Breathing is something we do every day without thinking. Now, research shows that breathing could hold the secret to significantly improved health.
However, not all breathing is equal. While long associated with yoga and meditation, taking deep, conscious breaths may provide more benefits than just relaxation.
Deep breathing may help decrease stress, improve mental health, reduce blood pressure, and even reduce the symptoms of certain lung conditions.
Is breathing a cure-all? Let’s dive into the research.
Breathing is a critical bodily function. The process operates in two main phases. The first, known as “inspiration,” occurs when we breathe in.¹ As we breathe in, the diaphragm — a dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs — contracts to increase the volume of the chest to allow air to flow in. Oxygen from the air is then supplied to the tissues around the body.
The second phase, “post-inspiration,” occurs as we exhale, whereby the diaphragm releases and allows air to leave the lungs. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of the breathing process, is exhaled from the lungs.
While it’s something we typically don’t think about, breathing is unique. That’s because it’s one of the body’s few unconscious functions that can also be controlled consciously. This means we have the power to change our breathing for the better.
It turns out that many of us may not be taking optimal breaths. As children, proper breathing is something we do naturally. As we get older, though, due to stress and the desire for a slimmer waistline, among other factors, we take in shallower breaths into the chest only.
Shallow breaths can lead to less-than-ideal health.
Significant evidence now shows that diaphragmatic breathing could be the answer. But what is diaphragmatic breathing?
Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking long and slow breaths into the belly. By doing this, the diaphragm contracts and pushes down when we take a deep belly breath. The abdominal muscles assist the diaphragm in moving downwards, which is why the belly is an essential part of taking a deep breath.
When we take a diaphragmatic breath, the result is a complete and satisfying oxygen exchange.² However, when we take a breath without extending the belly, the result is shallow breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is helpful for a range of reasons. It can help³ to:
Reduce oxygen demand
Reduce the effort required to take breaths
Make the diaphragm stronger
Slow the breathing rate
Ultimately, using your lungs to their total capacity can boost their efficiency and play a critical role in overall well-being.
Long, slow breaths are associated with a range of relaxing practices and traditions, including meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, and yoga. Now, science appears to back up what traditions have long believed — breathwork can reduce stress.
First, it’s essential to understand what happens to our bodies during stress. When we are stressed or anxious, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. This puts the body into the fight–flight–freeze response. This response prepares the body to handle a stressor in the environment.
This is noticed in the body via some or all of the following:⁴
Increased heart rate
Raised blood pressure
Increased attention, alertness, and vigilance
This can be incredibly helpful if there is a physical threat in the environment. The problem is that physical threats typically don’t endanger our lives in our modern world. Managing that stress response then is essential for daily living so that our bodies don’t overreact to everyday, non-life-threatening stressors.
The body engages the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the fight–flight–freeze response. This helps relax the body and is otherwise known as the rest-and-digest response.⁵
Deep breathing can help engage the parasympathetic response. This operates through the vagus nerve, which links the brain with various organs, including the heart, lungs, and gut.
When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it helps induce calm in the body. It results in:
A slowed heart rate
Decreased blood pressure
Feelings of calm
Research appears to back up the theory that deep, slow breathing can reduce stress and anxiety.
A 2015 study, for example, treated 69 patients with anxiety or depressive disorders. Breathing training involved different techniques, including abdominal breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and yoga stretches.⁶
The result was a significant reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms. More importantly, home practices maintained those improvements in a six-month follow-up.
A 2019 systematic review also found diaphragmatic breathing had a positive effect on lowering both physiological and psychological stress.⁷ They also found that breathing exercises could be a no-cost and simple way for some patients to manage psychological stress.
The study authors noted:
“The evidence suggests that diaphragmatic breathing may decrease stress as measured by physiologic biomarkers, as well psychological self-report tools. Given the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing on stress reduction, ongoing research is needed to continue to establish the evidence-base for this self-administered, low-cost, non-pharmacologic intervention.”
A 2020 review⁸ on the effects of diaphragmatic breathing also found that deep breathing was effective in helping reduce stress, hypertension, and anxiety, among other disorders.
It’s not just reductions in anxiety and psychological stress. Breathing might help lower blood pressure too.
High blood pressure is a serious health issue. Experiencing elevated blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for Americans.⁹ Unfortunately, high blood pressure is a prevalent issue, with 47%, or 116 million adults, in the United States affected.¹⁰
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg.¹¹
A 2022 study¹² engaged participants in breathing training for the diaphragm. They found that doing so helped lower blood pressure and boost heart health. That was just after six weeks of training. The reductions in blood pressure were significant. Systolic blood pressure was reduced by 9 mmHg, while diastolic blood pressure was lowered by 4 mmHg.
The findings are very significant. A reduction in systolic blood pressure by 10 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure by 5 mm HG can reduce the risk of stroke by roughly 35–46% for some adults.¹³
Breathing exercises may also be helpful for those who experience asthma and other conditions.
A review by not-for-profit health organization Cochrane found that breathing exercises — practiced mainly through yoga, pranayama, and deep diaphragmatic breathing — were helpful for lung health.
