This week, I wanted to dive a little deeper into deep breathing and its benefits for mental, physical and digestive health. In my last post I talked about the intimate link between our brain & our gut, but did you know that there is an important connection between our lungs and our gut as well ? In fact, lung bacteria can make or break our gut flora, and vice-versa. A healthy gut is essential for lung immunity (think allergies, asthma and COPD, for example), with recent studies showing that increased fiber and probiotic intake helps with lung disorders that affect our breathing through healing the gut flora. Breathing is also intricately linked to our mental health, which is then, in turn, linked to our gut. In a nutshell: everything is linked in one way or another.
If you're anything like me, sometimes you forget to breathe. Especially when anxiety takes control! It's hard to remind ourselves to take a few deep breaths when 5000 thoughts are spiraling in our brain at once, like a tornado. But, when you do, it's a complete game changer! You can actually feel yourself being grounded back down to earth. (Quick shout out to my dad who introduced me to my first deep breathing exercise: as always, you were right - it works.)
Deep breathing is an important part of meditation, an Eastern spiritual practice. The term meditation is a loose translation of the original word, Dhyai (ध्यै) - Sanskrit for "to contemplate". In meditation, the breath is called Prana (प्राण), Sanskrit for "life force". Prana is essential for meditation and yoga practices and, dare I say it, for our livelihood. If our mental well-being, lung health and the gut all depend on each other to function properly, imagine what something as "simple" as deep breathing can accomplish for our health!
Let's dive right in.
Chest Versus Abdominal Breathing
We breathe one of two ways: through the chest or through the abdomen. Chest breathing is considered to be shallow breathing, and for some of us - myself included! - that's how we usually go about getting oxygen. In fact, Harvard Health suggests that the majority of us don't practice deep breathing, for a variety of reasons, with the main reason being the impact of body image on our breathing. A flat stomach is not synonymous with deep abdominal breathing, so we (men & women) have a habit of sucking in our stomachs, obstructing proper breathing and, in turn, increasing tension & anxiety through subsequent shallow breathing.
According to an article published by Loyola University Medical School (Loyola Medicine), our day-to-day chest breathing is too shallow to allow proper oxygen flow, hindering our digestion, increasing our heart rate and tensing our muscles. When you breathe through your chest, your shoulders rise & only your chest expands. When you breathe through your abdomen - also known as deep breathing -, your stomach expands & your diaphragm moves down, allowing your lungs to fill up with air.
What Are The Benefits To Deep Breathing?
The list of benefits seems to be never ending. At the top of the list is stress reduction. Shallow breathing is frequently associated with anxiety, panic and stress, so it's only logical that deep breathing would do the opposite!
Tuning into your breathing gets your mind off of the issue that is causing your distress, while practicing controlling your breathing allows you to feel & be in control when external events feel very much the opposite at that moment. Both of these things will reduce your anxiety and stress in the short run, and, if practiced regularly, will have a dramatic impact on stress reduction in your everyday life.
Just to drive home the importance of deep breathing: a study published in 2016 delved into the effects of stress by studying two groups, one experimental (who participated in 90mn anti-stress treatments, composed of deep breathing and meditative imagery, once a week) and one control (who did not participate in any treatments), over a 10 week period. The results showed huge differences between the experimental and the control group, with the experimental group experiencing significantly lower mood disturbances, stress levels, heart rate and cortisol levels (a steroid hormone that is one of the major stress hormones in our bodies). The control group experienced no changes.
On a physiological standpoint, deep breathing lowers blood pressure & heart rate, facilitates full oxygen exchange, increases lung elasticity (a lack of which can cause air build-up in the lungs), reduces gut inflammation, and increases immune response.
Simply put: if you're able to relax your body, your mind will follow - and vice versa - allowing symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma to dissipate, your muscles to release tension, and your digestion to improve.
