The Remarkable Health Benefits of Abdominal Breathing

By Suzanne Smith, RN, NP

2020 has been a challenging year to say the least. We have all been impacted significantly and many of the resources we rely on for our well-being are not available. Most gyms and studios are closed, it is not safe to gather in groups and most of us are working or studying from home making it difficult for work/life balance.

It is especially important in these times to focus on healthy behaviors that promote a healthy immune and nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing is a free, easily accessible and effective stress reduction tool that influences our physiological state and promotes a resilient nervous system. It creates a calm and vibrant energy and can be practiced sitting, standing or lying down by anyone at anytime.

Breathing exercises for health benefits have been used for thousands of years in many cultures and mounting evidence is confirming these benefits. Breathing is regulated involuntarily by the autonomic nervous system according to a wide range of cues from the body and the environment. The autonomic nervous system consists of two main branches involved in breathing, the sympathetic branch which mediates “flight, flight, freeze” response, and the parasympathetic branch engaged during periods of “rest and digest”. When we experience a stressor, our body adjusts to the demands and adapts our breathing accordingly resulting in shallow breaths into our chest at an increased rate. We have all experienced the stress response and we usually recover within a short time. However, when stress is present for prolonged periods and sympathetic activity becomes dominant, a situation called in scientific terms Allostatic Load, our system moves out of balance which can lead to low-grade immune activation throughout the body and numerous health problems.1

The good news is that breathing is also a voluntary mechanism and by simply altering our breathing pattern, we can alter our physiology and bring it back into balance. Breathing is a great tool to regulate the stress response in the moment. For most adult people, even when we are not feeling stressed we automatically take shallow chest breaths and do not relax our abdomen. While deep chest breathing is optimal for the acute fight and flight response, it does not exercise our capacity for regular optimal breathing. When we consciously take slow deep breaths with movement from the diaphragm, our abdomen relaxes and air is able to fill our entire lungs creating better air exchange. During this process of abdominal breathing the vagal activity increases sending signals to the brain which initiate the relaxation response. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is the main pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system. It communicates signals in a bidirectional way between our organs and the brain. It originates in the brainstem. The vagus nerve functions like a bidirectional information highway regulating body functions such as breathing and digestion and plays a major role in regulating the brain-gut axis. Practicing abdominal breathing increases cardio vagal tone and heart rate variability (HRV), indicators of a balanced and resilient nervous system.2 Higher cardio vagal tone means your system has greater efficiency for relaxing.

When we practice abdominal breathing, we allow our diaphragm to do the work and don’t need to use our accessory muscles in our chest, neck and shoulders as we do in chest breathing decreasing muscle tension and stress. Studies have linked slow abdominal breathing with central activation of brain regions related to positive emotional regulation3 and reduced pain perception.4 Abdominal breathing has also been shown to enhance sleep, vitality and decrease anxiety and depression.5

In summary, abdominal breathing is one of the simplest, most effective and immediate ways to influence your physiological state creating overall health and well-being for free. Practice daily for building a resilient nervous system. Remember to take a few slow abdominal breaths anytime you feel tension or stress to bring you back into balance.

We offer you this abdominal breathing video as a gift. May it bring you ease and well-being!

References

  1. Miller ES, Apple CG, Kannan KB, Funk ZM, Plazas JM, Efron PA, Mohr AM. Chronic stress induces persistent low-grade inflammation. Am J Surg. 2019 Oct; 218(4):677-683. doi: 10.1016/j.amjsurg.2019.07.006. Epub 2019 Jul 30. PMID: 31378316; PMCID: PMC6768696
  2. Six Dijkstra M, Soer R, Bieleman A, McCraty R, Oosterveld F, Gross D, Reneman M. Exploring a 1-Minute Paced Deep-Breathing Measurement of Heart Rate Variability as Part of a Workers’ Health Assessment. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2019 Jun;44(2):83-96. doi: 10.1007/s10484-018-9422-4. PMID: 30506478; PMCID: PMC6505487.
  3. Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, Garbella E, Menicucci D, Neri B, Gemignani A. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353. PMID: 30245619; PMCID: PMC6137615.
  4. Busch V, Magerl W, Kern U, Haas J, Hajak G, Eichhammer P. The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing–an experimental study. Pain Med. 2012 Feb;13(2):215-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x. Epub 2011 Sep 21. PMID: 21939499.
  5. Jerath R, Crawford MW, Barnes VA, Harden K. Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2015 Jun;40(2):107-15. doi: 10.1007/s10484-015-9279-8. PMID: 25869930.

Suzanne Smith, RN, NP is nurse practitioner at UCLA where she heads the Integrative Digestive Health and Wellness Program, teaching mind-body based skills and promoting healthy living for gastrointestinal conditions. She is a regular contributor to the MGC Newsletter.


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