For thousands of years, Yoga practitioners believed that controlled breathing — pranayama — was the path to health and longevity. The term “Pranayama” is Sanskrit for “control of life force.” That force is the act of bringing oxygen into all of our cells. Pranayama practice was considered the most powerful way to heal illness. Now, science has provided tools to understand the complexity of body mechanisms involved in the process of breathing, and has documented the health outcomes of natural breathing – and the diseases that result when we shift from it.
Natural Breathing… and Why We Stray
Breathing happens without conscious awareness. It’s an involuntary reflex that is gentle and rhythmic. We inhale oxygen through our nose, bringing that life force into our upper lungs and into our abdomen. When we exhale, we release carbon dioxide, a.k.a. the “oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange.” When stress inhibits that natural process, shallow breathing results. The breath stops at the chest, drawing only minimally into the lungs. Oxygen never gets past the upper lungs nor into the diaphragm. Yet, the mechanism that brings oxygen deep into your diaphragm is essential to health.
With less oxygen in our systems, the heart – all other organs and cells – are negatively impacted. The mitochondria of the cells utilize respiration to produce ATP, known as the energy currency. ATP enables all cells to function. When ATP is diminished so is the power of the cells. Eventually, the cells can even die.
Activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
Rapid breathing or hyperventilating are signs of shallow breathing. At times, we hold our breath. Anxiety and panic attacks are common results. With shallow breathing or breath-holding, we activate our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the fight or flight response takes over. The sympathetic nervous system is one part of the two-part autonomic nervous system. If short-term activation of the SNS occurs, little damage is done. But, if SNS activation becomes of the sum total of daily life pressures — job demands, traffic jams, hurried meals, family stress — your body suffers. It’s easy for shallow breathing to become a habit. It’s addictive. Over time, our bodies become programmed to breathe incorrectly.
We Become Our Own Predator
The flight or fight response began as an adaptive compensatory mechanism in primitive times when we confronted a predator and needed to run or protect ourselves. It’s a state of hyper-arousal when the brain signals the release of stress hormones that prepare us for defensive action. In contemporary life, these stress hormones translate into yelling in traffic jams, gobbling down lunch, arguing with our partners, to name a few. We are super-charged. Without consciously shifting out of the flight and fight breathing, we remain our own predator — not acting in defense of ourselves. It’s not purposeful but the result is the same. And we are caught in a vicious cycle.
Stress brings shallow breathing. Shallow breathing brings stress. Our bodies tighten. The breathing rate increases. The oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange is diminished. The most common conditions caused by shallow breathing are the obvious feelings of anxiety. Over time additional damage can occur:
Cholesterol is released from the liver into the blood
Excess acidity in the body occurs
Damage occurs within and outside the GI tract
Switching from Sympathetic Dominance to Parasympathetic Dominance The adverse health consequences explain why so many Functional Medicine practitioners incorporate meditation, yoga or deep breathing into their healing protocol. By breathing into the abdomen several times a day for a few minutes at a time, we interrupt the stress response and initiate the relaxation response. We switch from sympathetic dominance into parasympathetic (rest and restore) dominance.
The Vagus Nerve, The PNS and Your Health
The vagus nerve — the largest cranial nerve that runs from the base of the brain into the digestive system — is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It supervises a range of critical functions and communicates to every organ in the body. Your microbiome uses the vagus nerve as the communication pathway between itself and the brain. By switching on the parasympathetic nervous system with deep breathing, yoga or meditation, we activate the vagus nerve’s ability to:
Regulate stress responses
Lower heart rate
Allow blood vessels to dilate more effectively
Improve microbiome function
Deep Breathing: “The Brain Fertilizer” That Grows Neural Connections
Deep breathing changes our brain chemistry, according to neuroscientists at Trinity University in Dublin. It even helps our brains to grow new neural connections. We can focus better, become more positive and less reactive. The scientists in this study concluded that “it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.” They termed deep breathing “brain fertilizer.”
The Magnesphere – Modern Day Pranayama
At the Kellman Wellness Center, meditation and deep breathing has always been part of my protocol. For some patients —with chronic illness, anxiety, stress, PTSD — the Magnesphere Therapy has been enormously helpful. It shifts the body and brain out of sympathetic dominance into the calm, peaceful state of parasympathetic dominance. This is accomplished by stimulating the vagus nerve and producing a balancing effect on the body and mind. A reduction in the impact of chronic stress on your physiology is the result. Although deep breathing and/or meditation is the first line of defense against hyper-arousal, sometimes more is needed. Jump starting the reactivating of the PNS may be necessary or desired.
Further, we are able to track progress over time. The Magnesphere measures your heart rate variability (HRV) —the gaps between each heartbeat. People an innate physiology that allows them to regulate their emotions will have high HRV. Their decision-making and attention abilities will be more efficient. In individuals who are worriers, experiencing chronic stress or suffering from PTSD, HRV is reduced.
After each Magnesphere session, a graph shows the progression from SNS to PNS. Along with helping to diminish the symptoms of chronic illness, the Magnesphere is the latest tool to help prevent the outcomes of chronic stress.
Don’t be your own predator. Our daily lives bring great stress. It’s easy to become a shallow breather. Just become aware – are you breathing rapidly? Is your body tense? Take a time out and spend a few minutes breathing deeply into your abdomen. Do this several times a day and you will notice a change in your ability to handle the stress of daily life. And you will know that you are taking action to avoid disease. Deep breathing and meditation is the way we unite the brain and body. And it’s the way we restore ourselves and regain balance from our stressful lives. Become aware. Be your own advocate.
Wishing you the very best of health, Raphael Kellman, MD References
Melnychuk M, PhD (lead researcher) Yogi masters were right — meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience Science Digest. May 10, 2018
Chesney, Margaret Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever NPR › 2010/12/06
Breit S, Kupferberg A,, Rogler G, Hasler G Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders J. Front Psychiatry 9, 44 2018 Mar 13
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