What’s something you do all day without thinking much about it; that’s given you at birth and free for the taking all your life; that weighs nothing but takes down the strongest of us if held too long?
You got it – we’re talking about breathing. This is something we do without much thought 24 hours a day, day in and day out. But, if we learn a bit about the power of breath and do some easy-to-implement breathing techniques, we can access some powerful advantages. This week’s More Than Healthy Tip is all about the amazing health benefits of breathwork.
Several weeks ago we talked about meditation and mentioned that we would be getting into more specifics on breathwork in a future post. So let’s talk about the importance of a good breathwork practice – not only for daily implementation, but also for when you end up in a stressful or high-pressure situation.
What is ‘Breathwork’?
Breathwork is the practice of using specific breathing techniques to help release toxins and stress when you breathe out and nourish your mind and body when you breathe in. Carla first heard of this concept about 35 years ago when she bought a DVD series from Tony Robbins that had a segment on breathwork. Her thought back then was, “I’m not really sure that would make a difference, I mean, it’s just breathing!” and she moved on. Now she wishes she’d started incorporating breathwork in her daily rituals years ago. It wasn’t until 30 years later that she discovered how important breathwork really is.
The American Institute of Stress highly recommends breathwork. In fact, there is one stress reduction technique they call the “Super Stress Buster” they recommend as useful for everyone – even kids. This technique is free and can be practiced anywhere. What is this awesome technique? You guessed it – breathing! Or, more specifically, focused breathing, or breathwork.
Many of us spend our relaxation time laying on a couch watching TV. But the truth is, to access a true relaxation response, it’s much more effective to implement the mentally-active process of breathwork that will leave the body calm, relaxed, and focused. Even a few minutes of breathwork a day helps to reduce anxiety and stress, increases the oxygen supply to the brain, and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Breathwork helps you feel connected to your body while quieting your mind.
Other physical responses of practicing breathwork can include:
- A lowered heartbeat
- Relaxed muscles
- Slower breathing
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased levels of nitric oxide (one of the most important molecules for blood vessel health)
Four health benefits of breathwork
There is a wealth of information available about the health benefits of breathwork and the different techniques available. We’re going to share four benefits that we’ve experienced from a good breathwork routine, as well as our favorite breathing techniques.
Benefit #1: Deep breathing calms the nerves and reduces stress
Like Carla, I wish I’d started using breathwork years earlier, especially as a competitive athlete. It is a highly effective method for dealing with stress and high-pressure situations and has helped me to be a better competitor.
Breathwork on the court
Some of you may have heard me talk about how wound up I can get during a pickleball match. My brain knows that if I start getting upset, anxious, nervous, or frustrated with myself or my partner, I will start playing worse. But in the past when those feelings started happening, there seemed to be nothing I could do that would reverse the inevitable downward spiral from happening. So even though we were better than many of the teams we were playing, we would still lose the match.
That all changed this past year when I decided to put all this work I’ve done on stress management to the test. When I’d miss a shot and all those emotions would show up, I’d mentally push pause. Then, at every chance I could find, I started to do deep breathing exercises.
In between plays, I would simply do a few slow, deep breaths. I would instantly feel reconnected again and be calmer for the next play. In between games, when I had a little more time, I would go off and do some deep breathing exercises.
A 4/4 breathwork technique
One breathing exercise I use is a 4/4 pattern. Here’s how it works:
- Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds
- Hold the breath in for 4 seconds
- Breathe out through the mouth for 4 seconds
- Hold the breath out for 4 seconds
The most amazing thing happened after I did this breathing exercise in between games. When I got back on the court, I felt calm and focused. I started playing some of my most relaxed and best games. And we won the gold medal! I really do give credit for this to the breathwork I employed during and between games. It’s become my secret strategy for success, on and off the court.
Why it works
When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes fast and shallow. This limits the oxygen entering the bloodstream. This is the beginning of your body going into ‘fight or flight’ response.
When you do some deep breaths you increase the supply of oxygen to your brain. This extra oxygen helps alkalize your blood PH. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect. It helps to calm you because of the impact on your central nervous system.
