We all know that deep breathing can help us feel calmer, but do you know why exactly? Deep breathing triggers an array of physiological affects that can improve our state of mind and mood in the moment and increase our health over our lifetime.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the physiology behind deep breathing, and how you can use deep breathing to your advantage the next time you’re feeling stressed or as a practice to simply improve your overall health and increase your longevity.
Deep Breathing and Stress Hormones
When we breathe deeply, it triggers a chemical reaction in our brains that helps to reduce stress hormones. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” functions in the body. This has a calming effect on the entire body, helping to reduce stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress, and it’s known as the “fight or flight” hormone because it gives us the energy and strength we need to either fight or flee from a perceived threat. While cortisol is helpful in small doses, too much of it can lead to negative health effects like high blood pressure, weight gain, anxiety, and depression.
The Impact of Cortisol and Why It’s Important to Control Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is released in response to stress and low blood sugar. Cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar levels, metabolism, and blood pressure. In today’s fast-paced world, we are constantly bombarded with stressful situations—from work deadlines to relationship troubles—that keep our cortisol levels elevated far longer than they should be. As a result, high levels of cortisol can lead to a host of health problems.
One of the most well-known effects of cortisol is weight gain. When cortisol levels are constantly high, it can cause our bodies to store more fat, particularly around the midsection. If you find that you’re struggling to lose weight or that you’re carrying more weight around your midsection than you’d like, high cortisol levels could be to blame.
In addition, high cortisol levels can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. If you already have an autoimmune disease, high cortisol levels can make your symptoms worse.
Other effects of cortisol include memory problems/cognitive decline and difficulty sleeping.
How deep breathing can help you decrease stress
Shallow breathing contributes to feelings of anxiety and stress. When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes more shallow and erratic.
Deep breathing is one of the quickest and most effective ways to decrease stress. Deep breathing increases oxygen flow to the brain, which helps to clear away any foggy thinking, as well as releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. Endorphins are natural painkillers that can help to lessen feelings of anxiety and stress. In addition, deep breathing has been shown to improve cognitive function and memory.
Deep breathing also oxygenates the blood, which helps to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the cells in our body. This can help to improve our energy levels, mental clarity, and overall health. As an added bonus, deep breathing helps to reduce inflammation throughout the body.
How to use deep breathing to improve your sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for optimal health and well-being. However, for many people, achieving deep, restful sleep is a challenge. If you’re struggling to get enough quality shut-eye, you might want to try incorporating a deep breathing practice into your nightly routine.
There are many different benefits of deep breathing, but when it comes to sleep, this relaxation technique can be particularly helpful. When you breathe deeply, it sends a signal to your body that it’s time to relax. The long exhalations help to release any tension you may be subconsciously holding in your muscles, and the slow, steady rhythm of deep breathing can help to calm an overactive mind. As a result, you may find it easier to fall asleep—and stay asleep—when you make deep breathing part of your bedtime routine.
To get started, find a comfortable position lying down. You can close your eyes or keep them open, whichever feels more relaxed for you. Slowly inhale through your nose, letting your stomach expand as you fill your lungs with air. Then exhale slowly through your mouth. Continue this pattern of deep breathing for at least 10 minutes, or until you feel drowsy enough to fall asleep. Remember, the goal is not to force yourself to sleep but simply to allow your body and mind to relax.
Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a well-known deep breathing guru. This Dutch athlete offers several free guided breathing sessions if you aren’t sure where to start. Here’s one to get you going:
Do you practice deep breathing? Has this convinced you to start? Let me know in the comments below!