Waiting to exhale

Breathing exercises can be used as a tool to enhance health
Waitingtoexhale
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Did you know that in a 24-hour day you take in and release air some 20,000 times? Breathing is something we do without even being aware of it. But practitioners of the Eastern arts of yoga and tai chi have long insisted that a few moments of conscious, deliberate breathing daily can be a health boon—and western science is starting to agree.

“Breath can definitely be used as a tool to enhance health,” says Victoria Maizes, M.D., executive director of the arizona Center for integrative Medicine, founded by wellness guru andrew weil, M.D. “we now know that by slowing and deepening our breathing we can promote relaxation and affect our physiology in numerous beneficial ways,” she says.

As the doctor explains, most people habitually inhale with only the tops of their lungs, never utilizing the diaphragm. This does not allow enough fresh oxygen to enter cells and circulate through the body. Shallow respiration also means that carbon dioxide isn’t properly expelled, lowering resistance to disease.

We fare better if for at least a few minutes each day we take in oxygen slowly, methodically and belly-deep— evidence suggests doing so can improve health in several ways:

  • Beating stress and anxiety. “If you’re feeling stressed, taking a few deep breaths makes you breathe slower and helps your muscles relax,” says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Conscious abdominal breathing also slows heart rates and stops adrenal glands from producing the stress hormone known as cortisol. This may be helpful to future health in ways that aren’t yet fully proved. Says Dr. Maizes: “Some experts even suggest a link between chronic stress and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Breath work is also used to calm victims of post-traumatic stress disorder and people in the grip of phobias. In a 2008 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, 37 people with longstanding panic disorders were given a biofeed-back device to slow and regulate their breathing. For more than two-thirds of them, panic attacks ceased.

  • Lowering blood pressure. RESPeRATE, an FDA-approved portable electronic device, uses chest sensors to analyze a patient’s specific breathing pattern and then create a personalized “melody” that gradually helps them slow that pattern down from the 14 to 19 breaths per minute most of us normally take into a “therapeutic zone” of less than 10 breaths per minute. It’s been proven that breathing in sync with that slow tune can significantly lower high blood pressure for a time—without drugs.
  • Improving digestion. Heartburn or upset stomach? Deep breathing may help here too, says Dr. Maizes, because the body can only digest food properly when the nervous system is at rest. “If you can activate a relaxation response through deep breathing,” the doctor contends, “you’ll alleviate the shooting aches of indigestion.”
  • Treating debilitating lung conditions. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, asthma and emphysema can’t take breathing for granted as the rest of us do. For them, diaphragmatic breathing is important to improve oxygen saturation. Because of the respiratory limits imposed by COPD, deep breathing isn’t intuitive, but when patients are trained to do it, says Dr. Maizes, they can strengthen their breathing muscles and feel better.
  • Easing menopausal hot flashes. In recent studies, says the doctor, expansive diaphragmatic breathing “has been shown to help shorten hot flashes and reduce their intensity.” Accordingly, the U.S. National Institute on Aging now recommends trying relaxation breathing “if you feel a hot flash coming on or if you need to relax before falling asleep.”

 “Until recently our culture hasn’t put much emphasis on teaching proper breathing techniques, which can help in many wonderful ways,” says Dr. Maizes. “Fortunately, that’s changing.”

'Belly-Deep' Breathing: A How-To

 

'Belly-Deep' Breathing: A How-To

“I use a practice called the 4-7-8 breath, which I learned years ago from Dr. Andrew Weil,” says Victoria Maizes, M.D., executive director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Start by resting your tongue on the roof of your mouth, near the ridge behind your upper front teeth. Exhale fully.
  • Inhale through your nose to the count of four. Hold your breath to the count of seven.
  • Exhale with your mouth slightly open, tongue held in the same position, to the count of eight. Your breath should make a whooshing sound.

“Do this four times in a row, twice each day, and I guarantee it will profoundly
affect your life,” promises Dr. Maizes

3 More Breathing Techniques

1. The bellows breath: Need an afternoon pick-me up? This stimulating technique is a great substitute for a second cup of coffee, says victoria Maizes, M.d.,executive director of the Arizona center for Integrative Medicine. Sit upright with your mouth closed. begin breathing in and out of your nose as quickly as possible. You should hear a panting sound. do this for 10 to 30 seconds at a time—but never exceed one minute, or you may hyperventilate.

2. The runner’s breath: “what moves you when running is your ability to deliver oxygen to your muscle cells,” says Stephen rice, M.d., a sports medicine specialist based in Neptune. “If the blood is not oxygenated you have to do more work, and you waste a lot of fuel.” To keep airways from constricting, breathe through the nose instead of the mouth. Oxygen should also come from the diaphragm rather than the chest, so always take deep belly inhalations in which you can feel the abdomen expand.

3. The yogic breath: “Yoga teaches many styles of breathing, but there is one simple method I find especially useful for obtaining a deep sense of wellbeing,” says yoga guru Georgia balligian, an instructor at bikram Yoga NYC. “Sit with your legs crossed, hands
relaxed at your sides. Inhale slowly through your nose, filling lungs to the maximum. Then exhale slowly, also through your nose. The point of this exercise is to connect your mind with your breath, so try to let go of any worries, thoughts or plans. You’ll feel great—and because oxygen is good for the skin, doing this regularly will help your complexion look great too!”

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