Breathing exercises positively affected the quality of life, hyperventilation symptoms (over breathing), and lung function in adults with mild and moderate asthma.¹⁴
Breathing exercises can also be highly beneficial in other lung conditions. For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be improved by taking slow, deep breaths that engage the diaphragm, according to the American Lung Association.
The organization states:
“If practiced regularly, breathing exercises can help rid the lungs of accumulated stale air, increase oxygen levels and get the diaphragm to return to its job of helping you breathe.”¹⁵
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis also found that quality of life and breathing can be improved in people experiencing COPD when diaphragmatic breathing is practiced.¹⁶
Diaphragmatic breathing has been commonly studied and associated with health benefits.
Ready to reap the benefits? It’s essential to chat with your physician first to ensure altering your breathing is appropriate for you.
It’s also vital to perform breathing techniques seated or lying in a safe place and never in water, while driving, or operating other machinery.
Here’s how to perform diaphragmatic breathing.
Lie on your back or sit upright in a chair.
Place one hand on your upper chest.
Place the other hand at the base of your ribs.
Take a deep, slow breath into the belly.
Aim to keep the chest as still as possible.
Breathe out slowly by contracting the abdominal muscles.
Repeat the cycle for five to ten minutes.
It’s not just diaphragmatic breathing that appears to be beneficial. In the studies discussed, a range of different breathing techniques was observed as being beneficial.
So which is the most powerful? Until there’s further research on the topic, the question might be less about which is best for your health but, rather, which feels best for you. If you find the effect of a breathing exercise relaxing and your doctor agrees it’s suitable for you and your health, then it’s likely a good option.
Here are some other breathing techniques to try.
An ancient yogic practice, alternate nostril breathing involves closing off one nostril at a time to breathe slowly and consciously in a circular motion.
A 2017 study¹⁷ found that alternate nostril breathing helped reduce stress. The participants performed alternate nostril breathing for 15 minutes before a public speaking exercise. The result was less anxiety.
Here’s how to perform alternate nostril breathing.
Gently rest the ring finger on one nostril while resting the thumb of the same hand on the other nostril.
Press onto the right nostril to close it and breathe just into the left nostril.
Once you’ve inhaled fully, close the left nostril and open the right side.
Breathe out fully through the right nostril.
Breathe in fully through the right nostril, close the right nostril and open the left nostril to breathe out.
Repeat the process continuously for a few minutes.
Many who suffer from a racing mind find box breathing to be enormously helpful. It slows the rate of breath while bringing awareness to the breathing cycle. It also gives the mind something to concentrate on.
Box breathing is performed by:
Breathing in to the count of four
Holding the breath to a count of four
Breathing out to the count of four
Once again, holding the breath to the count of four
Repeating the cycle for a few minutes
Another helpful technique for those with racing minds or feelings of anxiety is to lengthen the exhale. This helps slow down the rate of breathing while engaging the rest-and-digest response.
Perform prolonged exhales by:
Breathing in to the count of three
Holding the breath for a moment
Breathing out slowly to the count of seven
Repeating the exercise for a few minutes
It’s important to recognize that while breathing can be an incredibly powerful tool, it’s not a cure-all. Although scientific studies show many benefits, more research is needed in this area.
While breathing exercises can be helpful for various conditions — including asthma, anxiety, and high blood pressure — breathing exercises alone should not be relied on.
It’s essential to use conscious breathing as a complementary therapy alongside other recommendations from your physician. In some cases, breathing exercises could even make a condition worse if performed incorrectly. Or, for people with a respiratory condition, fatigue could temporarily worsen symptoms. That’s why speaking with a health professional is essential before starting something new.
Overall, for most healthy people, paying attention to how we breathe can be enormously powerful. Breathing deeply into the belly can provide a much more satisfying breath. It can also induce calming effects for milder forms of stress — a useful tool in our busy, technologically-advanced world.
While it’s something we do every day, there could be more power to our breath than we realize. Slight adjustments to how we breathe can boost our health in several ways.
Many adults take shallow breaths into their chests. Deep breathing into the belly may improve our health, including improving our lung capacity and health and reducing asthma symptoms.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to breathing exercises. A range of different breathing techniques has been observed as beneficial. These include yogic breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and alternate nostril breathing. It’s best to find a method that works for you.
While it might not be a cure-all, deep breathing may offer a safe, cost-free alternative to some therapies. And, given it’s simple to do from home, it could be worth trying. Just remember that before engaging in a new regimen, it’s always important to chat with your physician first, especially if you have health concerns about your lungs.
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Diaphragmatic breathing | Cleveland Clinic
Physiology, stress reaction (2022)
Anti-anxiety efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga in general anxiety disorder: A multicomponent, yoga based, breath intervention program for patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder with or without comorbidities (2015)
High blood pressure | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Facts about hypertension | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
High blood pressure symptoms and causes | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Breathing exercises for asthma | Cochrane
Breathing exercises | American Lung Association
Chloe Garnham is a writer exploring a broad range of topics, including healthcare, education, and technology.
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