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Controlled, purposeful breathing plays an important role in some of the most calming experiences on Earth — like meditation and yoga. You may also find yourself taking a long deep breath almost instinctively as a way to relax and center yourself, particularly just prior to or during stressful situations.
New research has revealed, however, that breathing may directly affect your brain activity, including your state of arousal and higher-order brain function.1
How Calm Anxiety with Controlled Breathing Techniques
Breathing is initiated by a cluster of neurons in your brainstem. In an animal study, researchers were attempting to identify different types of neurons (out of a group of nearly 3,000) and identify their role in breathing function.
They were focused on the pre-Bötzinger complex (or preBötC), which is known as the breathing pacemaker (and has been identified in humans as well as mice).2
The researchers further honed in on 175 neurons in the breathing pacemaker, which they then “silenced” or essentially eliminated in the mice, with the expectation that this would alter their breathing patterns.
NPR quoted study author Mark Krasnow, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine, who said, “We expected that [inactivating the neurons] might completely eliminate or dramatically alter the breathing pattern of the mice.”3
However, this did not occur. The mice had no changes in their breathing patterns after the neurons were knocked out. What did occur, surprisingly, was that the mice “had become chill. Mellow fellows,” Krasnow said.4
The study noted, “We found a neuronal subpopulation in the mouse preBötzinger complex (preBötC), the primary breathing rhythm generator, which regulates the balance between calm and arousal behaviors.”5
In turn, the researchers found that these neurons positively regulate neurons in a brainstem structure called the locus coeruleus, which is linked to arousal.
It is, in other words, the formerly hidden link between breathing rate and emotional state, at least in mice. Study coauthor Jack Feldman, distinguished professor of neurology at UCLA, told The Verge:
“It’s a tie between breathing itself and changes in emotional state and arousal that we had never looked at before. It has considerable potential for therapeutic use.”6
While the creation of drugs to target this brain region is likely part of the agenda, there are natural methods already known to do so. Controlled breathing, or pranayama as it’s known in the practice of yoga, is a central part of many ancient traditions.
There’s a Reason You Can Alter Your Breathing Rate
Many bodily processes, like digestion and blood flow, are completely involuntary. They happen whether you want them to or not, and you can’t readily control how or when they occur. This is not so with breathing, which is a major clue that taking back control of your breathing may be a key way to alter your health for the better.
Your body breathes automatically, but it’s both an involuntary and a voluntary process. You can alter the speed and the depth of your breathing, for instance, as well as choose to breathe through your mouth or your nose. What’s more, these choices lead to physical changes in your body.
Short, slow, steady breathing activates your parasympathetic response while rapid, shallow breathing activates your sympathetic response, which is involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones. As noted by Krasnow in Time:7
“This liaison to the rest of the brain [discovered in their Science study] means that if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyperactivate the brain. So, you can calm your breathing and also calm your mind.”
Controlled Anxiety Breathing Techniques May Work as Well as Antidepressants
Modern research suggests the benefits of controlled breathing are real and may improve health conditions ranging from insomnia and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
In a preliminary study presented in May 2016 at the International Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health in Las Vegas, Nevada, researchers found 12 weeks of daily yoga and controlled breathing improved symptoms of depression similar to using an antidepressant.
Not only did the participants’ symptoms of depression significantly decrease, but their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter, simultaneously increased.8
Controlled breathing exercises have also been found to modify stress coping behaviors and initiate appropriate balance in cardiac autonomic tone, which is a term that describes your heart’s ability to respond to and recover from stressors.9
Also intriguing is a 2016 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which found yogic breathing reduces levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva.10 It’s yet one more example of why yoga breathing has been intertwined in health and spiritual practices for centuries.
Breath Work Increases Your Resilience to Stress
Pranayama has long been considered fundamental in promoting physical well-being, and now research is bearing this out.
In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers even reviewed data showing breath work may positively influence longevity, while yoga breathing may be beneficial in the treatment of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and for victims of mass disasters.
