The encouraging news: With a little training, we can breathe our way into deeper sleep, happier feelings, and healthier bodies
Breathing has become a hot topic. Breath coaches peddle their wares, promising we can bio-hack our nervous systems via our breath to provide a sea of calm. New research is uncovering how crucial breathing technique is for our sleep and health. And a global pandemic has arisen that acutely affects the respiratory system.
But breathing isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Sure, people will advertise a task’s simplicity by saying “it’s like riding a bike” or “it’s as easy as breathing,” but whereas the consequences of improper technique with bike riding are fairly obvious when you careen into a tree, with breathing, it can take years to recognize the damage.
Breathing is an art, something we need to consciously work on. Controlled by the body’s autonomic nervous system, breathing happens without us thinking about it; the downside of this is that we mistakenly believe we’re breathing just fine when we often aren’t.
Think you’re an inhale-exhale expert? Well let me ask you this: Are you breathing through your mouth? You’re doing it with the wrong orifice. Breathing with your chest? You’re doing it with the wrong muscles. Do you breathe quickly or take shallow breaths? You’re breathing at the wrong pace.
The thing is, we weren’t born deflated in our breathing abilities. In fact, newborns all innately breathe optimally — in through their noses and with deep breaths from within their diaphragms. This is why when you watch babies sleep, you can see their stomachs moving up and down, something we don’t readily observe in adults.
So, what went wrong? Many of us actually un-learn how to breathe correctly and become mouth breathers. This is often caused by sickness (colds or allergies), injuries (a deviated septum, for example), or even stress.
According to physiotherapist Emma Ferris, at least half of the world suffers from a breathing dysfunction without even knowing it. The consequences of this suboptimal breathing can be serious. Without knowing it, we might be hindering our sleep, digestion, and face structure, while also hurting our heart, nervous system, muscles, brain, and tooth development by not breathing properly.
The pelvic floor is also connected to breathing muscles and this can make it a specific challenge for childbearing women. And those are just the physical effects. There are mental-health consequences as well, such as anxiety and depression
The reason for these effects is because every single process in the body is dependent on oxygen. To highlight a couple, our brain uses 20 percent of the oxygen we consume to make decisions and send signals, and the heart consumes massive amounts of oxygen through beating.
Breathe in, Breathe Out
There are important differences between what happens within our bodies when inhaling versus exhaling. Inhaling makes the heart rate go up, whereas exhaling slows it down. Inhaling makes you feel energized; exhaling makes you feel calmer. We can use this information to “bio-hack” our bodies and use breaths to improve our moods and heart functioning. For example, lengthening your exhalation makes you feel more relaxed and causes your blood pressure and heart rate to go down.
Even if you’ve developed poor breathing habits, you can fix them by overriding your respiratory system with conscious breathing. Here are four simple ways to get started:
1.Breathe through your nose
Mouth breathing is only meant to happen when you need to suck in air quickly, such as during exercise. Doing it habitually is problematic because when you breathe through the mouth, the lungs get a lot more “unfiltered” cold, dry air that’s full of viruses and bacteria. It also affects blood chemistry and flow around the body. In contrast, air coming in through the nose must travel through two narrow passageways with fine hairs that filter debris, clean out the nostrils, and warm and humidify the air. These nasal passages also cause 50 percent more air resistance that slows the breathing process down, making a nice, deep, slow breathing pattern happen much more naturally.
If you feel like your nasal passages are too tight to breathe through, that’s likely because you’ve been breathing through your mouth for so long that your nose has adapted from disuse. Often, it won’t take more than several days of conscious nose breathing to open up your nasal passages again. Closing your mouth and placing your tongue up to the palate is a good tip to force you to breathe through your nose.
As for a stuffed-up nose, there are ways to clear blockage more effectively than the ol’ tissue-after-tissue pileup. A method known as nasal irrigation, which can be done one to two times daily at home, flushes out the nasal passages with a saline solution. In some cases, antihistamines are also needed to keep sinuses unblocked.
2. Inhale through your diaphragm
Seventy to eighty percent of the inhaling you do should be done by the stomach muscles known as the diaphragm so that the breath travels from as deep down as possible. The lower parts of the lungs are both more efficient, better at relaxing the pressure in the chest so that the heart doesn’t have to overwork, and even goes so far as to “massage” your liver, stomach, and intestines, creating a rhythmic balance for these organs.
There are breathing exercises you can practice to retrain yourself to take breaths from deep in your diaphragm instead of shallowly from your chest (for one example, see Day 5 of my Breath Reset Journal below).
Practicing good posture can help, too, by ensuring that your chest and the thoracic region of your spine are able to fully expand, allowing more effective and efficient breaths from your diaphragm. Lung capacity typically decreases slowly after our mid-20s, but this can be improved with aerobic exercise. After all, breathing is powered by the coordinated contraction and relaxation of many muscles.
3. Aim for a relaxed rhythm
Everything has a natural rhythm and optimal breathing is no different: When everything is unfolding in the right rhythm, your body functions at its best. The most effective and optimum breathing pattern is slow (around eight to ten breaths per minute). This reduced rate increases the carbon dioxide levels in the blood and allows the body to leave stressed states.
