For most of us, breathing is a natural process that we don’t particularly think too much about. At most, for those who aren’t familiar with more intensive breathing techniques, we might inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth when exercising. However, unbeknownst to us modern people, ancient cultures across the world once placed a great deal of importance on how to breathe.
Across history, there are countless examples of recommendations on how to modulate human breathing in order to influence our minds and bodies. The concept of Qi Gong, emerging in China thousands of years ago, utilises coordinated posture, movement and breathing for health and spirituality. Yoga is another such example of an exercise built around respiratory control and the concept that controlling our breathing is a means for us to increase our longevity.
In a way, with our onerous modern lives, we’ve almost forgotten the ability to breathe correctly- which obviously may carry some negative connotations for our health. In more recent years, how we breathe has been subject to far more scrutiny, both medical and otherwise. While clinical studies cannot currently quantify the exact usefulness of diaphragmatic breathing, it has been identified as promising treatment method for various disorders and our general wellbeing. Even the American Navy SEALs utilise breathing techniques, specifically box breathing, to stay calm during the high stress situations that they face in the line of duty.
In this blog post we’ll be exploring the benefits that deep breathing can have on your health, the biological process behind breathing and will provide some actionable tips on the breathing methods you can use to reap these benefits.
The Benefits of Breathing
- Breathing signals to your body that it can relax- this means that breathing techniques can stop stress getting out of control, manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety or lessen the effects of panic attacks. When you are stressed, your nervous system is stimulated- meaning that you’ll breathe faster, your heart rate spikes, your anxiety rises and your body feels tense. By breathing slowly and fully, you can pre-empt your nervous system’s tantrum spiral and slow down your heart rate, preventing an attack of anxiety and calming yourself down.
- You can lower your blood pressure by regularly practising breathing exercises. A study has found that breathing exercises may therefore be a potential first treatment for those with prehypertension.
- Breathing exercises can improve your lung capacity, which provides many benefits athletically and also for better health in later life.
- As mentioned above, breathing deeply into your diaphragm can lessen body tension. This means that utilising breathing techniques can assist with headaches and body pain.
- Breathwork improves our body’s resilience, decreasing the effect that stress has upon the body (too much cortisol, the stress hormone, can cause negative long term effects on our health). By utilising breathing exercises regularly, we achieve a sympathovagal balance between the two sides of our body’s nervous system, improving our ability to react to physical and mental stress.
- Due to the body’s relaxation response to deep breathing (and potentially the increased flow of oxygen into the muscles), utilising breathing techniques can also increase the amount of physical energy that we can possess at one time.
- Breathing deeply through our nostrils can focus us, which is one reason why it can ground us psychologically.
- Utilising breathing exercises have been proven to assist with insomnia- and the usage of these techniques for twenty minutes before bed has shown that those with insomnia fall asleep three times as quickly as they would otherwise and also have a better sleep, with less frequent awakenings during the night. For those that do not suffer from insomnia, sleep quality is also improved.
The Biology Behind Breathing
When you breathe in, your diaphragm moves down as your lungs fill with air, which pushes your chest out. Your heart grows in size slightly, slowing the flow of blood. Your brain then instructs the heart to speed up the blood flow, and you feel a burst of energy. This is good, in regular circumstances, but coupled with our body’s fight or flight response (induced by stress or anxiety), it can result in a racing heartbeat, nervous energy and your body feeling tight. This is why panicked, deep breaths and weak exhales can exacerbate the stress that our body feels.
Conversely, when you breathe out, your diaphragm moves back up and your heart shrinks as the air leaves the lungs. Your blood flow speeds back up and your brain instructs the heart to slow it down. This causes you to feel relaxed and signals to your body that you are safe, allowing for rest. This is why controlled breathing, with purposeful exhales, can induce calmness and control over our emotions.
So, what breathing exercises can we use to control our respiratory rhythm and reap the benefits listed above?
- Box Breathing. Utilised by the Navy SEALs, this method is a mindfulness technique that helps with stress management. The name of the method derives from the four stages that it breaks breathing into- akin to breathing along the four edges of a box.
- Exhale all of the breath from your lungs.
- Inhale through the nose while counting to four, fill your lungs and lower abdomen with air. Focus on how the air is filling your body.
- Hold your breath, counting to four.
- Then exhale through the mouth while counting to four. Focus on expelling all of the air out of your lungs through this exhale.
- Hold your lungs empty for four seconds, then repeat the process if required.
- Belly Breathing. A simple technique focusing on air flowing into your diaphragm, and retraining your body to take deeper breaths into your diaphragm.
- Start breathing through the nose, fill your belly with air, breathe out of your mouth at least two to three times as long as your inhale. Make sure to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed.
- Pursed lip breathing. As mentioned in our first paragraph, some of you may be familiar with this very simple method as a means to reduce the number of breaths you need and to increase your airflow so that you can be more physically active.
- Breathe in through your nose and breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth, pursing your lips.
- Cardiac Coherence. An exercise that regulates respiratory rhythm, increasing your heart rate when you breathe in and slowing it down when you exhale.
- Inhale via the nose for six seconds, pause, exhale for four seconds.
- The 365 method. Proscribed by therapists to combat long-term stress, this is a great method for unlocking the long-term benefits of breathing well.
- Three times a day, breathe slowly six times a minute (using the cardiac coherence technique above) for five minutes. Repeat all 365 days of the year.
- The Wim-Hof Breathing Method. Famously popularised by Wim-Hof, the extreme athlete known as the ‘Iceman’, who believes that through the usage of breathing techniques we can command the human body to weather extreme temperatures through breath regulation.
- Inhale deeply through the nose, exhale lightly through the mouth. Repeat for the next 30 breaths. On the 30th such breath, exhale 90% and then hold your breath for as long as you can.
- When your body needs its next breath, inhale fully and hold for fifteen seconds before releasing it.
- An added extra to any of these exercises can be to think reassuring thoughts when breathing, providing a sense of mental wellbeing.
- With each breath, think a positive thought, such as ‘I am inhaling wellbeing’.
- With each exhale, picture that you are expelling your concerns, pushing them out of your body.
Modern research is examining the relationship between how we breathe and the impacts that it has upon our body- but evidence from our ancestors (backed by modern study) has already shown that by controlling our breathing we can unlock numerous immediate and long-term health benefits for our body.
Hopefully this post will have made you think about your breathing more- and have provided you with methods that will help with anxiety and, overall, increase your longevity. For future news about NOMIX and more longevity tips, make sure to check this blog and follow NOMIX on Twitter, LinkedIn and Telegram.
 Hamasaki, Effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Health: A Narrative Review, Medicines, 2020.
 Chaddha, Modaff, Hooper-Lane, Feldstein. Device and non-device-guided slow breathing to reduce blood pressure: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2019.
 Russo, Santarelli, O’Rourke. The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the healthy Human. Breathe, 2017.
 Zaccaro, Piarulli, Laurino, Garbella, Menicucci, Neri, Gemignani. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Brain Health and Clinical Neuroscience, 2018.