“By inducing stress resilience, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering,” the researchers concluded.11 Physically speaking, the results are equally impressive.
Among patients with cancer receiving chemotherapy, for instance, yoga breathing was found to improve sleep disturbances, anxiety and mental quality of life. The more the patients used pranayama, the greater were their improvements in chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life.12
There Are Many Types of Controlled Anxiety Breathing Techniques
There are many ways to control your breathing, from changing from mouth breathing to nose breathing to altering depth or speed. The New York Times suggested coherent breathing as another option, in which you breathe at a rate of five breaths per minute (or inhale/exhale to the count of six).
They also described the “HA” breath to help energize your body, which involves inhaling, then exhaling quickly while saying “ha” out loud.
Then there are breathing exercises called Sudarshan Kriya (SK), which is a type of rhythmic breathing used during the practice of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY). Such breathing practices range from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating.
For instance, during SKY you may engage in ujjayi breathing, which is slow breathing of three cycles per minute, followed by bhastrika, or rapid exhalation at 20 to 30 cycles per minute, followed by SK, which is breathing in a slow, medium and fast cycles.15 According to the International Journal of Yoga:16
“There is mounting evidence to suggest that SKY can be a beneficial, low-risk [and] low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.”
Beyond stress and anxiety relief, “Studies have demonstrated that SK can play an important role in promoting a healthy lifestyle by improving immunity, antioxidant status, hormonal status and brain functioning,” according to research published in the journal Advances in Mind-Body Medicine.17
Yet another study in the World Journal of Clinical Cases concluded SK and other breath-based medication sequences have “the potential to help develop an individual’s self-awareness and support better integration of the brain (i.e., mind) with other organ systems (i.e., body) for enhanced human performance.”18
Have You Tried Nose Breathing?
When many people think about controlled breathing, they think about taking big deep breaths — but there’s much more to it than this. One important consideration, according to the Buteyko Breathing Method, is to make a conscious effort to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth.
In the video above, Patrick McKeown, one of the top teachers of the Buteyko Method, examines dysfunctional breathing patterns associated with asthma, rhinitis and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, and details the scientific rationale for improving your breathing habits.
When you stop mouth breathing and learn to bring your breathing volume toward normal, you have better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain. Factors of modern life, including stress and lack of exercise, all increase your everyday breathing.
Most people believe that taking bigger breaths through your mouth allows you to take more oxygen into your body, which should make you feel better and more clear-headed. However, the opposite actually happens. Deep mouth breathing tends to make you feel light-headed, and this is due to eliminating too much CO2 from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict. So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen is actually delivered throughout your body.
And, contrary to popular belief, CO2 is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it’s important to maintain a certain amount of it in your lungs — and for that you need to maintain a normal breathing volume.
When too much CO2 is lost through heavy breathing, it causes the smooth muscles embedded in your airways to constrict. When this happens, there is a feeling of not getting enough air and the natural reaction is to breathe more intensely. To remedy the situation you need to break this negative feedback loop by breathing through your nose and breathing less.
Try This How to Calm Anxiety
One of the most effective Buteyko breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety does not involve taking deep breaths at all but, rather, focuses on small breaths taken through your nose, as follows:
Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
Breathe normally for 10 seconds
Repeat the sequence
Now that we have more insight into how altering your breathing leads to direct changes in your brain that affect your mental state and mood, knowing how to harness this stress-busting power becomes all the more important. With that in mind, the following steps, detailed by McKeown, can also help your breathing, and likely your mood, to become lighter.
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly; feel your belly move slightly in and out with each breath, while your chest remains unmoving.
Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. Focus your attention on the cold air coming into your nose and the slightly warmer air leaving it on the out breath.
Slowly decrease the volume of each breath, to the point it feels like you’re almost not breathing at all (you’ll notice your breath getting very quiet at this point). The crucial thing here is to develop a slight air hunger. This simply means there’s a slight accumulation of carbon dioxide in your blood, which signals your brain to breathe.
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