The Importance of the Breath...
How much attention do you give to your breathing? Are you aware of how you breathe? Why am I asking? Simply put, the breath is the most important and convenient tool we have. Not only is it the source of life, but how we breathe can help us stay healthy and calm and even achieve things we didn’t think possible. How? Let’s start with how our body works.
Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is responsible for regulating a variety of bodily processes that we are not conscious of, such as our heartbeat, blood flow, digestion, breathing and how our pupil’s dilate for example. The ANS is split into 2 divisions, the Parasympathetic Division (also known as our ‘rest and digest’ system) and the Sympathetic Division (known as our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ system). Look at the diagram below:
As you can see, both divisions act as an opposite function to each other, for example, in the ‘rest and digest’ system your pupils will constrict, but in the ‘fight or flight’ system your pupils will dilate. In order to maintain harmony within the body, these divisions need to balance each other. If the brain detects a person’s heart beating too slowly, it will activate the SNS to speed it up.
Once our SNS is activated the body releases stress-hormones like cortisol, which increase blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. Adrenaline is also released from the adrenal glands just above the kidneys. This increases blood flow to muscles and the heart, pupils dilate and blood sugar increases. If our Sympathetic Nervous System is activated for a long period, these chemicals can cause big problems. It is known that too much cortisol can lower our immune system which leaves us open to all sorts of infections. Long term, our cardiovascular system begins to suffer from abnormal wear and tear and this physical damage, can lead to heart disease. Here are just some illnesses which have been found to be caused by stress:
• hypertension (high blood pressure)
• coronary heart disease (CHD)
• heart attack
• stomach ulcers
• kidney disease
• lowered immune system
• depression - especially with an absence of a close confiding relationship,
• post-traumatic stress disorder
The Parasympathetic Branch of the ANS relaxes us. Our heart rate and blood pressure lower, breathing slows down, the bronchi (the tubes that bring air to the lungs) become narrower, pupils reduce in size and blood is sent to the stomach and intestines. The latter helps us to digest food, which is why the Parasympathetic branch is also known as ‘rest and digest’ system.
Many of us live with our ‘flight or flight’ mode activated for long periods of time, especially now we are dealing with the effect of the Coronavirus pandemic. Rapid and Shallow breathing is commonly associated with anxiety, so in order to reverse feeling anxious, we can do the opposite and breathe slowly and deeply.
Patrick McKeown, author and coach, encourages slow, deep breathing to improve body oxygenation. This goes hand in hand with Chris Woollams’ (author of The Rainbow Diet and How to Beat Cancer) suggestion that cancer does not use oxygen to multiply and in fact thrives where oxygen is low.
Other experts include Wim Hoff (Iceman) who can achieve extraordinary tasks like climb Mount Everest in just his shorts, simply by using breathing techniques and meditation! He has also trained others to do unbelievable things to prove he isn’t superhuman. I have managed to hold my breath quite comfortably for 2 minutes using one of his techniques (always seek advice from a health professional before attempting his techniques).
Free divers are also an excellent example, showing how breathing techniques can be used to enhance our capabilities.
However, I’m not asking you to be superhuman! I’m asking you to be aware of how you are breathing. If you notice it’s either rapid, shallow or both, use a simple breathing technique to switch off your ‘fight or flight’ mode and switch on your rest and digest mode. Give your body the chance to work at its optimum level and your cognitive function to be significantly improved.
Keep well and stay safe.
Lois Stavrou (Founder of Into Wellbeing)
www.intowellbeing.co.uk/resources (various breathing and meditation techniques)