A Guide to Deeper Breathing
What is Breathing?
This may seem like a silly question. After all, if you don’t know what breathing is, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article. But take this moment to inhale a breath of air…. hold it for a second or two… and then exhale. This simple, automatic act is the most important thing you will do each and every day for the rest of your life.
Breathing is what keeps you alive. Breathing is what maintains your health. Take a step back, and you may even realize that breathing is what you have in common with every living thing on the planet.
And yet, as crucial and profound as it is, most of us pay little attention to how we breathe. We’ve put this article together to help you reframe what breathing is, how you can improve your own breathing patterns, and how you can learn to appreciate this simple and beautiful act.
Why Do We Breathe?
From a physiological level, you breathe to bring oxygen into your lungs and expel carbon dioxide, or waste. Your body requires oxygen to function. Oxygen is required to absorb nutrients from your food, to regulate crucial metabolic processes and functions, and to create energy for all your cells.
Benefits of Deep Breathing
We know today that deeper breathing, which allows you to bring more oxygen into your lungs, is one of the simplest ways you can begin improving your health. Deep breathing allows you to:
- Manage stress
- Lower your heart rate and blood pressure
- Oxygenate your blood
- Balance your hormones
- Balance the chemicals in your brain
- Improve how you deal with pain
- Focus and retain information better
- Fall and stay asleep
- Better manage anxiety and depression
Avoiding Shallow Breathing
If you don’t pay attention to how you breathe, chances are you not breathing deeply enough. Your lungs have over 600 million alveoli, and their job is to take oxygen out of the air and move it into your bloodstream. This oxygenated blood then travels to all parts of your body, such as your brain, your heart, and your muscles.
The less you fill your lungs with air, the less oxygen your body has to use to power and support its functions. In a recent study at Peking University in Beijing, researchers found that even short sessions of deep breathing significantly increased activity in the frontal portion of the brain. This is the part of your brain believed to be responsible for cognitive skills, problem solving, emotional expression, judgment, and sexual desire.
In another study, people who couldn’t breathe deeply during sleep and paused between breaths due to a physical condition known as sleep-disordered breathing (SBD) were found to have a significantly higher risk of mortality when compared with normal sleepers. Limiting the amount of oxygen your body has access to affects each of us differently. Nonetheless, regardless of sex, age, and background, the deeper you breathe, the healthier you will be.
Osteopathic Medicine View of Breathing
In the field of osteopathic medicine, your body is viewed as one, interconnected unit. That means everything in the body is connected. All of your tissue planes, connective tissues, muscles, and bones are not separate entities. In osteopathic medicine, nothing in your body is viewed in isolation.
When you breathe, it is not just your lungs that move up and down. All of the tissues, muscles, and bones in your body move to some extent with every breath you take. Your entire body moves and responds to respiration.
In fact, this motion can be seen on imaging, which is why when you have a CAT scan or an MRI, you will often be asked to hold your breath. This is in order to observe which parts fail to move and respond to the act of breathing.
How to Improve Breathing?
Breathing exercises are one of the simplest ways for you start bringing your body back to a state of homeostasis, wherein a balance and harmony exists between the body’s functions.
To start improving your breathing, you must first make it a habit to become conscious of your breathing. Here are some ways you can become more aware of your breathing:
- Begin daily breathing exercises
- Meditate regularly
- Take a yoga or Pilates class
- Set a reminder on your phone to “breathe deeply now”
- Block off time to not be on social media (stress and anxiety cause shallow breathing)
- Limit access to work email outside of work (stress and anxiety cause shallow breathing)
- Subscribe to our daily breathing reminders
Even if breathing has been an unconscious habit for you, do your best to observe your breathing. And when you do think of it, consciously choose to increase the amount of air you inhale and exhale from your lungs.
The Only Breathing Exercise You Need
Although many breathing exercises and techniques exist, the simplest way to start breathing deeply is to simply start breathing deeply. Take in as much air as you can, hold it for 2-5 seconds, and then slowly and completely exhale it from your lungs.
To use a visualization, as you inhale imagine your breath moving all down to the bottom of your spine. As you exhale, imagine the breath moving up all the way to the top of your head.
As you go through your day, when you observe your breathing, take slower and deeper breaths. Remember that it is not about how many breaths you take but rather how deep the breaths you take are.
Breathing in Today’s Society
Research about the benefits of deep breathing and the democratization of health information has encouraged many individuals to start being aware of their breathing habits. Meditation, yoga, and relaxation classes can all help you develop an awareness of your breathing patterns.
If you suffer from lung problems and experience pain when breathing in, speak with your physician before incorporating deeper breathing patterns into your daily routine.
Dr. Dan’s Thoughts on Breathing
One of the things I look for in patients, in particular, those who have been to many practitioners and haven’t found relief, is whether their tissues are responding to breathing. When the tissues can’t respond to that very basic motion of breathing, it signifies an area where I now know we have some significant problems. And that’s usually a good place to start treatment.
Remember, when tissues become stuck and rigid and not moving, that’s when we begin to experience pain. Breathing is one of the simplest ways for you to increase motion in your body. And so I encourage all of my patients to practice deep breathing because it provides motion for your entire body. With each one of those deep breaths, you’re literally mobilizing every cell in your body.
Final Comments and Summary
- Breathing is the most important thing you will do each and every day for the rest of your life.
- Deep breathing allows you to manage stress, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, balance your hormones, deal with pain, and improve your cognitive skills.
- The shallower your breath, the less you fill your lungs with air, and the more you limit the amount of oxygen your body can absorb.
- Research shows those who fail to breathe deeply have poorer cognitive performance and have a significantly higher mortality risk.
- Breathing is one of the simplest ways for you to increase the motion in your body. When tissues become stuck and rigid and not moving, that’s when we begin to experience pain.
- Remember that it is not about how many breaths you take but rather how deep the breaths you take are.
Thank you for reading!
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Dr. Dan Williams is an internationally trained doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) and a certified acupuncture practitioner. Dr. Dan is based out of Indianapolis. You can find more information by visiting drdanielwilliams.com.
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