Why a simple breath is the key to our entire health
- 25 November 2021
We never give it a second thought, because it’s like, well, breathing, but we should pay more attention to the way we inhale and exhale, writes Niki Bezzant.
If we had to think consciously about every breath we take, we wouldn’t be able to do anything else. We breathe without thinking about it. It’s one of the functions of our autonomic nervous system.
But experts say we should pay a bit more attention to how we breathe. It’s something, as emerging research is showing, that affects many aspects of our health.
Physiotherapist Tania Clifton-Smith, an expert on breathing dysfunction, puts it like this in her book, How to Take a Breath:
“Most people don’t know that breathing is also connected with movement, sleep, bowel motions, feelings, thoughts, general health and performance, and voice control. There is more to breathing than just breathing in and breathing out. Breathing is the first step to overall health, movement and wellbeing. In our clinic, we say: ‘Breathing is the conductor of the orchestra’.”
She notes that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance, rejuvenate internal organs, improve snoring, allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease, and even straighten scoliotic spines. Her book is a guide to re-training ourselves to breathe properly in all situations, from sitting still to exercising.
Evidence shows that certain simple breathing techniques can be particularly useful when we’re under stress. It’s been found that diaphragmatic breathing – the practice of breathing deeply and consciously into the belly, rather than the upper chest – can have positive effects on a range of issues, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), depression and anxiety, and chronic insomnia.
That’s not just breathing on its own. It’s diaphragmatic breathing as part of certain types of mindfulness practice or therapy. With IBS, for example, there is good evidence for what’s known as gut-directed hypnotherapy, which includes breathing diaphragmatically. Research has found a programme of gut-directed hypnotherapy can reduce symptoms of abdominal pain, bloating and nausea by up to 72 per cent, similar to the results of some dietary strategies also used for IBS.
Tania Clifton-Smith is a clinician and educator in breathing for health and wellness.
Diaphragmatic breathing is something we are all born knowing how to do, experts say, but it’s another thing we may have unconsciously trained ourselves out of. According to Harvard Medical School, everything from the stresses of everyday life to the practice of holding in our stomachs for a flatter belly can encourage us to gradually shift to shallower, less satisfying “chest breathing”.
When we breathe into our abdomen, we’re encouraging full oxygen exchange, slowing the heartbeat and stabilising blood pressure.
So it makes sense that this can be calming. Health psychologist Fiona Crichton from Mentemia says diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful technique to use when we’re feeling stressed out. In a chronically stressed state, our bodies are in fight-or-flight mode constantly.
“We've got adrenaline in our body, so we will be tense. We’ve got cortisol in our body, which is shutting down the digestion.”
This state of anxiety is actually designed to keep us safe, she says. “But, unfortunately, if it’s happening every day ... it strengthens that neural pathway from the amygdala to the hypothalamus, which sparks the fight-or-flight response.”
This type of ongoing stress is bad news for the body. It’s linked with widespread inflammation and other problems such as an increased risk of heart attacks, a greater risk of depression and anxiety, and even lowered resistance to infections and viruses.
When we practise breathing deeply into the belly, we can calm that whole response down.
“What we're trying to do is to remind the brain that everything's OK”, Crichton says. “We’re reminding ourselves that we're not out in the savannah with the sabre-toothed tiger. It sounds a bit naff, but it’s an amazingly easy strategy.”
Breathing techniques are promoted by many health practitioners, from yoga teachers to physiotherapists such as Clifton-Smith. The “Ice Man”, Wim Hof, uses breathing techniques to prepare himself for his feats of endurance swimming in ice or running marathons barefoot in the snow.
When asked during an episode of Dom Bowden’s podcast Wellbeings, why people were often so quick to disregard breathing techniques as a mental health tool, Hof said he thought there was a lack of knowledge about
For those of us not performing extreme sports, we can simply lower our stress levels and promote our health by regularly taking some deep belly breaths.
Crichton recommends getting into the habit “every time you get up and get yourself a glass of water, or every time you go to the bathroom, just do that slow, deep breathing from the belly.”
Sit or lie somewhere comfortable. Drop your shoulders and lengthen your neck.
Put a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest.
Breathe in gently and deeply through your nose, feeling the breath move into your abdomen and expanding your tummy until you feel full of air. The chest should stay still.
Exhale slowly by blowing out through pursed lips. You should feel your belly soften and lower.
Repeat three or four times, several times a day.