The Benefits of Abdominal Breathing.
- Abdominal breathing regenerates our cells and organs
- It reduces stress in the body
- It maintains our blood PH levels
- It positively influences our heart rate
- It reduces inflammation in the body
- And it improves our mental clarity
Breath is life. Historically breath is what gives us our soul and spirit but we also know it to quite literally sustains life. Western medical research has shown that our overall health is directly related to how we breathe, and the strength and vitality of the body is maintained through the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide on a cellular level.
Breathing occurs automatically based upon the metabolic demands of the body. There are two types of breathing recognised by western medicine; Thoracic and Abdominal. Thoracic refers to the area of the body encased by the ribs, which runs up to the clavicle whilst abdominal breathing relies upon a strong and important muscle called the diaphragm that extends across the base of the thoracic cavity.
When we are in balance physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually these two styles of breathing work in unison. When the body’s metabolic rate require an immediate short-term boost the sympathetic nervous system comes into play and thoracic breathing supports this. Thoracic breathing isn’t necessarily unhealthy; it’s just less efficient. At rest, when the parasympathetic nervous system should be dominant, abdominal breathing is more efficient as it’s slower and more calming to the body and mind. The absence of abdominal breathing creates ill health.
The main gas exchange when we breathe is oxygen and carbon dioxide. Abdominal breathing being 6-7 times more efficient than thoracic breathing at pulling oxygen deep into the lungs, giving more time for oxygen and carbon dioxide to exchange. Breathing is the single most important physiological activity within our conscious control which can influence our nervous system.
1) Abdominal breathing regenerates our cells and organs:
If we breathe more shallowly and rapidly, as in thoracic breathing, carbon dioxide is exhaled too fast and oxygen won’t be released into the bloodstream appropriately. This directly affects the cells, tissues and organs because it creates a constriction of smooth muscles and connective tissue which means a reduced blood flow. A reduced blood flow lowers the amount of oxygen available and makes the heart work harder. This is known as cell hypoxia it can be very damaging to the body. Cell hypoxia has been linked to a growth of cancerous tumors, angina agony (heart problems), diabetes, cystic fibrosis, asthma, bronchitis, osteoporosis and gastrointestinal disorders.
The breath can directly affect our wellbeing by encouraging a full exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Deep abdominal breathing refers to how deep in the lungs the breath can go for this full gas exchange. To encourage deep breathing we must engage the diaphragm muscle. Interestingly the diaphragm and the emotional centre of the brain are directly connected via an important nerve called the vagus nerve. This nerve feeds information from the body to the brain and controls the relaxation mechanism of the body, the parasympathetic nervous system. When the nervous system balances, the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange regains and maintains balance also which activates your stem cells for regeneration and renewing your tissues and organs.
2) Abdominal breathing reduces stress:
We all suffer from stress in varying degrees. Stress perpetuates the survival of every species and is the body’s natural response to danger. When danger is signalled in the body, the sympathetic nervous system jumps into action and the stress hormone cortisol is released giving us the charge of strength and agility to face short term dangers. Stress chemicals throw the body and mind out of balance, this imbalance is required however during the stress response and under ordinary circumstances when the danger is gone, our breath returns to normal and the chemicals break down. The nervous system balances and we come back into balance too.
If however the sympathetic nervous system stays switched on and stress hormone remains present over an extended period of time the body stays continuously out of balance. Stress is characterised by shallow thoracic breathing and over time we will become drained mentally, physically and emotionally because at the cellular level there is not the correct exchange of gasses going on.
By engaging the diaphragm, with conscious awareness in the belly, the vagus nerve informs the brain we’re safe and initiates the relaxation response. If abdominal breathing is practiced regularly the vagus tone increases as does our capacity to manage future stress in a stress less way.
3) Abdominal breathing maintains our pH levels.
Our bodies live and die at the cellular level and the first line of defence against disease is a proper pH balance in the body. Ideally we should be between 7.30 – 7.45, but if we breath only in our thoracic region, with too little carbon dioxide getting into the blood our pH level will rise which can lead to a condition called respiratory alkalosis, which means too much alkalinity and imbalances spread throughout the body. Respiratory alkalosis is associated with many chronic health conditions, it can be an indicator of cardiac and pulmonary disorders, and diseases that affect the heart and lungs.
Equally our body shouldn’t be too acidic as this is the perfect breeding ground for most bacterias and tumours. If you are aware that your body is acidic, you can alkalise it through your breathing. Have a look at Wim Hof who has proven that with heightened oxygen levels in the blood there are endless benefits, one of which is balancing the pH of the body.
By allowing the breath to remain in the abdomen during your day you are facilitating the correct exchange of gasses in the body and this will result in a balanced pH level.
4) it positively influences the heart rate:
Breathing influences the heart, so if you breathe quicker your heartbeat will increase, and the opposite is true. The complexity of a heartbeat is called heart rate variability (HRV) or beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the healthier you are. When a healthy person inhales with an abdominal breath the sympathetic nervous system is activated and with exhalation the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are stimulated and work in balance creating a varied heart beat. People who are unhealthy will find the nervous system becomes stuck in a sympathetic dominant pattern with a low HRV, a minimal contrast between beats. A low HRV is usually accompanied by frequent thoracic breathing.
We are able to elicit the relaxation response required for the HRV to increase by elongating our exhalation. This means that with conscious awareness of abdominal breathing, accompanied by an elongated exhalation through the nose, we are able to stimulate the vagus nerve, which will in turn stimulate the under active part of the nervous system – the parasympathetic nervous system, via the brain, which will decrease the heart rate on the exhale, and overall improve the HRV.
5) it reduces inflammation in the body:
Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing as it’s part of the body’s immune response and its beneficial in the healing process. Inflammation becomes a problem when there is excessive or prolonged inflammation from our body being stressed by our lifestyles. This may be from over exercising, overeating, sleeping too little and holding onto stress, Over time chronic inflammation throughout the body will develop into rheumatic diseases and other inflammatory conditions.
By concentrating our awareness on abdominal breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system will come into play, which will influence the overall state of mind by activating the vagus nerve, which in turn reduces cortisol levels and calms the system. The ability to reduce inflammation comes back once more to the practice of conscious abdominal breathing to allow unnecessary inflammation to reduce, by encouraging the correct exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
6) Abdominal breathing improves our mental clarity:
Abdominal breathing has already been seen to lower our stress levels, improve our HRV, balance our pH levels in the body by stimulating the vagus nerve which is responsible for the stimuli of the parasympathetic nervous system. These changes in our breathing patterns bring more oxygen to the lungs and as the brain uses 20% of the oxygen in the body if we don’t have enough oxygen our mental clarity fades and our energy is depleted. Abdominal breathing encourages the correct amount of oxygen to be absorbed into the bloodstream, where it binds with red blood cells and is transported to all the cells in the body, including the brain. Here it increases the amplitude of theta brainwaves – the brainwaves that occur when you are feeling relaxed or in a meditative state, which in turn increases the parasympathetic nervous system activity, resulting in increased alertness and feelings of invigoration.
There are so many benefits to breathing abdominally. I’ve just touched very briefly on a few, so if you’d like to find out more or you have a questions relating to your breathing please get in touch.