It’s the first and last thing we do in this world—take a breath. But somewhere in between, far too many of us lose touch with how to breathe naturally, fully…and correctly. Though we inhale and exhale about 20,000 times each day, most of the time we take short, shallow breaths that I call “stress breaths.”
Why does our innate sense of how to breathe properly slip away from us? Whether we’re fighting traffic or multitasking, our fast-paced lives often throw us into a stress-driven spiral that interferes with our ability to optimally fuel our bodies with life-sustaining oxygen. People who are suppressing feelings such as anger or emotional pain tend to hold their breath. Fortunately, a few simple strategies can help us reclaim our breathing skills…
MORE THAN “BELLY BREATHING”
We have all heard the term “belly breathing,” but the real key to proper breathing is not so much your belly but your diaphragm. Deeply breathing from this dome-shaped sheet of muscle at the bottom of the rib cage is vital for respiratory function.
True diaphragmatic breathing uses the entire respiratory system—starting with the belly, then moving on to the midsection and into the chest. Try it: Inhale through your nose, directing your breath into your stomach. Allow your diaphragm to drop downward and the rib cage to expand, thus creating space for the lungs to inflate. Pause for a moment, then exhale through your mouth and feel the rib cage contract. The motion of breath should go in and out like a wave. To adopt this healthier way of breathing, practice for a minute or two several times a day until it feels natural.
This form of breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which slows your heart rate and breathing, lowers blood pressure and diverts blood toward the digestive system.
THE HEALING EFFECTS
Proper breathing offers a number of powerful health benefits, including…
• Reduced anxiety and depression. Deep breathing is believed to help elevate levels of serotonin and endorphins, naturally occurring “feel-good” chemicals. A study by Harvard Medical School psychiatrists showed that those who meditated daily for four years—a practice that relies heavily on conscious breathing—had longer telomeres, the protective “caps” on the ends of chromosomes that serve as biomarkers of longevity and slower aging.
• Protection against viruses. Our lymphatic system, which moves cleansing, vital fluids through our muscles and tissues, relies on breathing, movement and gravity to continue flowing. By promoting a healthy lymphatic system, deep breathing can play a crucial role in protecting the body from viruses, bacteria and other health threats.
• Less constipation. Deeper breathing (and the stress reduction that goes along with it) promotes intestinal action and stimulates overall digestion. This can improve conditions such as constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
• Improved sleep. The relaxation that occurs with deep breathing is likely responsible for its positive effect on sleep quality.
BEST BREATHING FIXES
Targeted breathing exercises can help you deal more effectively with stress…and day-to-day health challenges such as indigestion, insomnia and fatigue. The best part is that you can do these exercises anywhere. Among my favorite quick breathing fixes—they can also help with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)…
• Alternate nostril breathing. This breathing exercise helps put you in a calm and centered state.
What to do: Breathe in deeply through your right nostril while pressing the left nostril closed with your right index finger…then exhale through the left nostril while pressing the right nostril closed with your right thumb. Next, inhale through the left nostril (right nostril still closed)…then close the left nostril and exhale through the right. The exhalations should take about twice as long as the inhalations. Repeat the cycle 10 times.
• 4-7-8 breathing. If you are plagued by insomnia, this breathing exercise can put you to sleep within minutes. What to do: Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth, making a “whoosh” sound, to a count of eight. This is one breath.
Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times. Do this exercise when you need help going to sleep or if you awaken and want to get back to sleep.