By purposefully breathing slowly and deeply, that extra oxygen tells the brain everything is okay. Then your brain tells your body that it’s safe to relax, and that ‘fight or flight’ response starts to go away.
The science behind this is simple but profound; it’s rare to see a study published in the highly-respected PubMed Central Vault with a title like “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life.” The link between breathwork and the central nervous system is undeniable. According to this study, added psychological benefits related to breathwork include increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor and alertness, and reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.
So, the next time you’re in a stressful situation – whether it’s on a court, in a conference room, or handling a conflict, practice some calming breathing exercises. It really does work!
Benefit #2: Breathwork helps you focus and boosts your energy
Speaking of Tony Robbins and those long-ago DVDs, we’ve recently read his latest book Life Force. There’s a section where he talks about the importance of breathwork. Robbins does some type of breathwork three times a day: When he first gets up in the morning, during the day when something stressful comes up, and in the evening just before bed to help him calm down and get ready to sleep.
These are the ways we use breathwork, too. We use different breathwork techniques depending on the circumstance. It’s probably no surprise that breathwork is helpful for relaxation. But did you know about energizing breathwork? This is a far healthier way to boost your energy than caffeine, and we’ve found it to be more powerful, too.
There are a variety of breathwork methods you can use for added energy. Here is the method I like to do in the morning to boost my energy:
- Inhale through the nose with a short, sharp inhalation, quickly followed by a long, strong inhale.
- Without pausing, exhale through the nose and mouth with a short, sharp exhale, quickly followed by a long, strong exhale.
I do this five times first thing in the morning. It ramps up my blood flow and increases oxygenation in my body so that I’m ready to hit the day running.
Why it works
The amount of oxygen we inhale directly influences the amount of energy that is released into our body’s cells. Breathing is the easiest and most effective part of the autonomic nervous system we can control. The way we breathe strongly affects the chemical and physiological activities throughout the whole body.
Studies show that through proper breathwork, you are able to increase sustained attention and states of wakefulness. This happens as you activate the sympathetic nervous system and reduce vagal activity…all through simple but deliberate breathing exercises.
Benefit #3: Breathwork helps to improve your sleep
By now you know how we feel about sleep here at More Than Healthy! Sleep is the foundation of good health. It seems like every tip we share has some type of benefit on sleep. Breathwork is no exception. One of the best ways to get ready for sleep is to do some relaxation breathing right before bed.
Breathwork helps to improve your deep sleep by increasing your melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycles. It also increases Alpha brain waves, which are associated with sleep and quieting your mind. Some deep breathing before going to bed not only relaxes you, it helps to remove the toxins from the day and puts you in a state where your body is ready for some good, deep sleep.
Carla and I use a 4:8:16 breathwork pattern to help us get ready for sleep:
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts
- Hold for 8 counts
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth for 16 counts
Just 3-4 cycles of this breathing technique and we are relaxed and ready for a healthy night of sleep.
Why it works
Studies prove that when you breathe deeply and slowly like this, it activates special receptors in your lungs. These receptors send signals to your brain that put the brakes on the fight or flight system in your body. It also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. These breathing techniques encourage your body to decrease the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, and slow down your brain waves.
Breathing exercises like these activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates our rest and repair operations. Studies show that when this system is activated, it helps us fall asleep and stay asleep.
Terry Cralle, RN and Certified Clinical Sleep Educator, explains that focusing your attention on breathing and counting redirects your mind away from daily worries. It signals your mind and body that it’s time to relax and go to bed.
Do you struggle with sleep?
If you’re familiar with my story, you’ll know that I have done a lot of work to achieve healthy sleep. It has been an integral part of taking back my health. (You can read more about my tips for good sleep here. If you or someone you love really struggles with sleep or has received a sleep diagnosis such as sleep apnea or insomnia, you may benefit from reading about my health journey here.)
Carla and I are now both pretty good sleepers, but occasionally one of us will wake in the night. If we have a hard time going back to sleep, we simply do this 4:8:16 breathing exercise. Usually it helps us fall back to sleep within just a few minutes.
