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Science of Breath

A woman inhaling with her eyes closed

Inhale, Exhale..

Science is increasingly beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of the ancient practice of controlled breathing are real and significant.

Breathing is an automatic process we often don’t give a second thought to, yet modern science is increasingly uncovering the power of breath and its ability to heal.

It is now widely acknowledged that the breath is a particularly powerful tool to help one overcome anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder; but studies are now also shedding light on a fascinating relationship between breathing, memory, and a variety of other bodily functions.

This is because breath influences neural activity, which in turn, impacts cognitive functions including attention, memory recall and emotional processing. Further, the rhythm of our breathing creates electrical activity in the brain that contributes to the enhancement of emotional judgments and memory recall. In addition, consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

The Limbic System and Breath

A 2016 study led by Christina Zelano at Northwestern University demonstrated that the act of breathing can have a direct impact on cognitive functions such as memory recall. Zelano’s research team carried out a series of experiments involving human subjects and found that memory recall was significantly better during inhalation compared to exhalation. This effect was most pronounced when the subjects were breathing through their noses. The study showed that the rhythm of breathing can induce changes in the brain, enhancing emotional judgment and improving memory recall.

Zelano's research also showed the amygdala and the hippocampus (two brain regions linked to emotion, memory function and smell) are significantly affected by the breathing rhythm. These areas of the brain are part of the limbic system, which controls emotions and memory. It’s thought that the act of breathing may modulate the functions of these brain regions, thereby influencing memory and emotional processing.

Moreover, the act of controlled, deep breathing, often utilised in mindfulness and meditation practices, has been shown to enhance memory recall.

Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano et al. Journal of Neuroscience, 7 December 2016.

Science of Breath

Breathing is an essential act that requires no thought. However, according to a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Daniel Craighead, thinking about your breath can alter your physical and mental health. This is because breathing isn’t just about the lungs. According to Professor Craighead, breath affects the nervous and cardiovascular systems, so changing how much you inhale affects more than just the amount of oxygen you get. “When we breathe, that actually impacts how much blood is ejected from our hearts,” the Professor said.

Ability to Control

Breathing happens regardless of whether we pay attention to it or not; it's an entirely primitive instinct and automatic process. But what is unique and miraculous about breathing is that contrary to a lot of other automatic bodily functions, we can also control our breathing.

Heart Rate Relationship

Breathing and heart rate are regulated by the same parts of the brain, and each “talks” to the other to work in sync. By consciously slowing our breathing we can manipulate heart rate, blood pressure and stress responses.

Pain Control

Controlled breathing is a well-established tool for pain control, Pain, for most people, is perceived as a threat and therefore serves as a source of stress. Mindfulness and controlled breathing have been shown to decrease pain by calming the sympathetic nervous system and encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system.

Boosts Immunity

Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina divided a group of 20 healthy adults into two groups. One group was instructed to do two sets of 10-minute breathing exercises, while the other group was told to read a text of their choice for 20 minutes. The subjects’ saliva was tested at various intervals during the exercise. The researchers found that the breathing exercise group’s saliva had significantly lower levels of three cytokines that are associated with inflammation, stress and poor immune function.

Helps Depression

Dr. Chris Streeter, a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Boston University, completed a study measuring the effect of daily yoga and breathing on people with major depressive disorder. After 12 weeks of daily yoga and coherent breathing, depressive symptoms significantly decreased and levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects, had increased.

The Stress Effect

Inhaling stimulates the sympathetic 'fight or flight' response and increases heart rate. When exhaling, the opposite happens. This is why lengthening the out-breath can be beneficial for stress management, the immune system and many bodily functions.

Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve (the main driver of parasympathetic rest and digest response) passes through the diaphragm. Correct activation of the diaphragm therefore helps to improve vagal tone (function and conditioning of the vagal nerve).

Left vs right

Each nostril is linked to the opposite hemisphere of the brain - i.e. left nostril breathing increases blood flow to the right side of the brain (stimulating creative thinking, intuition etc.) whilst right nostril breathing increases blood flow to the left side (stimulating analytical thinking etc.) Each nostril is linked to the opposite hemisphere of the brain - i.e. left nostril breathing increases blood flow to the right side of the brain (stimulating creative thinking, intuition etc.) whilst right nostril breathing increases blood flow to the left side (stimulating analytical thinking etc.)

Red blood cells

By practising breath retentions, you can simulate the effects of altitude training by encouraging the spleen to release more red blood cells into the bloodstream.

“Every relaxation, calming or meditation technique relies on breathing, which may be the lowest common denominator in all the approaches to calming the body and mind. Research into basic physiology and into the effects of applying breath-control methods lends credence to the value of monitoring and regulating our inhalations and exhalations.” ~ Christophe André in Scientific American

Gain a better understanding of how breathing can improve your health by booking a Kinesiology and Coaching session with Katherine Anderson.

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