The quest for well-being can be a lot of work, but it turns out there’s a quick and simple – and free – way to get a powerful health boost. Bonus: You’re doing it right now.
Breathing does a lot more for your mind and body than you might realize: It’s intricately tied to all you do (after all, your cells need oxygen to do their job) and, when it’s done properly, everything just works better. Recent studies have shown that deep breathing has a range of benefits, from improving immune function and glucose control to reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Now researchers are finding that deep breathing may help diffuse the negative moods that can lead some to turn to alcohol for relief, according to a paper published in the December 2013 issue of Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback. The study of 138 young adults (48% women) examined the relationship between self-reported measures of negative mood and alcohol problems, and respiratory patterns at baseline and in response to a stressful situation (in this case, viewing emotionally arousing or alcohol-related pictures). Results reveal a consistent link between negative mood and thoracic breathing – inhaling primarily into the chest instead of deep into the belly. There was also a positive association between alcohol problems and respiratory reactivity to the emotionally challenging cues.
The researchers believe breathing techniques could be promising treatment tools for negative affect and alcohol problems, particularly for people who abuse alcohol as a way to cope with distressing emotions. Consistent thoracic breathing triggers the “fight or flight” activity of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), leading to increases in stress hormones, heart rate and muscle tension.
On the other hand, breathing deeply into the belly, exhaling slowly and fully to release carbon dioxide and make room for more oxygen has the opposite effect by activating the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) branch of the ANS. This may be why a 2011 study found that just one 20-minute session of belly breathing increased levels of serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter.
How to Take a Breather
“The key is to shift the quality of how you breathe, not the quantity. Prolonging exhalation allows the lungs the opportunity to maximally absorb oxygen into the blood stream,” says Ruth Stanley, OSB, PharmD, whose pilot program at CentraCare Heart and Vascular Services in Saint Cloud, Minnesota found that deep breathing with longer exhalations than inhalations improves ANS functioning and decreases anxiety, fatigue, insomnia and pain. Her results were published in the Nephrology Nursing Journal in 2011.“Unlike shallow or deep, even breathing, it is very difficult to hyperventilate with this type of breathing, thus making it ideal for people who are stressed or anxious.”
So how can you benefit from these new discoveries about the importance of deep, purposeful breathing?
- To get started, find a quiet spot with minimal distractions. While sitting or lying down, keep your spine as straight as possible to allow your lungs to fully expand.
- Keep one hand on your chest and the other hand on your lower abdomen to ensure that most of the movement is taking place in your stomach rather than your chest and shoulders: your belly should inflate and deflate like a balloon with each breath in and out.
- Breathe in and out slowly and gently, taking twice as long to breathe out than in; for example, inhaling for four counts and exhaling for eight.
- Take a breath when you feel you need it. Don’t hold your breath in between breaths and don’t wait until you have fully exhaled to take your next breath. Also, there is no need to push or force air out of your lungs.
An ideal practice is five to 15 minutes daily, but even a few minutes of deep breathing offers benefits, and it becomes more automatic with practice. Stanley suggests seizing any opportunity to practice – like during a commute, sitting in the bathtub or watching TV. “You are breathing anyway, so why not do it in a way that helps you feel better?”