The Science of Breathwork

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A study from 2018 recently confirmed that breathing slowly and deeply can have a direct effect the parasympathetic nervous system with sensations of slowly breathing in through the nose was found to be instrumental in improving the participants' emotional well-being.

This can make it hard to get the oxygen we need and remain calm in a high-stress situation. There are ways we can work on breathwork and breathing techniques like holding our breath so that we can improve how calmly we handle stress and improving our health overall. We'll discuss how controlled slow breathing and controlled rapid breathing can help us during challenging situations and affect on the body.

The effects of slow breathing

Slow, deep breathing can be used as a way to help us slow down when things get hectic or anxiety-provoking. By taking a moment to practice deep breathing, you're activating your parasympathetic nervous system in order to take over the stress cycle that your sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. This engages the relaxation response in your body and tells it that it's safe and okay to let go of what has been going on around you and calm down. Deep breathing slows down your heart rate and has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and can provide relief from pain.

A study from 2018 recently confirmed that breathing slowly and deeply can have a direct effect on how you feel emotionally. In this case, the combination of activating your parasympathetic nervous system with sensations of slowly breathing in through the nose was found to be instrumental in improving the participants' emotional well-being. Some effects included raised levels of comfort, relaxation, or alertness as opposed to anxiety and depression. In 2012, a study of the impact of breathwork on people with chronic pain was published. The researchers found results to be similar to previous work along with evidence that breath-control healing could help ease stress and enhance resilience. For instance, the study found that participants eliminated depression, tension, anger, and pain perception problems in addition to many other benefits.

Effects of rapid breathing

Rapid breathing can leave us feeling breathless and out-of-sorts. When we're in a challenging situation, it's all too easy to start breathing quickly as if gasping for air. Unfortunately, this type of breathing causes the body to be unable to deliver enough oxygen throughout the body, which can cause one's heart rate and blood pressure to rise dangerously high. However, deep breathing techniques can actually be performed at a fast pace in what is known as controlled rapid breathing so when you're feeling overwhelmed or out-of-sorts by keeping focused and aware of your breath, it can have a positive impact on your body (i.e., clearing harmful toxins from the blood) and mind (i.e., helping bring your brain back into focus).

A 2013 study found that fast breathing exercises helped improve the mood and cognitive functions of their participants. While both slow and fast breathing exercises were shown to reduce stress levels in their test subjects, only a few could improve executive function in the prefrontal cortex like memory, processing, and sensory-motor performance. It was further backed by a 2020 study which found that fast breathing exercises had a positive effect on the right and left prefrontal cortices as well as other areas such as the hippocampus region. The exercises allowed for more oxygen to the brain, which lead to better brain functioning.

What else is breathwork good for?

In addition to the treatment of anxiety and depression, breathwork is also used to strengthen lung and heart health. This might be done through the implementation of breathing exercises that improve lung capacity or blood pressure. Many people also utilize breathing exercises to better regulate their asthma symptoms as well as treat bronchitis, emphysema and other pulmonary issues.

Studies have shown that breathing exercises can help improve our physical health. A study from 2021 showed how respiratory muscle function can be strengthened through regular slow breathing. With this method, patients with COPD also were able to more easily perform a walking exercise. Another study from 2015 illustrated similar results for those performed slow breathing exercises - lowering blood pressure and improving epinephrine levels in the participants who participated in this study as well.

Benefits and Scientific Studies

To help you understand the power of breathwork and how these benefits can be gained, below are the benefits of breathwork that is backed by science.

Lowers your blood pressure

It’s widely reported that practicing breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure, which has a tendency to rise with stress levels. It’s commonly associated with heart attacks and other health conditions. Music is known to help people relax, so researchers from the Society of Behavioral Medicine conducted an experiment in 2001 to determine whether guided breathing exercises could be used effectively as a music therapy technique for lowering blood pressure for eight weeks in hypertensive patients who showed that 10 minutes of breathing exercises daily had effectively lowered their blood pressure.

Stress Reduction

When a person becomes stressed, he may develop anxiety and emotional issues. Our body releases cortisol and triggers our sympathetic nervous system. This is what activates fight-or-flight mode. When we engage in slow breathing, we send a signal to our body that we're safe. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to feel calm and relaxed. A 2018 review backed up the idea of breathing as a way to reduce anxiety. The results showed that the slow, deep breathing exercises practiced help turn on the lateral prefrontal cortex which helps initiate the parasympathetic nervous system. This shows that breathwork is capaple of putting someone out of fight or flight mode.

Reduces Inflammation

When we're under stress, our body becomes prone to inflammation. While it's important to remain in a fighting stance in times of danger and when we're being literal fighters, our body usually gets the wrong idea in terms of being too vigilant about defense-related measures and things can escalate without us having the appropriate insight on how not only to get out of this mode but also to stop it from happening again. Breathwork is most commonly used as a way for people to exit fight-or-flight mode with the end goal of essentially turning off the alarms that tell our body that we're at risk for something potentially harmful by practicing yogic breathing or pranayama. A 2016 proved that practicing breathwork reduced inflammation in the body dramatically.

