Why breathing is more than just air in your lungs

Breathing. I’m sure you’re a little tired of everyone always telling you to focus on breathing to help your body relax.
I used to get so annoyed by this. “I know how to breathe! I breathe everyday and I’m pretty good at it! Heck I’m even a running so I probably have better breathing than most!” Or so I thought (turns out I was wrong about having better breathing!)

Breathing is a vital function that sustains life by bringing oxygen into our bodies and removing carbon dioxide. However, breathing is more than just a mechanical process. It also plays a crucial role in regulating our physiological and emotional responses, as well as our overall well-being.

The connection between breathing and our physical and emotional health has been recognized by many cultures for centuries. In fact, the ancient practice of pranayama, a form of yoga that emphasizes breath control, is based on the belief that the breath is the bridge between the body and the mind.

But my experience with breathing was mostly with the patients in the Intensive Care Unit that I worked in. I worked with patients who were on ventilators, or breathing machines. I worked closely with physicians and respiratory therapists to help patients function and walk while on these machines, as well as how to safely wean off of them to do everyday activities while breathing on their own. So my perspective on breathing was purely medical and physiologically driven. Get oxygen in, push carbon dioxide out while participating in everyday activities, without passing out. Once a patient accomplished this, we celebrated and send them out of the ICU. I see now how little I actually knew about the power of breathing. How the time on the ventilator likely messed with our patient’s mental, emotional, and physiological state. Breathing was much more than just sustaining life, it was the essence of all aspects of life.

Modern research has confirmed the importance of breathing in regulating our mental, emotional, and physiological health. Here are some reasons why breathing is more than just getting oxygen into your lungs:

  1. Regulation of the autonomic nervous system: The autonomic nervous system controls many of our involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic nervous system promotes relaxation and calmness. Breathing rate and depth are closely linked to the activity of these two systems, with slow, deep breathing activating the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and fast, shallow breathing activating the sympathetic (stress) nervous system. Breathing really is the main link between our voluntary and involuntary stress and calming systems! It’s a huge way we can tap into our body’s subconscious and automatic responses.

Research has shown that slow, deep breathing can reduce stress and anxiety by promoting relaxation and reducing the activity of the sympathetic (stress) nervous system. It can also increase heart rate variability, which is a measure of the flexibility of the autonomic nervous system and an indicator of overall health and well-being.

  1. Physical benefits: Breathing exercises can also have physical benefits, such as improving lung function, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure. For example, diaphragmatic breathing, which involves deep breathing that engages the diaphragm, has been shown to improve lung function and reduce inflammation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Deep breathing can also lower blood pressure by reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and promoting relaxation of the blood vessels.
  2. Mind-body connection: Breathing is an important component of many mind-body practices, such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi. These practices often emphasize slow, deep breathing as a way to quiet the mind and cultivate a sense of inner peace and well-being. Research has shown that these practices can reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, and enhance overall well-being.

One of the most fascinating aspects of breathing is its connection to the limbic system, a group of brain structures involved in emotions, motivation, and memory. While the limbic system is not directly responsible for controlling breathing, it can influence our breathing rate and depth through its connections to the autonomic nervous system.

For example, when we experience strong emotions, such as fear or anxiety, the limbic system can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the “fight or flight” response and increases our breathing rate and other physiological responses. Conversely, slow, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and calmness. The limbic system can also play a role in regulating this response, by processing sensory information from the lungs and respiratory muscles and modulating the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.

So yeah, breathing is much more than just getting oxygen into your lungs. It plays a crucial role in regulating our physiological and emotional responses, as well as our overall health and well-being. By becoming more aware of our breath and practicing deep breathing exercises, we can improve our physical and emotional health, promote entire system relaxation, and enhance our sense of well-being.

References:

Oneda, B., Ortega, K., Gusmão, J. et al. Sympathetic nerve activity is decreased during device-guided slow breathing. Hypertens Res 33, 708–712 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/hr.2010.74

Noppawan Charususin, Sauwaluk Dacha, Rik Gosselink, Marc Decramer, Andreas Von Leupoldt, Thomas Reijnders, Zafeiris Louvaris & Daniel Langer (2018) Respiratory muscle function and exercise limitation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a review, Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine, 12:1, 67-79, DOI: 10.1080/17476348.2018.1398084

Ravinder Jerath, John W. Edry, Vernon A. Barnes, Vandna Jerath, Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system, Medical Hypotheses, Volume 67, Issue 3,
2006, Pages 566-571, ISSN 0306-9877, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042.

Porges SW. The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleve Clin J Med. 2009 Apr;76 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S86-90. doi: 10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17. PMID: 19376991; PMCID: PMC3108032.

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