Opposed to rapid, shallow breathing, deep breathing has been scientifically linked to various health benefits. Today we look at the science of breathing.
The Stress of Modern Living
Modern life is fast-paced and stressful. We increasingly try to accomplish more and more in smaller and smaller divisions of time. As a result, the stress mechanism of our body, the “fight or flight” response, is constantly provoked into activation. Stress builds in our lives, and the end result is tension, anxiety, depression, a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, and ultimately, heart disease. Stress seems to be out of our control, yet we do have some control over our reactions to stress.
Sympathetic Nervous System vs. Parasympathetic Nervous System
Ever notice that when you’re stressed and on the go, breathing can be more shallow and rapid, yet when you’re more relaxed, breathing is deeper and slower? This is because accelerated breathing is regulated by the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated by the stress of the “fight or flight” response. In contrast, relaxed breathing, which is slower and deeper, can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural relaxation response. In a 2010 NPR story on breathing and stress, Dr. Ester Sternberg, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and author of several books on the subject of relaxation, explained the difference using the analogy of a speeding car:
The relaxation response is controlled by another set of nerves — the main nerve being the Vagus nerve. Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake… When you are stressed, you have your foot on the gas, pedal to the floor. When you take slow, deep breaths, that is what is engaging the brake.
Breathing as an Involuntary or Voluntary Function
Breathing is a unique function of the body, as it can be both a voluntary and involuntary function. Whether we are asleep or rushing around, we are not often conscious of our breathing, and it becomes a mostly unconscious involuntary action. Perhaps this is part of our current condition: we are so busy all the time that we forget to breathe. Awareness of our breathing is partially what gives us control and command over our mental/physical health situations. We can choose to voluntarily fill our lungs with air, deeply and slowly breathing in and out. And believe it or not, deep breathing has been scientifically correlated with many health benefits.
The Health Benefits of Deep Breathing
A 2013 feature in Forbes highlights some of the most interesting scientific research on deep breathing. Here are the health benefits of deep breathing that they list with some cited studies:
- Stress management
- Anxiety management – Through deep breathing, this is thought to be accomplished through the release of acetylcholine neurotransmitter by the above-mentioned vagus nerve when the parasympathetic nervous system is initiated. May also help in the management of depression.
- Reduces blood pressure and heart rate – Also a function of the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve. Decreasing blood pressure and heart rate can eventually lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. View studies here and here.
- Stimulation of brain growth – Most observable in older people when deep breathing is utilized in mindfulness meditation. Apparently, mindfulness meditation promotes the growth of gray matter in brain areas related to processing sensory input and attention. View the results of the Harvard study here.
- Modifying gene expression – Studies are showing that deep breathing can transform cellular activity and modify expression of genes related to immune function, energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and stress response. In an NPR interview, Dr. Herbert Benson, who co-authored the studies and penned 1975’s The Relaxation Response, addressed the results: “It does away with the whole mind-body separation. Here you can use the mind to change the body, and the genes we’re changing were the very genes acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress.” The studies can be viewed here and here.
In January of 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an article on deep breathing which featured a new device called Spire. The $150 apparatus straps onto clothing and can track breathing patterns without touching the skin. It alerts users when they are breathing like an anxious or tense person, and includes an app which leads purchasers through a series of brief deep breathing exercises.
Stress evokes shallow, rapid breathing which can precipitate tension, anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure. Deep, slow breathing arouses a relaxation response from the body which counteracts the stress response. Deep breathing has been scientifically linked to such health benefits as stress reduction, decreased anxiety, lowered blood pressure/heart rate, brain growth, and positive alterations in the expression of certain genes.
Updated March 10, 2015
Originally published June 2014