Published on: January 15, 2020
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Has anyone ever suggested that you take a deep breath to help you relax when you are feeling anxious or stressed? That advice has roots in the wisdom of ancient yogic teachings. Breathing – that is, observing or modifying the breath in some way – is an important part of most meditative practices, and different types of breathing techniques elicit various physical, emotional, and mental responses.
Slow, deep breathing can be used to calm both the mind and the body.
Engaging in slow, deep breathing has become a common tool for dealing with a myriad of physical and mental conditions. It is an intervention that has minimal to no side effects, and has low to zero cost. Additionally, it can be done in a short amount of time almost anywhere, making it a practical and accessible option.
Not surprisingly, then, breath work has expanded beyond yoga studios and is now being taught by doctors, counsellors, and other health professionals, who are familiar with the growing body of scientific research that is supporting what ancient wisdom has been telling us.
Slow Breathing Lowers Blood Pressure
Researchers in the U.S. recently conducted a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials in order to learn more about the effect of slow breathing interventions on blood pressure. Dr. Ashish Chaddha and colleagues reviewed over 100 academic papers on the subject and included 17 studies in the meta-analysis (which pools results and analyzes them collectively).
All 17 studies involved a slow breathing intervention that had participants take ten or fewer breaths per minute, for five or more minutes, on at least three days each week, for a minimum of four weeks. (On average, people tend to breathe about 15 to 20 times a minute naturally.)
Each of the studies had a control group for comparison. The meta-analysis showed that the participants who took part in the slow breathing interventions experienced a modest reduction in blood pressure – an average reduction of 5.62 mmHg in systolic blood pressure, and 2.97 mmHg in diastolic blood pressure. These findings were published in the August 2019 issue of Complementary Therapies in Medicine.
A different group of researchers – Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani and colleagues from India – conducted a study that examined the immediate effect of a very short breath work session on blood pressure. The researchers had 22 participants with hypertension breathe slowly and deeply, at a rate of six breaths per minute, for just five minutes. Each inhalation and exhalation was of equal length. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured before and immediately after the breathing session.
The results showed that post-intervention, participants experienced a significant reduction in heart rate and a highly significant reduction in systolic blood pressure.
“A fall in diastolic pressure was also noted, but it was statistically insignificant,” explained Dr. Bhavanani, Professor of Yoga Therapy at the Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth University. “Our findings suggest that it doesn’t take much time at all for slow, deep breathing to have an effect, although more research is needed to determine how long the beneficial effect lasts.” This research was published in 2011 in International Journal of Yoga Therapy.
Breathing Against Resistance Lowers Blood Pressure and Boosts Cognitive Function
A different kind of breathing research – which examines the effects of using a handheld device that provides resistance while you breathe, to help “strength train” your breathing muscles – has also demonstrated that deep breathing can lower blood pressure. This unique breath workout is referred to as “Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training” (IMST).
The experience of using the device has been described as similar to sucking hard through a straw, but with the straw sucking back. Multiple studies conducted to date by different groups of researchers have shown that using an IMST device for just five minutes per day over a six-week period results in a reduction in blood pressure.
Dr. Daniel Craighead, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues are currently involved in a study looking at the impact of IMST (performed for five minutes per day, six days a week, for six weeks) on blood pressure and cognitive function. Although their research will not be completed until late 2020, they recently shared some preliminary findings.
“Like other researchers before us, we’ve found that IMST training helps to lower blood pressure,” said Dr. Craighead. “We’ve also found that those in our IMST group are performing better on certain cognitive and memory tests compared to those in the control group, who are using a sham-breathing device that delivers low-resistance. Until the final results are in next year, we need to view our findings with some caution. However, so far, we’ve seen high compliance rates for using the device and no real side effects, so we’re very optimistic about the usefulness of this breath-training tool.”
Deep Breathing Improves Motor Memory
Another interesting study – conducted by different researchers in India – examined the impact of a 30-minute session of deep breathing on the retention of a newly-learned motor skill. In this experiment, all 30 participants learned to trace a circular path in a fixed amount of time. Afterwards, one group of 16 participants completed a 30-minute breathing practice while the remaining 14 individuals (the control group) simply rested for the same duration.
The deep breathing group used an alternate-nostril technique and, with guidance from an auditory tone, made each inhalation last two seconds, and then held the breath for two seconds, followed by exhaling for four seconds. Both groups were retested on the previously-learned drawing task, immediately after the breathing (or rest) session and 24 hours later. Their findings were published in 2016 in Nature Scientific Reports.
“We discovered that the group that received the breathing practice retained the motor skill strikingly better than the control group, both immediately and 24 hours later,” explained Dr. Pratik K. Mutha, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar and one of the authors of the study. “Our findings showed, for the first time, that simple breathing practices can have remarkable effects on complex functions such as memory for motor skills.”
Slow Breathing Provides a Multitude of Benefits
The previously-described studies only hint at some of the benefits of engaging in different kinds of slow, deep breathing. There are actually many more ways that this type of breathing can boost your physical and mental health.
An academic review conducted by Dr. Andrea Zaccaro and colleagues looked at 15 studies that explored the psycho-physiological benefits of slow breathing. Their review, entitled “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Pyscho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing,” was published in 2018 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The researchers found that slow breathing techniques promote changes in the physical body, which translate into changes in psychology/behaviour, including increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor, and alertness, as well as reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.
The authors note, though, that more research is needed in order to disentangle the effects of breathing control on its own, as opposed to the potential effects of other aspects of meditation (such as focused attention and mental imagery).
What’s Happening in the Brain When Breathing is Consciously Controlled?
Innovative researchers – Dr. Jose L. Herrero and colleagues – made use of a rare opportunity to provide a glimpse into what is happening inside the brain when individuals pay attention to, or consciously adjust, their breathing in different ways. In the experiment, the researchers examined the brain activity of individuals who had electrodes implanted inside their brains as part of a medical treatment for epilepsy.
First, the researchers watched as the participants breathed normally while completing a simple task to take attention away from the breath. Then, they observed what happened when participants were asked to breathe more quickly or more slowly, while counting each breath.
The researchers discovered that changes in breathing activated different parts of the brain.
There was some overlap between the parts involved in normal (i.e. automatic) breathing and those involved in intentional (i.e. consciously-altered) breathing. These findings – published in 2017 in Journal of Neurophysiology – provide scientific support for the age-old advice to take a deep breath when you are feeling stressed. Doing so actually alters your brain activity and allows access to areas of the brain that are not typically accessed through normal breathing.
Give Conscious Breathing a Try
There is still much to learn about conscious breathing. For example, what types of breathing techniques (and for what duration) elicit which responses, and what exactly is transpiring inside the body to create those changes? However, there is no need to wait for science to have all of the answers before enjoying the bliss that ancient yogis told us that breathing can bring.
So, go ahead and try taking a slow, deep breath in now…and slowly release…and notice how you feel. It is quite remarkable that something so simple can help us shift our mood and mindset so quickly! Hopefully, now that you have learned about how powerful breathing can be, you will be inspired to pause and take a deep, mindful breath (or two) periodically throughout each day, or to experiment with some longer pranayama techniques.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V9
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