The scientific benefits of good breathing

  • 3 Oct ‘22
  • 3 min.
  • Breath 
  • Editorial OpenUp Medical

“We start life with one breath, and the process automatically continues for the rest of our lives. Because breathing continues under its own power, this does not mean that it always functions optimally. The opposite is often true. The problem with breathing is that it seems so easy and natural that we rarely think about it.”
Dr. Chandra Patel, longarts en auteur.

Every breath affects your state of being. With every breath, your heart rate, digestion, muscle recovery, brain and hormone balance change. Research shows that even the smallest adjustments to our breathing have a positive effect on our body. Physical recovery is accelerated, energy increases and sleep quality improves.

What happens in the body?

That all sounds very nice, but how does breathing actually work? When you breathe in, air flows to your lungs. In the process, oxygen from the air is absorbed into the blood. We use the oxygen in our body and breathe out the oxygen-poor and carbon-rich air (CO2). If you’re thinking ‘no need for more theory, I’d like to start right away’, just jump straight to the end of this blog for some simple exercises.

Breath and our nervous system

Our body has two nervous systems. The central nervous system which, for example, controls our muscles and which we can influence at will, and the autonomic nervous system which controls almost all unconscious functions automatically, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and metabolism. 

This autonomous nervous system consists of an accelerator (sympathicus) and a brake pedal (parasympathicus). The accelerator is there to ensure survival in life-threatening situations and your body uses a lot of energy when in this state. The brake pedal is there to ensure rest after being in a situation that requires a lot of energy. When the brake pedal is activated, your heart rate and blood pressure drop and your organs and muscles get enough oxygen through your blood. In short: rest and recovery. 

As human beings, we are able to use our breathing to press our brake pedal. This means that by breathing correctly you can calm down and reduce stress. In the same way, your breathing can also trigger your accelerator, meaning you ‘turn yourself on ‘. Unfortunately, in many cases we (often unconsciously) breathe in such a way that we press the accelerator, meaning we consume too much energy and take too little rest. 

So how do you ensure you press the brake pedal and can experience more serenity? Simply by breathing out for longer than you breathe in. Note: it’s important you stay relaxed when doing this and don’t force yourself to exhale until you’re red in the face.

How often do you breathe?

The optimal breathing rhythm for the human body is six seconds in and six seconds out (actually, it’s 5.5 seconds, but that makes counting a bit more difficult!). What’s your breathing rhythm? Take a watch, phone or stopwatch and measure how many times you breathe in in a minute. If you breathe more than ten times a minute, there is tension or stress in your body that is making you breathe more rapidly than necessary.  Sit quietly on a chair and relax your body. Try to lengthen your exhalation and keep this up for a few minutes. Your breathing frequency will decrease, which means you are stimulating your brake pedal and thus becoming calmer.

Breathing through the nose

In addition to the frequency of breathing, the way you breathe is also important. Breathing through your nose promotes good health. During nasal breathing, nose hairs clear the air of dust particles. These particles (such as bacteria, fungal spores or viruses) stick to the mucus on the surface of the nasal cavity, windpipe and bronchi. The airflow slows down due to the intricate nasal structures and this stimulates your brake pedal. This means it’s better to breathe through your mouth as little as possible.

Effects of breathing disorders

Disordered or irregular breathing can disrupt physical processes. The following four symptoms can be linked to breathing disorders:

 1. Pain in the shoulders or neck

The auxiliary respiratory muscles are attached to your neck and are designed so you can breathe faster for a short period of time when necessary. If you continually breathe faster than necessary, these muscles become overloaded. You can compare this pain with the muscle pain in your legs after running a long distance. If you rest, the muscle pain will disappear. It is the same with muscle pain in your shoulders or neck: if you breathe more quietly, the pain will disappear.

2. Rushed feeling

The feeling of being rushed and in a hurry is due to accelerated breathing leading to physical tension. You produce too much adrenaline and this generates a restless, agitated feeling.

3. Frequent fatigue

Breathing fast is physically exhausting. When you breathe rapidly, your body uses up your glucose supply (which provides you with energy) more quickly than necessary. The result? You have little energy and crave sugar more often.

4. Intestinal problems

Een verstoorde verhouding tussen zuurstof (wat je inademt) en CO2 (wat je uitademt) in je bloed heeft veel iAn imbalance in your blood between oxygen (what you breathe in) and CO2 (what you breathe out) has a huge impact on your gut. People with disordered breathing often suffer from bloating, flatulence or frequent burping.

Breathing exercises

Fortunately it’s simple to work on your breathing. You’re always doing it! You can practise these three simple techniques at any time of the day. As with diet and exercise, it may take a while before you experience the positive effects. Choose the exercise that’s most suitable for your breathing style.

Exercise for mouth-breathers

– Breathe in through your nose (minimum of 2 sec)

– Breathe out through your mouth and extend your exhalation* (minimum of 4 sec)

– Pause (until you feel the need to breathe in again)

– Breathe in through your nose 

– Breathe out through your mouth and lengthen the exhalation more and more

– Pause

– Repeat 10 times (and work your way up to 50 repetitions daily)

*Lengthen your breathing by giving a little counter-pressure with your exhalation so that your cheeks bulge slightly

 Exercise for nose breathers

– Breathe in through your nose (minimum of 2 sec)

– Breathe out through the nose (minimum of 4 sec)

– Pause (until you feel the need to breathe in again)

– Breathe in through the nose (minimum of 2 sec)

– Breathe out through your nose (minimum of 4 sec)

– Pause

– Repeat this exercise 10 times (and work your way up to 50 repetitions daily)

Deep relaxation exercise

– Lie down quietly with your hands on your belly

– Breathe in through your nose

– Breathe out through your nose (or mouth) and let your shoulders relax

– With every inhalation, your belly rises slightly. With each exhalation, your belly sinks in

– Try to get your breathing more and more from your belly

– Now close your eyes and keep on doing the exercise for 5 minutes

– If you can, extend the exercise (10 or even 20 minutes)

 This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more ways to work on your breathing. Want to know more? Book an introductory consultation!