With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, continued protests triggered by videos of deadly police choke holds on victims crying out “I can’t breathe”, and forest fires destroying the proverbial lungs of the earth simultaneously, it’s no wonder most of us feel like we are suffocating every time we check the news. Before we can resolve these threats to humanity, maybe we all need to just stop and breathe for a minute.
Now more than ever, the power of our breath should not be underestimated. Breathing exercises are free, accessible to all humans and the benefits are well supported by research. Deep breathing slows the heart rate, increases oxygen levels in the bloodstream and triggers the release of endorphins, our natural stress and pain-relieving chemicals.
Stressful situations cause the breathing to become more rapid and less deep, which triggers a negative biofeedback loop that reinforces the stress response. Recently, one of my patients came to my office in a panicked state. She was gasping and taking short shallow breaths. Her husband told me they live on a fixed income and were hoping to avoid an expensive emergency room visit. She wasn’t having chest pain and her vital signs were stable, so my assistant and I simply coached her on how to take slow, deep breaths to alleviate her anxiety. Within 15 minutes, she was calm and felt fine. Taking deep breaths lowered her stress hormone, cortisol, and gave her brain the message to relax.
Variations in breathing regulate the circulatory system in many ways. Deep breathing helps your muscles relax and your blood vessels dilate, which improves circulation and lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing slows and regulates the heart rate and increases energy by improving blood oxygen levels. Often, a heart-opening feeling occurs while doing breathing exercises, resulting in a feeling of deep contentment and relaxation. It’s the best natural high.
Proper breathing can straighten your spine and correct your posture. Back in the late 1800s, Katharina Schroth had severe scoliosis that conventional treatments couldn’t fix. By her teens, her doctors predicted she would die prematurely. Instead, she developed her own breathing techniques to manage her scoliosis and helped others do so too. She lived to be 91. To this day, the Schroth method of physical therapy continues to teach these breathwork techniques.
Breathing is the main pump for the lymphatic system, a network of vessels throughout the body that primarily transport immune cells to areas of infection. They also flush out toxins and cellular waste as well as regulate fluid balance and aid in the absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the intestines.
There are many effective ways to do breathing exercises. The basics are simple. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply while focusing on using your diaphragm to lift your belly as you inhale and squeeze the air all the way out as you slowly exhale. Counting as you inhale and exhale is a common method to help focus the breath. There are many different patterns you can try. The exhale is longer than the inhale for most methods. Many ancient meditation techniques incorporate breathing through one nostril and then the other, rapid breathing or stretching parts of the body in unison with the breath. I suggest you try different techniques to see what feels best for you. It should come naturally and feel good.
We all have the power to feel better anytime, anywhere. All we have to do is slow down and take some nice deep breaths. If you are calm and relaxed after doing a few breathing exercises, you are more likely to have pleasant interactions with those around you and this can create a ripple effect. What if the simple act of conscious deep breathing became the catalyst that brought about the change we all want to see in the world? It’s a revolutionary idea worth a try.
Dr. Margaret Philhower is a naturopathic doctor with a naturopathic family practice in Takilma next door to The Dome School and at Bear Creek Naturopathic Medical Clinic located at 2612 E. Barnett Rd. in Medford. You can schedule an appointment in Takilma by calling 541-415-1549 or Medford by calling 541-770-5563 or visit her website at www.drmargaret.org.