Helps manage pain

Breathwork can help with pain in an assortment of ways, from reducing chronic, improving your mood and pain tolerance. In 2011, a study was conducted to determine how relaxing breathing exercises might help folks manage their pain. The study found that complete relaxation through shortening, deep breaths caused participants' pain threshold to increase, along with a reduction in negative feelings surrounding the pain and perception of the level of pain they were in. Because it's possible to achieve such benefits when you breathe, it appears as if breathwork may be helpful when it comes to managing chronic pain.

Improved lung capacity

Another big reason many have turned to breathwork is because of how it helps strengthen the lungs. Since all breathwork techniques make use of the diaphragm and respiratory muscles, they’re often viewed as workouts for your lungs – and that means better lung health. Breathwork is often recommended by medical professionals for those looking to improve their lung function and breathing. A 2017 study from Loma Linda University confirmed that diaphragmatic breathing exercises can help improve respiratory function. Participants who practiced diaphragmatic breathing techniques had more improvements in their respiratory functions than those who didn't participate in the sessions. This suggests an improvement in their ability to not only intake and exhale air, but also a complete overall ability to breathe better as a result.

Improves sleep

Insomniacs and people who have trouble falling asleep will benefit from practicing breathwork. Since its well documented that breathwork helps you to relax, it will also help you sleep. A study conducted in 2020 proved that breathwork was effective in helping hospital patients improve their sleep quality. The study showed that patience who practiced breathwork daily over the course of a week showed great improvements in sleep compared to the controlled group. The study proved that breathing exercises were effective at improving sleep and reducing the occurrence of delirium.

Boosts immune system

Daily breathwork can help maintain and boost your immune system. When we are stressed and our sympathetic nervous system is activated for prolonged periods of time, it weakens our immune system. With breathwork, more oxygen is entered into our body that energises our cells and improves your immune system significantly. A 2015 study published in Behavioural Sciences on Excessive Stress, Immunity and Disease found that stress may actually impair the functioning of our immune system. The study showed that psychological stress resulting in us entering into a fight-or-flight mode too regularly can actually reduce the ability of B cells within our bodies to respond to foreign invaders. Consequently, it is important for us to lower our stress levels by participating in activities we enjoy so as not let them break down further than they already have. After all, whom would want their immune system breaking down when germs are continuously trying to make them sick?

Energy Booster

Breathing exercises are great for increasing blood flow. When we breathe, our system may take in more oxygen, which helps strive the body’s mainly system of activity, and thus causes us to become more energized than before. The breath improves a plethora of bodily activities, and there is no doubt that it can dramatically increase the amount of energy we gain from the energy sources we already consume. An Indian study that was conducted in 2018 found that pranayama breathwork helped undergraduate students improve their energy levels. Out of the whole of the sample population, participants who participated in pranayama courses were found to have had greater results than those who took meditation-focused yoga lessons. This research supports the theory that the act of focusing on one's breath has a direct impact on improving energy levels and productivity.

Focus like a laser beam

Need more brain power and clarity of thought? Well, breathwork is a fantastic way to improve your focus. When we are stressed or anxious, we diminish our capacity to focus, which is why when we practice breathwork, we turn off our fight-or-flight part of our brain, which calms our thoughts and allows us to focus on the task at hand. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah in 2017 has begun to demonstrate the link between diaphragmatic breathing and attention span. Based on the results, it was believed that the reduction of stress levels helped participants return to a calm state of mind, allowing them to focus on other things aside from the stressors they may find themselves contending with throughout their days. While more research is needed, it's been hypothesised that breathwork like diaphragmatic breathing could be used as an alternative way to battle stress and anxiety, which in turn may lead to an improvement in one's overall focus and ability to concentrate for longer periods of time without becoming as easily distracted or fatigued as you normally would, experiencing fewer issues maintaining your level of concentration when trying to keep one thing steady while focusing on another simultaneously.

Gets you shredded

Breathing techniques make use of diaphragm and respiratory muscles to increase muscle tone and help combat stiffness. You can either use the techniques to target specific muscles in the body or make them a standard part of your workout routine to help build overall body strength and circulation. In a 2017 study, researchers recruited 57 patients and split them into two groups. One group participated in breathing exercises combined with diaphragm taping for 3 months to help strengthen their muscles whereas the control was monitored for muscle tone changes. The participants who practiced breathing exercises along with taped diaphragmatic stimulation experienced significant improvements in all measured muscles as compared to the control group, suggesting breathwork is helpful in improving muscle tone.

If you are interested in a breathwork session or online breathwork training, feel free to book a discovery call today.

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Written by

Sarah Michaels

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