In… Out… In… Out…
I could just finish there, but there’s a bit more to it. In Eva Migdal’s “Well Habit Your Body”, Eva explores the world of breathing, and its importance…
Breathing is the most fundamental need of the human body. You do it all day, every day. But how often do you stop and think about how your lungs work? What are you breathing in there? How does this affect both your physical and mental health?
Here’s a quick bit of science about the precious breath that keeps us alive every minute of every day.
What is breathing?
When you inhale, oxygen is transferred to your bloodstream providing fuel for your cells
to function. At the same time, carbon dioxide is transferred from your blood, back into the air. This cycle is controlled by muscles and the stronger these muscles are, the better your breathing is.
Simply by sitting or standing
up straight, more air gets carried into your lungs and your body can run more efficiently.9
What am I breathing?
Air quality impacts your breathing. Things like cigarette smoke, car fumes, burning plastics, and cleaning products fill your lungs with nasty chemicals that can cause permanent damage. Toxic smells are a warning that your health is at risk, so try to avoid them!
Use non-toxic cleaning materials, avoid smoke, try more natural or lower chemical beauty and hair products, use roll on deodorants rather than sprays, and apply nail polish outdoors to avoid concentrated smells.
How am I breathing?
Breathing can help control your mood. When you’re stressed, you naturally start to breathe quicker.10 This means that less oxygen is entering your lungs, leaving you short of breath and sometimes gasping for air.
By noticing this, and by learning to take slow deep breaths, you can calm yourself down. Meditation is a great way to focus on your breathing and develop mindfulness at the same time. There are lots of different ways to meditate so try a few out and find one that suits you.
Breathing into wellness Your lungs are the biological tools that move oxygen throughout your body. There
are two different ways to use these tools: one is automatically through the autonomic nervous system and the other is voluntarily through our conscious decision- making brain.
AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Your breathing is largely controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System.12 This automatically controls all your bodily functions without you having to think about it — functions like keeping your heart beating and your blood circulating. This makes your life a lot easier. Imagine if you had to remember to tell your heart to beat!
The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two balancing parts — the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.13 You could think of the sympathetic as the accelerator that allows forward movement and the parasympathetic as the brake that can bring you peace.
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic accelerator is responsible for supplying you with a burst of energy in response to a danger or threat — the fight or flight response.14 Your blood pressure increases, your heart rate skyrockets, and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid — all automatically. There is also the freeze response where your body becomes frozen in response to a threat.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system does the exact opposite. It is the braking system for your body. It’s responsible for slowing or stopping high-energy functions when a threat is removed or there is no danger present, making your body relaxed and calm.15 This is called the rest and digest response. Your blood pressure lowers, your heart rate slows and your breath is deeper and longer. These changes also get you ready to sleep, to digest, to feel happy and to heal. Like the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system is also automatic and involuntary; it activates without you telling your body to do anything.
When things are working well, you have a great balance between these two systems. But what happens when they are out of balance?
Imagine driving down a mountain and your brakes stop working. You’d spin out of control and crash, or go over the mountain’s edge. Or what if your accelerator stopped working?
You’d slowly come to a halt — perhaps with an angry queue of cars behind you! We need the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to work together if we want balance in our bodies and the ability to cruise safely down the mountain.
So what happens to your body when something goes wrong? When your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, everything starts to work harder than it needs to. Your heart beats too fast, your blood flows too quickly and you start to run out of breath, sending your adrenal glands into overdrive.
The Stress Hormone Factory
The adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and work like a small factory producing a range of very important chemicals called hormones.18 Even though these hormones are tiny, they can change how certain parts of your body and brain function. They even affect your emotions.
One of the most important adrenal messenger hormones is cortisol, which reminds your body how to fight infection, improves your memory, and helps turn food into energy. A bit of cortisol is really important for survival! When we are stressed, the adrenal glands send more cortisol messages than usual, and can overwhelm your body’s capacity to respond.
Think of cortisol as a demanding team captain, constantly sending trainers out to tell the players what to do next. This is fine when there is one message at a time, but imagine when the game goes on for hours, days, months or even years. When Captain Cortisol asks his players to do too many things, even if all of these messages are important, the body’s players get overburdened and become exhausted.
Before long, the sympathetic nervous system is stuck in an overactive state and the parasympathetic nervous system gets overwhelmed and loses its fight to stop the messages from Captain Cortisol. This results in weight and memory loss and a weakened immune system. If you’ve ever been stressed out about a test, a match, a party or a disagreement with others, you probably already know how hard it is to calm your Captain. You start to react for no reason. You might yell at your family for asking what’s wrong, lose your cool with your friends or feel a general sense of anxiety. We need to balance our cortisol levels in the Autonomic Nervous System in order to give our body’s players a well-deserved break.
THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Luckily, there is a simple way to escape the constant demands of Captain Cortisol. Your breath is a very special rescue remedy for calming your mind and tending to your injuries when things start to feel a little out of control. Simply by changing our breathing, we give the para- sympathetic nervous system the power to stop Captain Cortisol.
What happens when I take control of my breath? Earlier in the chapter we said that the Autonomic Nervous System is involuntary, meaning it works without you telling it to.
The breath, however, can be both involuntary and voluntary. When you take control of your breath you can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the sympathetic nervous system, which allows you to be in a calm peaceful state. This can be super helpful when you’re feeling nervous or overwhelmed. Imagine being able to calm yourself when you’re about to take a test or do a presentation.
Also known as the relaxation response, this technique was first described by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s. Dr. Benson was an insightful cardiologist who noticed that when people relax, some amazing things happen to their body. There is a release of chemicals and signals from the brain which slows down activity of the the muscles and organs and increases blood flow to
Dr. Benson’s studies showed that breathing in a meditative style reduces blood pressure
and lowers stress over time. He proved that regular practice of the relaxation response could treat many stress- related problems. According to Dr. Benson, breathing is the antidote to a stress response because more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide leaves the body through deep breathing.
Is it always called deep breathing?
There are many terms used worldwide to describe taking control of the breath. One
is Pranayama, an ancient technique that originated in India.
In Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language), prana means life force and yama means control. The breath is our life force. So, you must gain control of your breath to restore balance to your body.
In Western culture, we call it deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, controlled breathing, coherent breathing or the relaxation response. Fortunately, practising this is not as difficult as pronouncing it.
How do I know if I’m practising deep breathing?
This particular kind of breathing starts deep in the abdomen
and uses a muscle called the diaphragm. When you breathe from your abdomen, your belly will expand and move out with each inhalation. Your chest will rise slightly, but your abdomen is where most of the movement occurs.
FIVE REASONS TO BREATHE DEEPLY
The benefits of deep breathing are countless, but here are five reasons why you should learn this skill and keep on using it.
1. Reduce your stress Controlled breathing may be the most powerful tool you have to prevent your brain from stressing out. Breath control is used when practising things like meditation, yoga or tai chi to achieve a calm mindset.
2. Manage your anxiety
The vagus nerve starts at your brainstem and travels throughout several major organs to your stomach. It has many different roles, including controlling your heart rate and inflammation levels in your body.
With deep breathing, you activate the vagus nerve so that it sends out messages to increase focus and calmness, and reduce anxiety and depression.
3. Regulate your emotions Studies show different emotions are linked to different breathing patterns. People experiencing anger or fear take short, shallow breaths, while those experiencing joy take long, deep breaths.
A 2007 study found that students who practised deep breathing meditation before an exam felt less anxiety, self-doubt and concentration loss than those who did not practise deep breathing.25 When we deliberately change our breathing, we can regulate our emotions and restore balance to the mind and body.
4. Lower heart rate and blood pressure
Research suggests that when practised consistently, deep breathing lowers your blood pressure and heart rate!26
5. Promote brain growth and gene changes
New research shows that controlled breathing can actually increase your brain size and cause changes to your genes.
ONE REASON TO HOLD YOUR BREATH
One time you might want to avoid deep breathing is when you are around toxic fumes. Pollution, industrially produced detergents, toxic deodorant sprays — the list of breathing hazards is endless.
The oxygen in the air we breathe is vital to our survival. It enters our blood stream via our lungs and gives direct input into our brain. This is also how the aroma of flowers, essential oils and natural perfumes is carried by the air into our bloodstream and can have a direct impact on our brain. ‘Aromatherapy’ and natural perfumes have been used for centuries for the health impact they have on our brain and body.28 Lavender oil, for example, can calm us and jasmine oil can energize us. Smell can even stimulate memory and influence moods and feelings.
Today we can cheaply manufacture thousands of synthetic chemicals that can mimic almost every known scent. The vast majority of these have never been tested for safety and toxicity level.30 Chemical allergy has an immediately apparent health impact, but it can take decades before we understand which chemicals cause cancer or hormone disruption. As new evidence builds, scientists are now warning us that many ‘perfumes’ and scents can in fact be highly toxic.31
Unfortunately, our sense of smell does not have the ability to differentiate between a toxic chemical, a safe chemical and a natural scent.
It’s good to be aware that when we use perfumes, they are made up of many chemicals. Some of these may in fact be toxins, and causing harm not just through breathing chemicals, but also through absorbing them via the skin, mouth and gut. You can check out the safety of the perfumes you are using via the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org.