Most health-savvy people know that deep breathing has a wide range of mind-body benefits backed by loads of scientific evidence.
But cell biologist and certified yoga therapist Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, was inspired to investigate further after a realization that he produced an abundance of saliva while practicing controlled yoga breathing exercises collectively known as pranayama. He has since conducted pioneering research into the role that spittle (aka “spit”) plays in the healing effects of deep breathing.
Hidden Powers of Saliva
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the benefits of yoga breathing—ranging from lower blood pressure and less depression to better concentration and improved lung function—but it’s not known why saliva is produced so abundantly during pranayama.
Recognized mainly for its role in promoting healthy digestion, saliva is comprised of about 98% water and various other substances, such as enzymes that help break down food. When people go about their daily activities, they produce about 25 to 50 ounces of saliva daily. However, if you’re stressed, your mouth becomes dry. So it makes sense that when your body is extremely relaxed—as occurs during yoga breathing—you produce more saliva than you ordinarily would.
But how does that boost in saliva production contribute to pranayama’s benefits? It’s been established that saliva contains more than 1,000 proteins along with other crucial molecules, such as neurohormones. And it’s been shown that the specific makeup of each person’s saliva is unique, and it can change from day to day—even moment to moment based on one’s emotional and physiological responses. Saliva is believed to contribute to the healing effects of yoga breathing by…
• Increasing brain-boosting proteins. Through our research published in International Psychogeriatrics, we discovered that a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF) increased 10 times more in the saliva of people practicing pranayama for a single 20-minute session compared with study participants who quietly read an article for the same length of time. This is significant because NGF goes straight to the brain, where it encourages brain cell growth. NGF levels are substantially lower in Alzheimer’s patients.
• Elevating cancer-suppressing proteins. With a study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, we confirmed that pranayama not only stimulates saliva production but also elevates levels of proteins with immunity-building and cancer-suppressing properties.
• Reducing inflammatory markers. Pranayama also reduces production of inflammatory biomarkers in saliva that are linked to such conditions as pain, depression and diseases, such as scleroderma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to research we published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Two Exercises to Get Started
With such varied health benefits—and a new understanding of saliva’s crucial role in delivering them—you may be eager to try pranayama.
If you’re just starting out with yoga breathing, it’s common to worry that you’ll “do it wrong.” But the truth is, all you have to do is breathe, count and pay attention to how you’re feeling. If you don’t force an uncomfortable breathing practice or hold your breath for too long, there’s nothing about pranayama that you can do wrong.
Important: If you have a respiratory disorder, such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), consult your physician and/or a yoga therapist on the right exercises for your condition.
Even though there are numerous approaches to yoga breathing, here are two simple exercises to get you started —for best results, sit up straight, close your eyes and do one or both of the following throughout the day…
• Beginner humming breath. Also called “bee breath” because of the buzzing sound you make, this exercise is a good introduction to yoga breathing. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t require you to hold your breath.
What to do: Breathe deeply and inhale as much as you can comfortably. Then hum as you slowly exhale at a rate that is comfortable for you. Repeat this exercise for a minute or two when you wake up…and before eating breakfast and your other meals or snacks throughout the day to stimulate your saliva flow.
• Cooling breath. This exercise promotes copious saliva production by stimulating the glands in your oral cavity.
What to do: Roll your tongue in a U-shape. Inhale slowly through your tongue, then exhale through your nostrils. Repeat for five to 10 minutes. If you can’t roll your tongue, inhale through your mouth while smiling and exhale through your nostrils.
To learn more about yoga breathing, go to PranaScience.com.