Since your breathing reflects your thoughts and feelings, situations that make you feel tense also lead to stressed breathing patterns, which are often irregular, quick, and shallow. That way of breathing leads to a lack of oxygen which, in turn, makes your body and brain even more stressed.
To drive this point home, a study by Pierre Phillipot discovered a breathing footprint to each emotion. In other words, different emotional states are associated with distinct respiration patterns. He measured participants’ breathing patterns after they generated certain emotions like anger and sadness and then invited other people in to the lab to repeat those same breathing patterns. Remarkably, he found that repeating the various breathings patterns evoked the corresponding emotions!
Many exercises can train you to breathe in a way that will calm you, especially in moments of high stress. One easy method to try: Inhale for two to three seconds, exhale for three to four seconds, pause for two to three seconds and then repeat.
There are also programs that use cyclical, rhythmic patterns of breath to easily bring the mind and body into a state of meditation that has been shown in clinical trials to improve health, mood, and mental function.
4. Breathe quietly
Coughing, snoring, and breathing loudly all cause and reflect suboptimal breaths. It’s easy to neglect all these sounds, but they can actually be red flags that hint that our breathing is off. Snoring is often caused by mouth breathing and there are disorders like sleep apnea that involve dangerous breathing patterns that limit oxygen to our brains. If you frequently wake up not feeling well rested and/or with headaches, this could be a sign of such a disorder.
To change anything, you need to be aware of what you’re working with. First, analyze your personal breathing habits by paying attention to how you breathe in different situations: For example, what’s your breathing like at different times throughout the day? While driving? While eating? While typing?
Also, how does it change as your emotions fluctuate? How do you breathe when you’re focused? Angry? Stressed?
Create recurring “breath checks” throughout the day so you can tune in to your breathing. It could be every time you walk to the bathroom, or get a text message. You could even set an alarm on your phone. When the trigger occurs, focus on how you’re breathing and then adjust what needs to be corrected. If you notice you’re breathing loudly, try to quiet it. If you notice you’re breathing in through your mouth, switch over to your nose, etc.
Do these tips really work? To find out for myself, I conducted a seven-day “breathing reset” experiment. The goal: to retrain my body to breathe properly, give my nasal passages the best shot at capturing air, and see if I can use breathing to help with stress management and sleep.
Beth’s Seven-Day Breath Reset Journal
My ENT once walked into my treatment room and greeted me with, “Hey, it’s that young woman with the worst nasal passages ever!” Not exactly the honorific you want to hear from your MD, but it helped me realize that despite breathing being one of my birthrights, it simply wasn’t made easy for me.
Still, I’m determined to do something about it, especially given the fact that we breathe approximately six million breaths a year. I figure with the stakes that high, I may as well learn to do it right. Time for me to take a deep breath and begin….
I begin first thing in the morning. I figure it is the perfect time to be attempting this reset given that my eldest son’s bar mitzvah is days away, I’m feverishly working with my publisher on the final edits to my first book, and oh, did I mention that my children are all still stuck at home with me?
As the sounds of captive children negotiating breakfast options waft toward me, I sneak off to a corner room to try my first deep-breathing exercise. I start with alternate nostril breathing because I figure it will help me gauge how bad my nasal passages are to begin with. In this exercise, I have to breathe in and out through one nostril at a time while physically holding the other one closed.
I try to remember the key elements of all breathing: straighten my posture, engage my diaphragm, breathe in slowly and deeply. Within a few minutes, I already feel that wonderful combination of confusion and empowerment that comes when you attempt something for the first time, but aren’t sure you’re doing it correctly yet.
Suddenly, the distinct smell of toast-turning-charcoal takes me out of my five-minute island of serenity and I rush to the kitchen, mentally swapping my not-a-care-in-the-world hat for my superhero hat. Reflecting on my first breathing exercise attempt, I feel a calmer start to my routine, a barrier between me and the kitchen chaos that usually begins my day.
For my breathing technique of the day, I choose “pursed lip breathing,” which involves inhaling through your nose and exhaling through pursed lips (think pouting or positioning your lips as you would to blow out candles). This pursed position forces the breath out of your mouth ideally two times slower than the inhale.
I go outside and park myself on our porch swing for this one. I’ve never really been able to whistle, and interestingly enough, during this exercise I finally find myself making the right noise.
I rock back and forth with my porch swing as I inhale and exhale, and find it viscerally relaxing. Normally, I’m not particularly good at lengthening my exhale but this technique helps me do it quite naturally, although I need to remind myself several times to not tense up my face. If someone walked by, I can imagine them saying, “Wow, that lady is serious about her relaxing!”
A few hours later, as night approaches, I begin to feel a little anxious about trying mouth taping, which shockingly involves sealing your mouth so that you’re forced to breathe through your nose. As primitive as it sounds, this is actually a medically developed method with premade tape strips.
When the time finally comes to apply the tape, I blow my nose several times, crawl into bed, freeze midair as the tape hovers inches away and then anxiously hop out of bed for a drink. I repeat this nervous ramp-up several times until I finally admonish myself, “It’s now or never, Beth! Get a grip!”