Benefit #4: Breathwork improves your immune system
Another amazing benefit from breathwork is that it can boost your immune system. This makes sense if you think about the close connection between stress levels and breathing. Shallow breathing messages your brain that it needs to be prepared for stress. The brain then triggers the sympathetic nervous system and increases our levels of systemic inflammation. All of this negatively impacts our immune system. Poor breathing also allows unfiltered air into the lungs, allowing dust, bacteria, and other foreign substances that can make us sick.
Some powerful examples
Studies show that with proper breathwork, we can actually control our body’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls that fight or flight response and is connected to the immune system. In one recent study, all study participants were intentionally exposed to a toxin that causes flu-like symptoms. However, half of the participants had also been trained in meditation and breathwork. Results found that those participants fared much better, reporting fewer flu-like symptoms. They also produced lower amounts of several proteins associated with inflammation, and higher levels of an inflammation-fighting protein called interleukin-10.
Another study involving cancer patients showed that participants who regularly practiced breathing exercises could help boost immune cells specific to combating cancer progressions.
This study focused on natural killer (NK) cells, which are critical to the body’s immune system. Controlled rhythmic breathing was found to increase NK cells over a 3-6 month period. It’s not a quick fix, but for someone like me who has battled recurring cancer, these findings are significant. I am interested in anything that is going to increase my NK cells. And if that something is as easy to do as deep breathing, count me in!
The Iceman proves that breathwork really works
Have you heard of Wim Hof, otherwise known as The Iceman? He’s a Dutch extreme athlete who currently holds 26 world records. Hof does crazy things like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and taking a 112-minute ice bath. (Look him up, you won’t be bored!) He’s also probably the most famous person to prove the effectiveness of breathwork. He believes you can achieve total command over your body and mind through the use of specific breathing techniques – and that anyone can do it.
Through his breathing techniques, the Iceman has been able to boost his immune system to the point where he can do all these things in below-freezing temperatures and not get sick. He has been able to control heart rate and blood circulation and to withstand extreme temperatures by, in part, learning to control his breathing.
The Wim Hof Method for breathwork
The Wim Hof Method (WHM) teaches a specific breathing technique with the goal of mastering your nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems to help you be happier, stronger, and healthier. This technique can help keep your body in optimal condition and in control even through the most extreme conditions.
You can follow his step-by-step instructions here. I will walk you through how Carla and I use this method in the steps below. Note that you can watch a demonstration of all of the breathing techniques in this article in our Tip #29 video.
A step-by-step guide
- Get comfortable by sitting or lying down on the floor. Make sure you can breathe deeply without any constriction.
- Close your eyes and try to clear your mind. Inhale deeply through the nose or mouth, and exhale unforced through the mouth. Fully inhale through the belly, then chest, and then let the breath out, unforced. Repeat this 30-40 times in short, powerful bursts. You may experience light-headedness, and tingling sensations in your fingers and feet, but these side effects are completely harmless.
- After the last exhalation, inhale one final time as deeply as you can. Then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again.
- When you feel the urge to breathe again, draw one big breath to fill your lungs. Feel your belly and chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold your breath for around 15 seconds, then let go. That completes round number one. This cycle can be repeated 3-4 times.
You may also find it very helpful to practice this breathing technique along with Hof’s Breathing Bubble video. This is an audiovisual guide that helps you maintain rhythm, relax, and fully engage in the breathing technique.
Note: This technique may be something you have to work up to. Carla is working her way up to four times in a row.
The power of breathing
Every person on the planet has one thing in common: we have to breathe to survive. This thing our body does automatically has immense potential. We can use the power of our own breath to reduce stress and anxiety, increase our energy, sleep deeper and better, to boost our immune system, and more. It’s cost-free, can be done anywhere, and absolutely anyone can do it. There are so many reasons to be excited about the health benefits of breathwork.
Let us know if you have any questions. If you have a favorite breathwork technique you use that we didn’t touch on, please share it with us. We’d love to give it a try. If you have never tried breathwork before, which one are you going to try first? Let us know how it goes!
For those of you interested in our free coaching calls, we do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us! Just text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list, or you can watch our social media pages and we will have the link there.
See you next week for another More Than Healthy tip!