We wanted to talk a little bit more about our number one self care practice for better health— BREATHING! Like we mentioned before, there are a multitude of health benefits to diaphragmatic breathing such as reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, decreased pain, improved posture, increased energy, and better digestion. Learning how to breathe better can be a bit tricky at first, especially if you’re a chest breather (we’ll get to that in a bit), but just a few minutes several times a day can make a difference!
Diaphragmatic or “deep” breathing has been shown to reduce the “fight or flight” response of our sympathetic nervous system and tap into our parasympathetic or “rest and relaxation” system, resulting in decreased stress and anxiety.* This same mechanism is at play when using breathing exercises for better sleep. A study done in 2015 showed that 20 minutes of slow, paced breathing (6 respiratory cycles per minute) before bed significantly improved sleep.**
Diaphragmatic breathing improves the efficiency of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. During inhalation, the diaphragm moves downward and the rib cage expands, helping the lungs to fully fill with air. During exhalation the diaphragm moves upward, helping to expel air out of the lungs. This more efficient exchange slows the heart rate and can help to lower blood pressure.
Diaphragmatic breathing is something our bodies are designed to do naturally. However, many of us have developed the habit of taking shorter, shallower breaths. Whether it’s stress, anxiety, poor posture, pregnancy, or merely the societal pressure of maintaining a flat stomach, chest breathing can be detrimental to our health. During chest breathing, less air is inhaled and the lungs do not fully expand. There is less need for the rib cage to expand and the belly to protrude. Our diaphragm, the primary breathing muscle, gets underutilized and we begin to rely more heavily on the accessory breathing muscles in our neck and chest. Overworking the accessory muscles can alter joint mechanics in the spine, shoulders, and ribcage, leading to tightness and sometimes musculoskeletal pain. In addition to this, we lose out on the other physical and mental health benefits that come from deep breathing.
Restoring diaphragmatic breathing postpartum
Did you know that pregnancy changes the way we breathe? As your baby and belly grow, the diaphragm gets pushed upward- changing the mechanics of how we breathe. As a result of this displacement, chest breathing is common in the later stages of pregnancy and sometimes continues after delivery.
How do I know if I’m a “chest breather”?
Lie on your back with your head supported. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do you feel your chest rise? Do you feel your rib cage and belly expand? If you are a chest breather you will feel your chest rise without much movement of your belly.
How do I practice Diaphragmatic Breathing?
- Assume the same position as above. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. Think about pulling air all the way down into your belly. Relax your chest and allow your ribcage and belly to expand instead. You should feel your belly rise, not your chest.
- Gently hold your breath for several seconds— whatever you can do comfortably.
- Purse your lips and blow the air outward with a whooshing sound. Think about pulling your abdomen in to help fully expel the air.
- Perform 5-10 cycles several times per day.
Once you become more adept at diaphragmatic breathing, you can vary your positions and play with the ratio of inhalation, hold, and exhalation times. Many experts recommend the 4-7-8 ratio to help with both anxiety and sleep.
Need a little extra help? Physical therapists can help address any postural or mobility deficits that might be limiting your ability to breathe deeply and they can give you guidance and feedback while you practice. There are also many apps on the market like The Breathing App and iBreathe that can get you started and help keep you on track.
* Shu-Zhen Wang, Sha Li, Xiao-Yang Xu, Gui-Ping Lin, Li Shao, Yan Zhao, and Ting Huai Wang. Effect of slow abdominal breathing combined with biofeedback on blood pressure and heart rate variability in prehypertension. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. October 2010, 16(10): 1039-1045.
** Tsai, H.J. et al. Efficacy of Paced Breathing for Insomnia: Enhances Vagal Activity and Improves Sleep Quality. Psychophysiology. March 2015, 52(3): 388–396.