The following information was presented during the Research Panel at the 2019 NQA Annual Conference on Diaphragmatic Breathing. It includes a summary of current research on diaphragmatic breathing.
References - FULL ABSTRACTS
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Breathing. It is something that we all take for granted. It is nothing we really need to think about yet we do it 12-20 times a minute, and over 20,000 times a day. Proper breathing can have a profound impact on your health- more than simply completing the process of respiration. It has effects on almost every major system in your body, including your cardiopulmonary, nervous, lymphatic, digestive, immune, and musculoskeletal systems. But what if I told you most of us are doing it wrong?
When we are babies, we all breathe using our diaphragm. This is known as abdominal breathing or belly breathing. The diaphragm is a large dome shaped muscle that lies at the lower end of our ribs and separates our lungs and heart from the rest of our internal organs. As we breathe in, our diaphragm contracts and pulls down, acting like a vacuum and decreasing pressure in the chest. As we breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and causes us to exhale. On the outside, our belly pushes out as we breathe in, and moves in as we exhale. This allows our lungs to inflate most efficiently, allowing for important exchange of oxygen and nutrients and removal of waste products. However, as we get older, we begin to breathe much shallower. We tend to use muscles in our neck, between our ribs, and our chest. This can lead to neck and shoulder pain as well as intense headaches from over active muscles. In addition, your lungs never get a chance to fully inflate or deflate. This causes your body to retain more waste products and does not allow for circulation of oxygen and important nutrients. Long term shallow breathing can decrease how well your body fights disease and infection, puts more work on your heart, and makes any respiratory conditions much worse and harder to fight.
Combining diaphragmatic breathing with proper posture
Diaphragmatic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, mainly through influence on your vagus nerve. This allows your body to slow down and heal. These effects can lower heart rate and blood pressure, relax muscles, improve digestion, decrease stress, increase energy levels, improve sleep cycles, and enhance mood. Conversely, chest breathing, or shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. This is your body’s stress response. It raises your blood pressure and heart rate, increases muscle tension and respiration rate, increases stress, and decreases energy and mental clarity. When your body is at a high state of stress for long periods of time, your immune system also becomes very inefficient. As time progresses, the build-up of minor, trivial irritations can lead to significant issues like anxiety and depression, and frequent illness and infections.
Through its influence on the parasympathetic nervous system, abdominal breathing is also able to decrease inflammation in the body. Among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in Western societies are heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and sepsis. Chronic inflammation is a significant contributing factor to each of these conditions. Inflammation accelerates deposition of atherosclerotic plaques leading to heart attack and stroke, mediates insulin resistance, stimulates tumor growth, and causes organ damage in lethal sepsis. Additional disorders related to chronic inflammation include central nervous system disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), gastrointestinal disorders, clinical depression, and multiple forms of arthritis.
The “inflammatory reflex,” an anti-inflammatory neural circuit, was discovered in the late 1990’s by LV Borovikova. This neurological mechanism involves the vagus nerve, which can sense peripheral inflammation and transmit signals from the periphery to the brain stem. This then leads to communication with the spleen where pro-inflammatory chemicals are suppressed. Qigong and Tai Chi have also been shown to decrease inflammatory markers such as C-Reactive Protein in the blood, meaning there are less inflammatory processes in the body.
A frequently overlooked benefit of abdominal breathing is that the up and down plunger-like action of the diaphragm when it contracts helps to massage and stimulate our abdominal cavity and digestive organs. Abdominal breathing also plays a role in affecting hormones and emotions which may impact your digestive system. It aids in release of serotonin in the body, which is often referred to as the “happy chemical.” It not only contributes to well-being and happiness but can reduce cravings for processed carbohydrates and other junk food. Abdominal breathing can also aid in weight loss by balancing stress hormones with anabolic hormones.
Unlike your circulatory system which relies on the heart, your lymphatic system does not have its own pump. It relies heavily on motions of muscles and joints, including contraction and relaxation of your diaphragm during breathing, to circulate lymph throughout your body.The lymphatic system is a network of tissues, organs, and vessels that help the body remove toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. Its primary function is to transport lymph which is a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells throughout the body. Lymph flows in the body only one direction — upward toward the neck. Lymphatic vessels connect to two subclavian veins, which are located on either side of the neck near the collar bones, and the fluid re-enters the circulatory system, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Great news! You do not need any special equipment or training to learn how to breathe correctly. Sit up straight in a chair and put your hands on your belly. As you breathe deeply through your nose, feel your belly push your hands out. As you exhale, your belly shrinks and your hands return to the starting position. With practice, this pattern will become automatic and you will be able to do this all day, everyday with no conscious effort. After all, if you breathe over 20,000 times a day, why not do it correctly and take advantage of all of the benefits?