On average, we take around 20,000 breaths per day. With each breath, oxygen is transported to our cells and converted into the energy we need for daily functioning. Since breathing is an automatic process, many of us rarely take the time to pay attention to it. But the simple act of breathing can have profound impacts on our mental and physical health. So what can your breath pattern reveal about your health? And how can a simple breathing exercise heal our mind and body? Let’s explore the answers.
Becoming Aware of Your Breath Pattern
Close your eyes and spend a few minutes observing the natural rhythm of your breath. Don’t control or force your breathing, but observe the breath as it is. Pay attention to what space the breath fills in the body. Is your breath deep or shallow? Are you breathing through the nose, mouth, or a combination of the two?
Most of us tend to take shallow breaths into the chest, using only a small portion of our lung capacity. Over time, we’ve become conditioned to breathing this way due to our busy lifestyles and environmental stressors. Unfortunately, this pattern of breathing can compromise our physical and mental health in several ways.
- Shallow breathing leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, making the blood more acidic and causing an imbalance in the blood’s pH levels. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the body’s stress response.
- When you take a shallow breath, you bring less oxygen into the body. This means you have less oxygen to fuel your body’s vital activities, resulting in lower energy and productivity levels.
- Breathing into the upper chest can result in a forward head posture, which increases pressure on the neck muscles and contributes to neck pain. Studies show that pain levels decrease once the breath pattern is addressed.
In addition to chest breathing, mouth-breathing can have negative health consequences as well. Mouth breathing may increase the risk of sleep apnea and decrease oxygen levels in the body. Breathing through the nose will boost oxygen levels and increase nitric oxide, which plays a crucial role in a healthy immune response.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Simple Breathing Exercise for Better Health
Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a simple deep breathing exercise. As its name suggests, the technique engages the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle used in respiration. By fully activating this muscle when you breathe, you’ll begin to notice improvements in your overall health and wellbeing.How to Do It:
- Lie down flat on your back with your knees bent, and feet pressed firmly into the floor.
- Place one hand on top of your belly and the other hand on top of your upper chest.
- Slowly take a deep breath in through the nose and fill your stomach with air. The hand on your belly should rise, while the hand on your upper chest should remain in place.
- At the top of the inhale, slowly begin exhaling through the nose, noticing the belly fall and return to its original position. The hand on your upper chest should remain in place.
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes, keeping the shoulders and neck relaxed.
After performing the exercise, take note of how you feel, and continue to practice the exercise daily. Not only will you become more aware of your breath patterns over time, but you’ll be able to adjust your breathing in the future to improve your health in the following ways.
Reduce stress and anxiety
When your body suspects danger, whether perceived or real, it activates the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system releases cortisol, the stress hormone, resulting in the physical symptoms you feel, such as rapid heart rate and increased body temperature. Diaphragmatic breathing reverses this effect. “By taking full, slow breaths deep into the belly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms down your heart rate and puts you in a more relaxed state,” says Emma Sothern, a certified yoga instructor and owner of Om with Em.
Enhance brain function
When you breathe deeply with the diaphragm, you’re increasing oxygen levels in the body. The boost in oxygen has a positive effect on brain function, and studies suggest that diaphragmatic breathing may improve memory and attention. Focusing on the breath also improves mindfulness, bringing more awareness to the present moment, clearing your mind, and eliminating brain fog.
Jill Blakeway, licensed and board-certified acupuncturist and founder of The Yinova Center, noted that her patients’ diaphragms become tight under stress. “The movement of the diaphragm isn’t just important to the lungs–it also affects the digestive organs just below it,” Blakeway says. Diaphragmatic breathing relaxes the diaphragm and releases tension in the abdominal muscles, leading to better digestion.
Diaphragmatic breathing is just one breathing technique you can use to improve your overall health. Once you get the hang of this simple breathing exercise, you can begin to layer more complex breathing exercises on top of it to strengthen the effects. Here’s another quick breathing exercise to try.