Breathing is a powerful force, without it there is no life. You can survive for hours without water, and days without food, but only minutes without breathing. On average, you will breathe between 18,000-24,000 breaths a day. With that many breaths in a day, you should pay attention to the quality of your breathing. Breathing is a movement pattern, and like any movement pattern, you can have dysfunctional breathing patterns. Faulty breathing patterns can result in negative health outcomes. Something you do all day long has a big influence on how you can feel, think, rest, recover, and move throughout the day.
Proper breathing mechanics does more than just help you during your day, it has a vital role in your overall health. The way you breath can directly influence your:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Stress response
- Brain state
Breathing can be the only aspect of your autonomic nervous system that you can control. Your autonomic nervous system controls the parts of your body without having to think, it is automatic, so control of your blood pressure, heart rate, digestion system, and so on. Your autonomic nervous system can split into two categories, your parasympathetic system and your sympathetic system. Think of your sympathetic nervous system as your fight and flight mode, and your parasympathetic nervous system as your rest and digest mode.
SYMPATHETIC VS. PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Breathing is part of your autonomic nervous system, when you sleep you don’t have to be thinking about it while you sleep. With that said, you can consciously think about your breathing, right now you can hold your breath, slow your breathing or breathe harder. So it’s the one system of our autonomic nervous system that we can control. I bring this up, because the way you breath can directly influence if you are in the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system.
As it was mentioned earlier, the parasympathetic nervous system is your rest and digestion mode. Your parasympathetic nervous system triggers lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower stress hormone production, digestion systems, and anything that promotes rest and recovery. Your sympathetic nervous system will trigger an increase of your heart rate, increase hormones of stress such as cortisol, epinephrine, and increase blood to muscles, and quick release of glucose to the bloodstream. This system is your alert system which allows you to get into a rapid response to a dangerous or stressful situation.
SO HOW DOES YOUR BREATHING INFLUENCE YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM?
If you want to get into the parasympathetic nervous system, the goal is to calm down, get your heart rate and blood pressure to lower. You can do that with your breathing, to be more specific, your exhales. Focusing on a longer exhale than your inhales, and this will help engage your diaphragm more, and get you into that rest and digestive state. You want to do this through your nose, again will help use your primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm, and promotes better breathing mechanics. Nasal breathing will promote better posture, less shoulder and neck tension, less back pain, and better CO2 tolerance. Nasal breathing also forces you to breathe slower, a good way to get into that parasympathetic nervous system.
ISSUES WITH OVERBREATHING
What is overbreathing and why does it matter? Overbreathing does not allow the carbon dioxide (CO2) in your body to rise enough for proper oxygen (O2) exchange. This can lead you to inhale more, which will activate your sympathetic system, which can lead to a stress response that will engage rapid, shallow breathing. This is a vicious cycle with stress, the rapid breathing increases fear, which creates this loop response. Faulty breathing can put you in a chronic state of overbreathing, a more sympathetic state. This can increase and exacerbate your agitation, anxiety, chronic stress and even depression. Your sympathetic nervous system is your body’s response to stressful situations, pumping your body with hormones that makes you alert. If you are chronically in this state, you can expect to increase your risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease, anxiety, depression, and more.
ACTIONS STEPS TO BREATHING BETTER
- Place your hands on the lower portion of your ribs
- Through the nose, inhale and feel ribs be pushed out
- Through the nose, take a longer exhale and feel ribs being pushed down
When you breathe using your diaphragm, you can feel your ribs moving out and coming back in, what you dont want is your shoulders and ribs to move up towards your head. All through the nose, focus on longer exhales than your inhales. Be aware of this when you feel anxious or stressed out, make note of how you are breathing. Make the changes so that your exhales are longer than your inhales. This will take practice of being aware but also just using your nose more to breathe and not your mouth. When you are going to bed, you want to be in the parasympathetic state, so I like to use 4 second inhale, 2 second pause, 8 second exhale, and 2 second pause. Easily I am asleep within 5 minutes. Focus on being more in the parasympathetic system more than your sympathetic system, and watch how much better you recover, better sleep, mood, feeling and moving better. Your breath is powerful, use it to your advantage.