The Life-Changing Power Of Breathwork
Do me a quick favor: Sit up nice and straight, relax your shoulders, and take a deep breath in through your nose, expanding your belly as you do. Hold it for a second, and exhale out of your mouth.
Feels pretty amazing, doesn’t it?
The power of breath is one of the most underrated aspects of wellness. Breathwork has the potential to increase your energy levels, enhance focus, improve your mood, and tame anxiety.
As a functional medicine practitioner, my job is all about improving mental and physical health and helping my patients understand the mind-body connection. And breathwork is the perfect tool for both.
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The Power of Breath
When I say “breathwork” you might immediately feel skeptical. How can something be work if we do it all the time without even realizing it? Well, breath is a lot more intricate than just breathing in and out. In fact, subtle changes in breathing can influence your stress and anxiety levels as well as your ability to focus and fall asleep. Ever notice yourself holding your breath during a workout, or hyperventilating when you are extremely anxious, or that your breaths become short and shallow when you’re stressed at work? Those are just a couple of examples of how breath subtly changes based on your physical and mental state.
So, when I say “breathwork” I’m not talking about just breathing — I’m talking about taking advantage of this connection by intentionally changing the way you breathe to bring about a change in your physical and mental state. This can be done through a bunch of different techniques, including:
- For Beginners — Diaphragmatic Breathing: Many people don’t realize it, but breathing is supposed to happen from the diaphragm. Unfortunately, many of us breathe using muscles in our chest, shoulders, and back. Therefore, a great place to start getting into breathwork is to focus on strengthening the diaphragm and re-learning how to breathe in a healthier way. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie flat on the floor with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds, making sure your stomach expands rather than your chest. Next, purse your lips and exhale for 2 seconds while pressing on your stomach. Repeat a few times.
- Intermediate — 4-7-8 breathing: 4-7-8 breathing is a way to build on the diaphragmatic breathing you’ve already learned. Plus, you can do it anywhere, even while you’re on a Zoom call or in line at the grocery store. To start, breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. This type of breathing has been shown to reduce asthma symptoms, reduce fatigue, bolster stress management, reduce hypertension, lessen anxiety, reduce aggressive behavior, and improve migraine headaches. (1)
- Advanced — Box Breath: Also known as square breathing, this more forceful breathwork practice became popular with Marines and athletes for its ability to help you feel relaxed while still giving you a boost of energy. Start by inhaling through the nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale from your mouth for 4 seconds, and end by holding your breath for 4 seconds. You will repeat this four times.
The thing I love the most about breathwork is that it’s incredibly easy — and completely FREE — to incorporate it into your daily routine.
The Science-Backed Benefits of Breathwork
If you’re like most of the patients that I see at my functional medicine clinic, you’re probably wondering if there’s any research on the benefits of breathwork. Well, I’m happy to say there is quite a bit of scientific research on breathwork. Below are the studied benefits of breathwork:
1. Healthier blood pressure
Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve — a large, wandering nerve that travels from the brain down into most major areas of the body. (2) The vagus nerve is largely in control of the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system and can influence blood pressure. Therefore, it won’t be a big surprise that breathing exercises have been shown to reduce high blood pressure.
2. Less inflammation
If you’re a regular on my website or social media accounts, you know that basically everything I do revolves around reducing chronic inflammation. Well, breathwork has been shown to have some incredible anti-inflammatory capabilities! Studies have shown breathwork can decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha and IL-6 along with an increase in anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10. (3) These cytokines act as chemical messengers and influence a whole host of different diseases related to inflammation, including diabetes, arthritis, and autoimmune diseases.
3. More resilience to stress and anxiety
As I mentioned earlier, your vagus nerve is in control of your “rest and digest” nervous system, which is also called your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is responsible for restoring balance in the body after periods of stress. By stimulating that through breathwork you are increasing parasympathetic tone while also lowering cortisol levels — the body’s stress hormone. This can lead to better resilience to stress and less anxiety.
4. Deeper focus
Under stressful conditions, breathing gets shallower, which further perpetuates stress and anxiety and can make us feel frantic and stressed out. Focusing on deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing — and making your inhales shorter than your exhales, like with the 4-7-8 breath — can bring you back to the present moment and allow you to pause so you can refocus on the task at hand without the jumpiness or distractions.
5. Improvements in PTSD recovery
Certain types of breathwork practices, such as diaphragmatic breathing, have been shown to be an effective treatment for PTSD long-term. (4) This is likely due to breathwork’s ability to root you in your body in the present moment and calm a nervous system that’s gone haywire.
6. Better lung health function
Deep breathing exercises can help maintain healthy oxygen levels but they also expand your lung capacity in a way that is similar to exercise. This can be especially important during cold and flu season and for older populations who are more susceptible to pneumonia and other lung problems. This can help in the long-term if you make breathwork a regular practice but also if you’re currently sick and looking to avoid acute issues with your lungs.
When I talk to my patients about breathwork, I’m often met with skeptical looks. Could breathing really do all that? But without fail, the patients who give it a try come back to their next appointment raving about the incredible power of breathing. If you’re looking for something quick, convenient, and easy to incorporate into your wellness routine, make it 5 minutes of breathwork every day.
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- Varvogli, L. and C. Darviri. “Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health.” Health science journal 5 (2011): 74-89.
- Gerritsen RJS, Band GPH. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:397. Published 2018 Oct 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397
- Jang JH, Park HY, Lee US, Lee KJ, Kang DH. Effects of Mind-Body Training on Cytokines and Their Interactions with Catecholamines. Psychiatry Investig. 2017;14(4):483-490. doi:10.4306/pi.2017.14.4.483
- Kim, S. et al. “Mind-Body Practices for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Investigative Medicine 61 (2013): 827 - 834.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.