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The Science of Breathwork

12 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Breathwork


People may be surprised that there are many breathing practices that have been scientifically studied, with many of them showing conclusive evidence that conscious breathing practices improve physical, emotional and mental health when done safely, correctly and appropriately. Below are just some of the benefits revealed by scientific research on breathwork, with refe-rences at the end of the article.


Benefits of Breathwork


1. Reduces Stress and Anxiety

2. Lowers Blood Pressure and Improves Circulation

3. Improves Lung Function

4. Improves Digestion

5. Improves Your Mood

6. Helps in the Treatment of Trauma & PTSD

7. Improves the Immune System

8. Improves Sleep

9. Improves Focus and Energy

10. Helps Treat Depression

11. Improves Athletic Performance

12. Helps Manage Chronic Pain


Breathwork achieves all these benefits by means of not only the physical act of breathing, but by accessing the power of our nervous system. Our nervous system is a complex which includes a central nervous system (brain and spine) and the peripheral nervous system which travels from the spine throughout our body to control our muscles and organs as well as relay sensory information.


The nervous system is further divided into two major branches within the peripheral nervous system


Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) —picture it as the accelerator (or gas) pedal of your body. It mobilises energy and prepares the body for action, responds to danger and activates immediate self-protective defence mechanisms known as Fight or Flight in more extreme cases. As our SNS activates, we will become more alert and focused. Our body will experience an increase in heart rate and breath rate, our muscles will become tense and ready for action. As we increase our SNS activation, our body will redirect resources from functions such as immune response and digestion to immediate functions required for the task at hand. For example, we aren’t worried so much about digesting our food or fighting off a flu when we would rather redirect our body’s energy resources to fuelling our muscles.


We also become hypervigilant as SNS activation increases, becoming more attuned to signs of danger. With even higher SNS activation, our ability to maintain social connection decreases as we are preoccupied to overcoming the danger, or seeking safety.


From getting up and early in the morning, going to the gym for that 5km run or running away from a fire self-preservation-style your SNS makes it happen.


The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)—picture it as your brake pedal to slow your body down. Now, this is further divided into a dorsal and ventral vagus nerve, which we describe in a later article, for simplicities sake, the PNS is to get you back into homeostasis after SNS activation. It is designed to relax you and move you into a state rest, digest and repair. The heart and breathing rate decreases, blood circulates to the extremities, immune system function improves, and we move from hypervigilance i.e. looking for danger, to a more relaxed state where we can connect socially with one another. This is really where the body relaxes into a state to repair the constant wear and tear we are under from physical, emotional and mental activities throughout the day.


Throughout the day, your nervous system moves between varying levels of activation depending on the environment, the day’s events, mindset, activities, diet, sleep rhythms etc.


The Breath & The Nervous System

So, where does the breath come in? The breath is both under somatic and autonomic control, which means that 1) we don’t have to think about breathing; it happens automatically, and 2) we can control it. It is also an obvious mechanism that we can be aware of, and also it has a very strong impact on our physiology, mental and emotional states. It is quite a special and unique tool at our disposal and you can view it as a two-way bridge we can utilize to effectively observe, communicate with and influence our nervous system.


Our breath has many, many functions within the body:

  • Oxygenates our tissues for function

  • Removes excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from our tissues

  • Balances blood pH for homeostasis for body function

  • Aids in lymphatic fluid movement

  • Promotes movement of cerebrospinal fluid to keep brain healthy

  • Massages internal organs

  • Influences circulatory function

  • Signals activation of nervous system for activity

  • Signals rest and digest for repair and digestion

  • And many more...


The breath will tell us a lot about the state of our nervous system. For instance, if your breath is slow, deep, methodical and easeful, chances are you’re in parasympathetic activation. If, however, you notice tension, your breath is shallow, uncomfortable and in your chest, chances are your SNS is activated, and your body may be in an amount of stress you may not even be aware of.


