Breathing or respiration is more than just the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide with the external environment. How we breathe affects our thoughts, feelings, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and the musculoskeletal system.
Before we discuss breathing further let’s cover some basic concepts about the workings of the human body.
The nervous system is the link between the physical body and intelligence and governs the functioning and equilibrium of our entire physiology (collective functions of the body and mind). The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is one branch of the nervous system generally considered to be under unconscious control and regulates physiological functions like digestion, hormone secretion, heart rate and breathing. The ANS can be divided into two components, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic component, aka the “fight or flight” response, is activated when we are stressed, in danger, or on the go. In our modern, western, fast paced culture we tend to spend much of our time in Sympathetic dominance. The complimentary component, is the Parasympathetic nervous system, aka “rest and digest” mode, which dominates when we are eating, relaxing, sleeping, taking our time. Sadly, as a culture, we spend very little time in this state – far less than we should. For example, whilst eating, we are often multi-tasking, working at the desk, rushing from A to B or busy with conversation. These habits stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and down-regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, causing our physiology to switch to the “fight or flight” mode.
What’s so damaging about Sympathetic dominance?
Long term Sympathetic dominance influences many aspects of physiological function including increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, down regulation of digestion and immune function, and increased release of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenalin. Considering this, it is not hard to see why Sympathetic dominance, or living life predominantly in the “fight or flight” response is less than ideal. Additionally, long term, or chronic Sympathetic dominance, has been linked to multiple disease states, including cancer, chronic fatigue, kidney disease, diabetes, IBS, fibromyalgia, heart disease and increased risk of infection via the lungs.
What can we do to kick this bad habit?
One way to reduce or affect sympathetic dominance and encourage the body-mind to move into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest) is through changing the way that we breathe. Generally speaking, as adults, the tendency is to breathe into the upper chest only. This is known as shallow breathing and uses the muscles of the upper chest, shoulders and neck. This style of breathing is inefficient, stressful for the musculoskeletal system, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and leads to pooling of blood in the lower lungs – Not healthy!
How should we breathe ideally?
Much the same as the way that we used to breathe as babies and toddlers. Firstly, we need to use the diaphragm (the primary muscle of respiration), the muscles of the deep abdomen, the intercostals (muscles between the ribs) and the pelvic floor (yes, that’s right, the group of muscles located right down at the base of the spine). Directing the breath down into the base of the lungs, expanding the lower rib cage and relieving the muscles of the upper chest, shoulders and neck. The idea is to slow down the rate of respiration and get more out of each breath. This style of breathing encourages the down regulation of sympathetic activation, reduces stress hormones, activates feel-good hormones in the brain, improves the circulation of blood to all the hungry cells in the body, encourages better digestion, removal of waste products….and the list goes on!
Now at this point you might be thinking, “this all sounds great, but easier said than done”. And yes, I hear you, it’s not so easy to just change the way you breathe, especially since breathing is mostly an unconscious mechanism. The good news is, there are simple exercises you can practice to help modify your breathing pattern and thus reap the benefits not just in the short term but for the rest of your lifetime.
To get you started here is one simple technique that can be practiced on a daily basis and only takes 10 minutes. Try it and see you how you feel!
Breathe Deep. Breathe Slow. Rest and Digest.
- Take a rolled towel or yoga mat and place it on the floor.
- Lie on your back with the rolled towel or mat under the spine, running along the length of the spine, so that your chest falls open.
- Use a pillow or cushion to support the head.
- Keep the knees bent with feet on the floor OR you can extend the legs if this is more comfortable.
- Hands rest on the belly, just below the navel.
- Close the eyes and observe the body, notice how you are feeling.
- Give yourself permission to let go of your worries and any thoughts that take you to a place outside of the present.
- Relax the muscles of the face and jaw, relax the shoulders and chest.
- With the eyes closed, inhale though the nose (mouth stays closed during this exercise).
- Count your inhalation. Take 3-6 counts to inhale. As you inhale, direct the breath toward the base of the lungs, imagine the diaphragm descending into the belly. Feel the belly expand as the lungs fill with air. Your hands will move toward the sky.
- Hold the breath in for a count of 2.
- Slowly exhale through the nose for the same count as your inhalation. Feel the belly (and your hands) move downward toward the spine and the diaphragm ascend toward the chest. Exhale any tension you feel, or any negative thoughts.
- Hold the breath out for a count of 2.
- Repeat 10 – 15 times.
- Once completed, roll to the side and lie on your side for a minute before standing. This will allow your blood pressure to equalise.
- Come to standing slowly.
- Enjoy the peace of mind and feeling of rejuvenation!
- Take this with you into the next part of your day.
- Repeat daily, am and pm, or when you are feeling stressed.
Lee Christison is a Remedial Massage Therapist and Yoga Instructor at Melbourne Osteopathy Sports Injury Centre.
If you have any questions or are interested in improving your breathing technique, please don’t hesitate to contact Lee or any of the team – firstname.lastname@example.org.