Breathe Deeply for Better Health

June 9, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

You can’t take breathing for granted. You may think that because it’s automatic, you don’t need to do anything. No, because for most people, automatic breathing is shallow breathing – just enough to keep them going. But you can do so much more by learning (and practicing!) better breathing techniques. But first, let’s look at the benefits of healthy breathing.

Here are just a few examples of what you can achieve with a healthy dose of oxygen by proper deep breathing. Recent studies have shown:

  • Ten minutes of deep, diaphragmatic breathing after a meal reduced blood sugar levels, increased insulin, and decreased production of damaging free radicals.
  • A study with athletes found that deep breathing after an exhaustive training session resulted in less exercise-produced free radicals.
  • Home-based deep breathing training minimized depression symptoms in a group of patients with heart disease.
  • Fibromyalgia patients experienced significantly less pain when using deep, slow breathing.
  • A type of deep breathing used in yoga has been found helpful in treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Deep breathing during yoga practice improved breathing in patients who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • In a clinical trial that compared the effects of mental relaxation exercises with slow breathing on patients who have high blood pressure, the slow-breathing group achieved the best results in reducing blood pressure.

In addition, research with individuals suffering from dysfunctional breathing conditions showed the serious impact of oxygen deficiency. The fallout included an increased risk for older women of developing dementia or cognitive impairment as well as greater risk of death and coronary artery disease among middle-aged and older men.

When we think of breathing, we tend to think of lungs. But your focus for deep breathing should be the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. For most people, taking a deep breath means filling the upper chest with air. But the lungs need more than that. They need an active, engaged diaphragm.

One of the basics of proper breathing involves expansion and contraction of the diaphragm – in other words, letting your tummy stick out. I’ve found that one of the real challenges of teaching people belly breathing is that they’re not accustomed to using their diaphragms. You’ll get the hang of it after just a few practice sessions.

Lie down on the floor, on top of a blanket. Let your back relax into the floor. If that’s uncomfortable, try placing a pillow or rolled up towel under your knees. Keep your shoulders flat, as though you’re standing up straight, and stretch your torso and neck into a comfortable position. Your chest should be open and your back should feel relaxed and comfortable.

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Focus on inhaling through your nose to allow the incoming air to be filtered and warmed on its way to your lungs. Now, place your hands on your tummy. Inhale slowly through your nose. As you inhale, make an effort to push your stomach out, instead of your upper chest. Your hands should feel your stomach lifting. If, like many people, you are not accustomed to using your diaphragm, this may feel strange or uncomfortable at first. Just give it some time and allow your diaphragm to strengthen. Eventually, belly breathing becomes second nature.

When you’ve filled your lungs, slowly squeeze your stomach back in toward your spine, forcing the air out of your lungs as you exhale. We aren’t used to putting much effort into exhaling, so that may need practice. Ideally, it should take longer to exhale than to inhale. Some people prefer exhaling through the mouth, while others like to use the nose. Personally, I think exhaling through the mouth is more effective. But either way, you should hear an audible ‘whoosh’ sound when exhaling. The more air you expel, the more fresh, clean air you’ll be filling your lungs with on the next inhale.

Remember, the trick here is to breath slowly. You should not be breathing hard, as though you’ve run a few miles. It may help to count to 4, 5 or whatever number of seconds you’re comfortable with while inhaling, then trying to extend the exhale a bit longer. This is not a competition, so don’t strain  – just allow your stomach to expand, and, if you can, exhale a bit more slowly.

At first, I recommend practicing for only a minute or two at a time, to let your body become accustomed to the extra oxygen. For some individuals, more oxygen may create a sensation of lightheadedness. If this happens to you, it does not mean anything’s wrong. Your body simply is not accustomed to breathing deeply. Stop and try again later. Eventually, you’ll be able to work your way up to several minutes of deep, slow breathing every day.

If you’re having trouble with the concept, watch a sleeping baby breathing and you’ll see how effortless belly breathing can be. After learning the process, you’ll be able to skip lying on the floor and practice deep breathing at your desk, while watching TV, or making dinner.

Avoid belly breathing in polluted surroundings, such as in the car or in areas near heavy traffic. You do not need lungs filled with those toxins! To make sure the air you breathe at home is healthy and clean, consider growing green plants. An indoor herb garden does double duty in helping you cook real, healthy food.

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