between left/right brain hemispheres.
Tip: Abdominal breathing should be incorporated into all of these techniques. With practice you’ll retrain muscles to take fuller, deeper inhales.
Lifestyle Integration for Lasting Change
Reprogramming breathing patterns requires consistency and commitment. Integrate these best practices to make the habits stick:
Daily Breathing Sessions
- Set a recurring reminder to breathe deeply for at least 5 minutes daily.
- Schedule sessions during high-stress times, mornings or before bed.
- Maintain focus by closing eyes with muted distractions.
- Gradually increase session duration up to 10-15 minutes.
Informal Breathing Breaks
- Take 1-2 minutes for mindful breathing whenever feeling tense or distracted
- Frequently check-in on posture and breath depth
- Download apps like Breathwrk, Prana or Breath Ball to follow during short breaks
- While lying down, methodically scan attention up/down noting sensations
- Expand awareness to entire body feeling rhythmic inhale/exhale
- Visualize breath circulating to shoulders, lungs, diaphragm, organs
- Release tension detected across muscles
With regular practice, the impact of purposeful deep breathing compounds over time reprograming the autonomic system. Make conscious respiration part of your routine.
Deep Breathing Benefits: The Takeaway
The importance of proper breathing cannot be overstated. How we inhale and exhale affects every cell in the body. Taking short, sporadic breaths triggers stress pathways while deep abdominal breathing initiates relaxation.
Implementing mindful breathing techniques taps into our innate capacity for self-healing and resilience. Over time physiological changes promote better health while self-awareness and emotional intelligence grows – all from consciously controlling the breath.
The beauty of mastering deep breathing lies in its accessibility and simplicity. Attuning to this automatic process yields enormous benefits now and lasting rewards down the road. Just remember to breathe.