Medical - Is the Way You Breathe Bad For Your Health?

Is the Way You Breathe Bad for Your Health?

By Mark Matousek

It’s among the most important physical functions our bodies perform. We do it about 20,000 times a day. And still, somehow, most of us get it wrong. “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be to learn to breathe correctly,” says Andrew Weil, MD, a well-known pioneer in the field of integrative medicine.

It turns out that getting more oxygen—by simply changing the way we breathe—can facilitate healing from a startling number of serious conditions, including chronic pain, atrial fibrillation, asthma, digestive issues, depression, and a wide range of stress-related illnesses. The secret is to return to a more natural pattern of respiration: Newborns come into the world breathing deeply, but as we age, stress can alter that pattern, and many of us start to breathe more shallowly. By adulthood, on average, we’re taking 15 to 20 breaths per minute—three to four times faster than is optimal.

That’s where the trouble can start. “Rapid, shallow breathing sends a message to our adrenal glands that we’re in fight-or-flight mode, and they begin pumping out stress hormones like cortisol,” explains Brenda Stockdale, Director of Behavioral Medicine at regional and nationally recognized cancer centers. And when the body is stressed, it’s weakened. Our immune cells normally function like “little Pac-Men,” Stockdale explains, “patrolling for and destroying bacteria and diseased cells before they can multiply. But when cortisol levels are elevated, those immune cells slow down drastically, allowing pathogens and diseased cells to slip by.” Fortunately, there are simple methods to reverse our faulty inhale-exhale habits. To get started, try these three exercises:

Diaphragmatic Breathing – Breathing that involves expanding the belly, giving the lungs room to take in more oxygen. This method improves circulation; eases stress-related and anxiety disorders; speeds recovery from chemotherapy. To start:
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Place one hand just below your rib cage and the other on your upper chest.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach pushes against your lower hand.
3. As you exhale through pursed lips, tighten your abs and let them fall inward. (Throughout inhalation and exhalation, the hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.) Do this exercise three times a day for five to ten minutes, then gradually increase that amount. With enough practice, you should begin to breathe this way automatically.

Alternate-Nostril Breathing – A technique designed to promote relaxation. This technique reduces blood pressure; may have an anti-obesity effect, and boosts cognitive function on spatial tasks. To start:
1. With your right thumb, close your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left nostril.
2. Now close your left nostril with your pinky and ring fingers, release your thumb, and exhale slowly through your right nostril.
3. Keep the right nostril open, inhale, then close it; open the left nostril, and exhale slowly through the left. That’s one round. Start with three rounds, and add a round each week until you are up to five. Then practice whenever you’re feeling stressed out.

The Bellows Breath – An exercise aimed at increasing alertness. It provides a boost in energy comparable to the high you feel after a workout. To start:
1. With your mouth closed, inhale and exhale quickly and evenly through your nose. Aim for three in-out cycles per second, but stop after 15 seconds on your first attempt.
2. Keep practicing, increasing your time by five seconds, until you reach a minute. When you feel your energy dipping, try this technique for 60 seconds.

Reprinted with permission. Dr. Andrew Weil and Brenda Stockdale were interviewed by Mark Matousek for this article. Brenda Stockdale, author of “You Can Beat the Odds.”