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Breathe Your Way to Better Health

Experience a new level of calm and control in your life by tapping into the incredible power of your breath

By Maggie Aime

Do you remember the first time you got behind the wheel of a car? For many of us, learning to drive is a rite of passage. But somewhere along the way, we become so confident in our skills that we neglect the small details — like checking our blind spot or using our turn signals.

As a result, bad driving habits can easily sneak up on us and be dangerous if left unchecked. The same is true for breathing.

A woman doing breathing exercises at home. Next Avenue
Diaphragmatic breathing facilitates the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your body. This dynamic process helps reduce your heart rate, making you feel more relaxed and connected with your breath.   |  Credit: Getty

Breathing is a rite of passage into this world. It's an automatic process we hardly notice. But how we breathe can impact our physical and emotional well-being. 

Stressful situations, anxiety or just sitting at a desk can lead us to take shallow breaths that don't fully expand our lungs. Like driving, it's easy to fall into poor breathing habits, but learning to breathe efficiently can make a world of difference.    

Exploring The Science Behind Breathing 

Breathing is more than just a simple act of inhaling and exhaling air. Research has revealed just how profound the impact of breathing can be on our health. 

Breathing is more than just a simple act of inhaling and exhaling air.

But breath awareness is nothing new — it has been a part of yoga and meditation rituals for thousands of years. And now, modern science has confirmed the biochemical and psychophysiological benefits of this ancient practice. 

"The body and the mind don't work in isolation," says Nikki, an online certified breath coach on a mission to give back the gift of the breath by providing the knowledge, skills and confidence to help people breathe mindfully. 

"And the amazing thing is that the breath links the body and the mind; it's like a bridge that connects the two," she continues. 

Learn About Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing — sometimes known as belly breathing — has numerous health benefits. This deep breathing technique involves using the diaphragm muscle below the lungs when inhaling and exhaling. 

Unfortunately, many people experiencing high-stress levels tend to breathe using the shoulders, neck and back, neglecting the primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm. 

Nikki reminds us that "approximately 80% of our breathing should be happening with the diaphragm." But we tend to use only a fraction of that amount.

Practicing diaphragmatic breathing facilitates the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your body. This dynamic process helps reduce your heart rate, making you feel more relaxed and connected with your breath. 

The breath links the body and the mind; it's like a bridge that connects the two.

In addition, slow diaphragmatic breathing can be effective for managing stress and anxiety, as it encourages a slower, more profound way of taking breaths that helps to create a sense of peace and restoration. 

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure in adults with high blood pressure or at risk of developing it. The addition of diaphragmatic breathing led to increased lung function in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and improved mental well-being and blood glucose management in people with type 2 diabetes mellitus.     

Nikki adds, "At its simplest level, within our autonomic nervous system, we have two main branches: The sympathetic [the fight or flight response] and the parasympathetic [the rest and digest response]." 

The difference between the two lies in their activation signals. The sympathetic nervous system is activated when faced with a stressful or challenging situation, while the parasympathetic nervous system works to help us relax and restore energy levels. 

"And we can use our breath to activate one of those systems if that's what we need," she explains. 


Breath Coaching: Is It Right For You?

Take a moment and imagine a baby breathing. Their little bellies rise and fall rhythmically with each breath, allowing them to take in all the air they need. There's something so effortless, yet powerful, about this intuitive way of breathing.

But as we get older, we lose touch with diaphragmatic breathing. As a result, we often need to develop more helpful and healthy breathing habits. 

"These might range from breathing too fast, too shallow, breath holding or mouth breathing. Due to this, many people remain stuck in the stress cycle," Nikki says.

Breathing practices fit into three categories: Fire, Water, and Earth. 

Just because we're breathing doesn't mean we're doing it right. And as you might seek a personal trainer to improve your physical fitness, a breath coach can help you tap into the power of your breath and guide you through retraining your body to breathe to achieve optimal wellness.

Nikki explains, "I work with individuals to help them use their breath to regulate their nervous system and to change to a state that's more suitable for them to be at their best." 

She commented that her clients develop a more profound sense of breath awareness, which allows them to appreciate the simple yet profound act of breathing. Moreover, tuning into their breath makes them more attuned to themselves and the world around them.

Practical Tips for Optimal Breathing

Nikki describes how breathing practices fit into three categories: Fire, Water, and Earth. 

Fire techniques are perfect for waking up and energizing your body, preparing you for the day ahead. Water techniques can be used anytime throughout the day to stabilize your mood and maintain an overall sense of calm. Earth breathing is all about grounding and relieving stress and anxiety. 

Ready to try diaphragmatic breathing? First, place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Next, take a slow and gentle inhale through your nose, focusing on the sensation of your belly rising with the breath while the hand atop your chest remains still. 

Finally, exhale through your mouth for at least two times longer than your inhale. A simple breathing practice to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slow things down when stressed is the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique

Here's how to do it: 

  1. Exhale through your mouth to release all the air from your lungs.
  2. Close your mouth and, using diaphragmatic breathing, gently breathe in through your nose, counting up to four in your head.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven. 
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.

Practicing the 4-7-8 technique while sitting or lying down is recommended, as some individuals may experience lightheadedness during the initial attempts. 

Transform your health with a tool that's always within reach — your breath. Optimal breathing empowers you to take charge of your well-being whenever and wherever you need it.   

Maggie Aime
Maggie Aime, MSN, RN, is a freelance health, wellness, and medical personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in GoodRx Health, HealthNews, Nursing CE Central, and elsewhere. When she's not writing, she's either relishing a breathtaking sunrise, making memories with her children, or rekindling her love of the piano. Connect with her at The Write RN. Read More
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