You may not think the mundane act of breathing could be a powerful influencer of health and disease, but there are many instances where a breathing pattern disorder is a major contributing factor to chronic illness.
The rate, depth, and intensity of respiration all can have a profound effect on the nervous system, which in turn regulates heart rhythm, stress hormone release, and digestive function.
Respiration is a marvel of physiology. Taking place between two aspects of the nervous system, respiration is one of the few physiological functions that can be completely automatic or voluntary. It is not necessary to think about breathing, but we can choose to alter our breathing in a number of ways. This makes breathing a doorway into nervous system function.
When an acute stress response is triggered, one of the early signs that your body has activated the sympathetic (fight-flight-fright) response is rapid breathing. As epinephrine enters the bloodstream, the heart races and sweating may occur. If you were to consciously slow your breathing, you can nip the stress response in the bud, blunting the cascade of events that precede a prolonged elevation of stress hormones.
As a preventative strategy, regulating your breath can influence vagal nerve tone, creating a resiliency in many systems of the body. Practicing a shift to slower, softer, more even breathing bolsters the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, optimizing circulation, immunity, and endocrine health.
The best place to begin is to bring consciousness to your breath at several moments during your day. Are you breathing softly through your nose or noisily through your mouth? Whenever possible, breathing should occur through the nose, even during vigorous exercise. The nose slows, filters, and warms air before it reaches your lungs.
Does your belly rise and fall gently or are your shoulders rising with each inhalation? Breathing should come from the diaphragm, resulting in a gentle rising of the belly and widening of the lower rib cage as you inhale. This movement reinforces peristalsis within the intestines just below in the abdominal cavity.
Is your breathing even or erratic? Asthmatics tend to breathe higher in their chest, activating the neck muscles as they struggle to breath. Training yourself to consciously slow and steady your breathing is not difficult; it just takes time to form this new habit.
The one area where this becomes difficult is during sleep, when we abandon conscious control over our breathing. Snoring and sleep apnea are conditions of imbalance that go on to create further imbalance. Mouth breathing (day or night) causes an excess loss of carbon dioxide, shifting the efficiency with which oxygen can be released from red blood cells in what is known as the Bohr effect.
Although not very glamorous, the best strategy to counter nighttime mouth breathing is to apply a piece of gentle paper first-aid tape across your lips. It is not a perfect solution but generally prevents sleeping with the mouth agape. Please note that this method does not take the place of a CPAP machine, which pressurizes the air through the mouth and nose (effectively circumventing the issue of mouth breathing).
Although it sounds odd, taping your mouth so that you breathe through your nose can result in a more restful, deeper sleep. No longer will you wake with a dry mouth or startle in the middle of the night from snoring loudly. A bonus to taping your mouth shut before bed is that it tends to get a good laugh from one’s spouse.
There are more advanced techniques of breath control, such as the ayurvedic science of pranayama. If you are interested, find a qualified yoga teacher who can provide detailed instruction, especially when breath holding is involved.
Everyone can benefit from improved breathing. Start by avoiding mouth breathing. From there, focus on each breath becoming more soft, quiet, and even. Experience a better way to breathe, and you will empower your health in a subtle yet enduring way.