How Breathing Calms Your Brain. The Science of Breathwork.

I have been breathing since I was born, so why do I need to learn more about how to breathe? 

Breath is essential to life. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we leave. In between that time, we take about half a billion breaths. What we may not realize is that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other. Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breath. 

Below you will find a brief review of the latest science on breathing and the brain, and overall health which serves as a reminder that breathing deserves much closer attention – there’s more going on with each breath than we realize.

So let’s get into it!

Controlling your breathing calms your brain.

When you’re stressed, people often advise you to take a deep breath — and for good reason, a new study shows. Slowing your breathing calms you, and now scientists may have figured out how you can relax your brain through your breath. It has to do with your brain’s pacemaker for breath.

For anyone looking for ways to deal with stress and negative emotions, that’s big news. Although it’s been generally known that breathing exercises can have a calming affect on emotions, the researchers’ findings could provide a scientific explanation for why hyperventilation makes us anxious, or why breathing slowly can calm us down.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of California have identified 175 brain cells which spy on the breath and alter state of mind accordingly.For thousands of years yoga students have been taught that controlling their breathing can bring a sense of calm, while it is a well known truism that taking a few deep breaths can lower rage. But until now nobody knew why it worked.

The new study suggests that it is indeed possible to reverse engineer your mood simply by altering breathing. “If something’s impairing or accelerating your breathing, you need to know right away,” said Dr Mark Krasnow, professor of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “These 175 neurons, which tell the rest of the brain what’s going on, are absolutely critical.” 

The rhythm of your breathing affects memory. 

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth. “One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

Sparking Brain Growth.

One of the more intriguing research developments involving controlled breathing is that when it’s used to facilitate meditation, the result can be an actual increase in brain size. Specifically, the brain experiences growth in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory input.

The effect seems to be more noticeable in older people, which is especially good news because it’s the reverse of what typically happens as we age—gray matter usually becomes thinner.  The result is consistent with other research showing an increase in thickness of music areas of the brain in musicians and visual-motor areas in the brains of jugglers. As in those cases, the key is consistent practice over time.

So now that we know the importance of breathing and what it does for your brain, let’s look into ways that we can become better breathers! 

 1. Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” engages the diaphragm, which is supposed to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breathing. This is particularly helpful in people with COPD, as the diaphragm isn’t as effective in these individuals and could be strengthened. It’s best used when feeling rested. If you have COPD, ask your doctor or respiratory therapist to show you how to use this exercise for best results.

According to the COPD Foundation, you should do the following to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Relax your shoulders and sit back or lie down.

  • Place one hand on your belly and one on your chest.

  • Inhale through your nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into your abdomen and feeling your stomach move out. Your stomach should move more than your chest does.

  • Breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.

  • Repeat.

Pursed-lips breathing

Pursed-lips breathing can slow down your breathing, reducing the work of breathing by keeping your airways open longer. This makes it easier for the lungs to function and improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This breathing exercise is often easier for beginners than diaphragmatic breathing, and you can do it at home even if no one has showed you how. It can be practiced at any time.

To practice the pursed-lips breathing technique:

  • Inhale slowly through your nostrils.

  • Purse your lips, as if pouting or about to blow on something.

  • Breathe out as slowly as possible through pursed lips. This should take at least twice as long as it did to breathe in.

  • Repeat.

Rib stretch

This exercise is easy to use, and it can be done by anyone. It works by holding as much air in the lungs for as long as is safely possible. This can help improve your lung function and capacity when used at least once a day.

To use the rib stretch exercise to increase lung capacity:

  • Stand upright with your back arched.

  • Exhale all the oxygen from your lungs.

  • Breathe in slowly, filling your lungs as much as possible.

  • Hold your breath for at least 10 seconds.

  • Slowly exhale.

If you want to be super fancy, check out our “box breathing” article!