Some Breathing Exercises
Note: Some of these exercises might sound like they're similar, but in fact they have subtle differences. These subtleties may seem small but have a big impact - they are what can make one exercise right for you and another not. Remember: all of these breathing exercises gain in power and impact with practice.
The University of Michigan published an article with three breathing techniques, two of which, to be honest, I hadn't heard of beforehand. Of course, I gave them both a trial run before suggesting them on here!
Best for: developing full use of your lungs, strengthening your diaphragm, and developing a connection with your body's breathing rhythm. It's a deep breathing exercise that takes mindfulness and mind-body connection & awareness up a notch.
1. Put your left hand on your belly and your right hand on your chest. Notice how your hands move as you breathe in and out.
2. Practice filling your lower lungs by breathing so that your "belly" (left) hand goes up when you inhale and your "chest" (right) hand remains still. Always breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. Do this 8 to 10 times.
3. When you have filled and emptied your lower lungs 8 to 10 times, add the second step to your breathing: inhale first into your lower lungs as before, and then continue inhaling into your upper chest. Breathe slowly and regularly. As you do so, your right hand will rise and your left hand will fall a little as your belly falls.
4. As you exhale slowly through your mouth, make a quiet, whooshing sound as first your left hand and then your right hand fall. As you exhale, feel the tension leaving your body as you become more and more relaxed.
5. Practice breathing in and out in this way for 3 to 5 minutes. Notice that the movement of your belly and chest rises and falls like the motion of rolling waves.
Best for: relieving muscle tension, unclogging breathing passages, increasing energy & blood flow, easing stress and helping you start your day on a healthy and positive note.
1. From a standing position, bend forward from the waist with your knees slightly bent, letting your arms dangle close to the floor. 2. As you inhale slowly and deeply, return to a standing position by rolling up slowing, lifting your head last.
3. Hold your breath for just a few seconds in this standing position.
4. Exhale slowly as you return to the original position, bending forward from the waist.
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
As mentioned in my previous blog post, this is one of my favorite techniques. I find that adding counting to breathing exercises is extremely helpful: it promotes awareness and helps you better control your deep breathing.
Best for: relaxation, stress reduction, & promoting sleep.
1. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
2. Take a deep, slow breath from your belly, and silently count to 4 as you breathe in.
3. Hold your breath, and silently count from 1 to 7.
4. Breathe out completely as you silently count from 1 to 8. Try to get all the air out of your lungs by the time you get to 8.
5. Repeat 3 to 7 times, or until you feel calm.
Mini Relaxation Techniques
Harvard Health compiled a list of relaxation techniques for those who are constantly "on the go". We are very susceptible to everyday stressors, and can experience anxiety while doing seemingly mundane things. These techniques are quick & easy, while affording us huge benefits:
When You Have 1 Minute
Exercise 1: Place your hand just beneath your belly button so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation.
Exercise 2 (my personal favorite): While sitting comfortably, take a few slow, deep breaths and quietly repeat to yourself "I am" as you breathe in and "at peace" as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of the chair.
When You Have 2 Minutes
Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying "10" to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say "nine," and so on. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.
When You Have 3 Minutes
While sitting down, scan your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly. Let your shoulders drop and your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so that there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your legs become heavier and your feet root themselves into the floor. Begin to breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly. Feel yourself relaxing even more with every breath you take.
Did this article resonate with you in any way? Has this made you want to try some deep breathing exercises, or to resume a breathing practice? Let me know in the comments or by email!
Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with any brands or organizations, & receive no compensation for listing them. Anything linked here is either a resource for the article or a product/service that I have tried, tested and firmly believe in.
Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Health Publishing, 2008
Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School, 2019
Perciavalle & al, Neurological Sciences, 2016
How Breathing Exercises Relieve Stress and Improve Digestive Health Dr. Sarah Kisinger, Loyola Medicine, 2017
Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, 2015, updated 2018
Toh & al, Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2012
Jang & al, Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Research, 2012
Fujimura & Lynch, Cell Host & Microbe, 2015