I read the instructions for what seems like the fifth time, noting that they still say to press your lips together and roll them inward before placing the tape. My particular tape comes in single-use mouth-shaped strips that have a slit to allow in some air, but seems to me it’s just for show; when the tape is on, it feels like a seriously snug seal.
My sleep is fitful on night one. I wake up frequently with bad dreams, but the tape is still in place and I’m alive, which means that at least my nose is doing its job. When I wake up in the morning, I have a bit of a headache, but I believe that’s probably more from lack of sleep than lack of oxygen. I hope this goes better on my second try.
Ever have a burst of water shoot out of your nose during a conversation? If not, this can be arranged by trying nasal irrigation!
Today I’m using it to clear out my nose, which should enhance my breathing. I have to admit that, for at least a few hours, the nasal rinse did make my nasal passages feel good as new. But it also was a bit of a mess until I got the technique down and figured out a few tricks.
First, you need to close your throat while you do it so it doesn’t deluge downward from your sinuses — a good trick for this is saying, “Kakakakaka” while you do it. Second, you should blow your nose several times to get it all out.
I learned the hard way that failure to do so can result in nasal fluid making random exits over the next couple hours at inopportune moments, such as when you’re in conversation with other human beings or bending down to get something from a low shelf at the grocery store.
Today, I also try a breathing exercise that has me holding my breath for a few seconds after I inhale. I struggle to remember that it’s about gently holding your breath in place, not trapping it in for dear life. Once again, I can picture a bystander admonishing: “That woman needs to relax about relaxing!” Man, some imaginary people can be so judgmental….
The exercise of the day is “square breathing.” Touted as highly effective in stressful situations, it’s meant to return your breathing pattern to its normal rhythm even when the body is in fight-or-flight mode.
Square breathing involves repeating a cycle of inhaling, holding that breath, and then exhaling, each for the count of four. Since the past few days have been a whirlwind of completing the finishing touches on both the bar mitzvah plans and the book, my mental soundtrack becomes a cacophony of self-conscious worries: In the middle of a pandemic, will people actually come to celebrate the bar mitzvah of a child who I’ve put my heart and soul into raising? In the middle of a pandemic, will people actually buy this book that I’ve put my heart and soul into writing?
I try the square breathing just as my brain loop is getting worked up all over again and find that it does actually reset my system nicely, or at least cuts off the recurring worries from hijacking my body with a physiological response.
That night, I determine that the nasal rinse is best about an hour before bed because it clears the nose very well before mouth taping. I try a new technique that allows me to use the vented slit in the mouth tape for comfort, but then I find that the tape manages to come loose in the night. Guess I’ll have to find a happy medium.
Today I choose a diaphragmic exercise, as I’m eager to try a breathing exercise that involves lying down. This exercise requires me to place one hand on my belly and one on my chest and to inhale through my nose for two seconds, feeling the air move into my abdomen as my stomach distends.
The idea is for you to physically gauge with your hand whether your stomach is moving up more than your chest (which it should). The exercise ends by breathing out for two seconds through pursed lips while pressing on your abdomen.
Of all the exercises, this is the first one that really helps me measure whether I’m doing anything right, both by feeling my stomach move properly and by feeling my heart actually slow down.
Tonight, I still struggle to find the right balance with the tape so I don’t feel mummified but also don’t unconsciously pop it loose. I remember hearing it could take six months for the body to switch over to nose breathing on its own, which could make this quite a long journey.
Just in case I thought I had any coordination whatsoever, that notion went out the window as I try the 4-7-8 breathing technique today. This involves inhaling quietly through your nose for four seconds, holding your breath for sevens seconds, and exhaling completely through your mouth while making a whoosh sound for eight seconds, all while putting the tip of your tongue to your palate. Anything that involves so much breath holding and restriction of mouth movement is hard enough as it is, but throw in the specific counting of varied amounts and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. This exercise stressed me out more than it relaxed me!
My husband comes out to the porch and arches his eyebrow at me as I’m alternating between puffing out my cheeks like a blowfish and basically gasping like a drowning elephant, and I challenge him to try it just in case my struggle was one of those “just me” things.
He dubiously counters with, “Why on earth would I want to try that?”
Still, I convince him to try it, wave my fingers in his face as I count four, seven, and eight breaths and loudly remind him more than once that he isn’t restricting his tongue properly. After a less-than-perfect activity for marital harmony, I ask him how he feels.
“Weird and annoyed,” is the answer. Yep, pretty much sums it up. Guess I’m not including the 4-7-8 in my personal repertoire.
What makes this night different from all other nights? Well, for one, I finally have a full night of sleep with the mouth tape in place.
This time period post-six months of family lockdown and now post-family-simchah feels like a giant exhale, but because coronavirus still rages on and my children are home so often, I feel like I’m only able to breathe and exhale in small bursts.
Still a long way to go, but at least I can say I do feel, step-by-step, breath-by-breath, like Hashem is putting more wind in my sails and air in my lungs as I continue my journey toward breathing easy.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 717)
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