Can Breathing Exercises Really Change Your Health?

Breathing-cropped

A couple of nights ago I found myself witnessing an interesting exchange between a meditation expert and an accountant. The meditation teacher was encouraging us to stop at the beginning of each day to do a simple breathing exercise. But the accountant (my Dad) wanted to know why. “What’s wrong with just launching into the day? Why is taking a few breaths going to be good for me? I breathe all day every day and in my sleep, without needing to think about it.”

 

The exchange between my skeptical father and the meditation expert made me recall the interview I did with Dr. Andrew Weil for my film The Connection. Dr. Weil is one of the most popular MD’s in the US, having built a huge following for his integrated approach to medicine which looks for ways to help a patient’s own body trigger healing, rather than relying solely on drugs and surgery.

 

Dr. Weil told me that if he had to limit his medical advice to just one thing, he’d say to learn how to breathe. That’s a profound statement in the modern world where as a doctor he has so many nutritional, surgical and pharmacological tools at his disposal.

 

Here’s a section from the extended interview I did with Dr. Weil where he talks about the power of breathing.

 

 

Ever since I’ve been researching the link between the mind and body when it comes to illness I’ve been using mindful breathing exercises throughout my day. I find the practice of taking a few slow, focused, non-judgmental breaths is really useful in taking the sting out of my daily stress, and while I’ve written a fair bit about research looking at meditation, I wanted to see if there’s any clinical research showing the health benefits of conscious breathing specifically.

 

In recent years scientists have found that yogic breathing significantly helped people with bronchial asthma, breathing slowly helped reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension and a form of yogic breathing taught to Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder resulted in a reduction in symptoms, anxiety, and respiration rate.

 

In yet another reminder of the intricate link between our mind and body, I was stunned to come across research looking at the role of breathing on our emotions which found that four key emotional states – joy, anger, fear, and sadness – could be identified by distinct breathing patterns. The scientists took their discovery even further and were able to make people feel these emotions by simply teaching them to breathe in particular patterns.

 

But when it comes to the link between breathing and health, the most compelling of all the research I’ve come across this week is being done by scientists at UCLA who recently studied 45 people under a lot of stress as the caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

 

They taught one group of people a 12-minute yogic practice, which involves focused breathing and chanting and instructed them to practice every day for eight weeks. A second group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to instrumental music for 12 minutes.

 

Not only did the results show that doing the yogic exercises significantly lowered levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning, but they also had slower cellular aging and important genes involved in inflammation in the body were switched off.

 

In case you’ve missed the significance of the study, let me spell it out. These researchers have shown that a 12 minute breathing and chanting exercise performed daily for 8 weeks, resulted in positive health genetic engineering and a slowing down of the aging process.

 

I realize that not everyone is going to be interested in getting started on yogic breathing and chanting (in case you are, they used Kirtan Kriya Meditation techniques), especially people like my skeptical accountant father, but if you’re convinced by what you’ve read about breathing, then here is a simple exercise I like to use that can get you started.

 

  1. Place your thumb on your right nostril and cover it
  2. Inhale slowly through the left nostril
  3. Place your middle finger on your left nostril and cover it, release the thumb
  4. Exhale through the right nostril
  5. Inhale slowly through the right nostril
  6. Place your thumb on the right nostril again, release the middle finger
  7. Exhale through the left nostril
  8. Repeat for a few minutes

 

Let me know about your favorite breathing technique in the comments below. I’m sure your tips will help other readers.

  • Janine Fletcher

    Changing your breathing pattern is one of the most simple, practical and powerful things I have discovered. I have both experienced and witnessed positive changes in self esteem, attitude, overcoming learning difficulties, reducing stress and anxiety, the surfacing of feelings of peace, kindness, joy… All from changing a person's breathing pattern. I have created a program – SHH Take a Breathet ( how breathing can make you Smarter Healthier and Happier) For more info check out my website – http://www.janinefletcher.com.au

  • Jenniferlb

    Hi Shannon: Love your work thankyou for your film ! I bought it and am going to Yoga Huts Mindful in May screening for a second serve and discussion.

    Re the science of breathing I had shocking asthma mainly due to cold's/flu and sometimes in cold weather. When I had a chest infection abut 2 years ago my breathing was so bad that even the steroids and ventolin weren't working.

    I started googling and found a naturopath in Melbourne who teaches breathing re-training by bio feedback. He also gave me the science behind why we get asthma. The aim is to slow the breathing down and actually increase the carbon dioxide in. Yes that's right increase the carbon dioxide as it is the co2 that takes the oxygen to the muscles. Too much oxygen will just be wasted. That's why asthmatics breathe rapidly trying to get oxygen in. Many of us overbreath all the time which changes the balance of CO2 and oxygen in the blood stream and affects our immune system, sleep and ability to heal.

    More information is available via the Butyeko wesbite. Butyeko breathing is the only non drug breathing training programme approved for asthmatics in this country, the U.K. and Russia. It is also a proven treatment for sleep apnea The randomised control trial research can be found here:

    http://www.buteyko.info/scientific_research.html

    The buteyko website is here:http://www.buteyko.info/index.asp

    An easy to follow video of the Buteyko method is here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx-3dt9L72c
    Enjoy.

  • Arlene Encell

    Hi Shannon, I have been doing a breathing program by Steig Seversen I highly recommend him. he also has a 12 minute meditation tape that is very effective in stopping my heart palpitations. His breath work has changed my life and health. You can find more information at Breatheology Academy. I have tried other meditation classes and couldn't stick with them but his is so comprehensive and fun with quick results that I love doing them and find the time.

  • Jane

    Prof Buteyko also did research into healthy breathing some years ago and developed a method.

    I was fortunate enough to have done the course in the late 1990s and it was remarkably beneficial for me.

    For anyone interest just internet search 'buteyko breathing technique' or just 'buteyko'. Many results may focus on majour things like sleep apnea/snoring – don't let this put you off. It is beneficial to anyone with unhealthy breathing. So how would one know if there breathing is healthy or not? Delve into the info to find out. If you contact a practitioner they can help you determine that relatively simply.

    Bear in mind that it is not a form of meditation. Also if you are a meditator, that doesn't automatically mean you breathing is healthy. I have come across many meditators that demonstrate unhealthy breathing. Prof Buteyko's method is simply about healthy breathing from a bio chemical point of view.

    Best wishes to everyone.
    Jane

  • Keara

    Hi Shannon,
    Thank you for putting all of this research together in a way that totally makes sense, is evidence and research based and holistic in approach to health and wellbeing. It is so useful to have somewhere to go to find such a range of exciting articles and information. Keara

  • EG Slyman

    Hi I am having a lot of breathing problems and esecially this summer has been especially brutal on me. I have been having to buy generic advair online but i dont know if its safe to do these excersizes while taking my medication can someone help this is what I take http://canadapharmacyrx.com/generic-advair-diskus.html

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About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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