Why? Because we often become acclimatised to repetition. We adapt to our environment, both externally and internally, through desensitisation. For instance, you don’t even think about how the seat you may be sitting on feels, because it’s no longer a new experience. You just sit down, and in a few seconds, you forget all about it, unless the stimulus becomes stronger, like an uncomfortable stool.  This is called sensory adaptation. Unfortunately, this means we may even become numb to the tension and stress in our bodies as we remain in chronically stressed, or tensed states.


Prior to starting and maintaining a breathwork practice, one may just be at the mercy of their nervous system, with a loop running between the thoughts of the mind, and the feelings and sensations of the body. Breathwork provides an interruption of that loop and allows one to take control of their nervous system by consciously modifying their breath to effectively send signals to their nervous system to either activate their SNS (gas pedal) for more get-up-and-go, for those who find themselves in depressed, low energy states, or their PNS (the brake) for those who find themselves more in anxious or stressed states. Breathwork is especially effective for those with anxiety, as it can provide them with the training to identify increasing levels of anxiety, before the symptoms become overwhelming. At the same time, breathing techniques can provide respite from an overactive SNS by introducing more PNS activation to calm the nervous system down.


Whilst it is a huge topic with a multi-level complexity to uncover, breathwork has also shown promise to help in the management and treatment of PTSD, complex trauma and addiction survivors. Symptoms as a result of these conditions can be interrupted or lessened with breathwork practices in tandem with other management techniques guided by a professional.


In the end, breathwork can provide us with providing ourselves with a simple diagnostic tool to tune into ourselves to feel any stress that we may not be aware of!

  • Is my breath feeling shallow?

  • Am I holding any tension anywhere?

  • Am I able to breathe into my belly?

And then, selecting the appropriate breathwork technique or pranayama to introduce the change that would serve us at this moment.


For instance, if we find it a struggle to get out of bed and find motivation despite having a good night’s sleep, then selecting a Breath of Fire pranayama may be suitable rather than that triple espresso. Or perhaps if we are feeling overwhelmed, tight, and ready to pop, then a Box Breath to calm down may be more appropriate rather than that glass of wine that turns into a bottle.


In the end, our health requires a holistic approach - breathwork is not THE answer to solve all your problems, rather breathwork is a vehicle for you to get more deeply in touch with your body, your mental and emotional state and also be able to fine tune your nervous system and using your body’s natural resources to achieve what we desire without side-effects.


Stay tuned for detailed coverage of each breathing technique in our blogs section!

 


References

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Anderson, Barton E, & Bliven, Kellie C Huxel. (2017). The Use of Breathing Exercises in the Treatment of Chronic, Nonspecific Low Back Pain. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 26(5), 452–458. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.2015-0199

Bates, Marsha E, Lesnewich, Laura M, Uhouse, Sarah Grace, Gohel, Suril, & Buckman, Jennifer F. (2019). Resonance-Paced Breathing Alters Neural Response to Visual Cues: Proof-of-Concept for a Neuroscience-Informed Adjunct to Addiction Treatments. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 624–624. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00624

Busch, Volker, Magerl, Walter, Kern, Uwe, Haas, Joachim, Hajak, Göran, & Eichhammer, Peter. (2012). The Effect of Deep and Slow Breathing on Pain Perception, Autonomic Activity, and Mood Processing-An Experimental Study. Pain Medicine (Malden, Mass.), 13(2), 215–228. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x

de Wit, P.A.J.M., & Moraes Cruz, R. (2021). Treating PTSD with connected breathing: A clinical case study and theoretical implications. European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation = Revue Europâeenne Du Trauma et de La Dissociation, 5(3), 100152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejtd.2020.100152

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Malviya, Shikha, Meredith, Pamela, Zupan, Barbra, & Kerley, Lachlan. (2022). Identifying alternative mental health interventions: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials of chanting and breathwork. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health24(2), 191–233. https://doi.org/10.1080/19349637.2021.2010631

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