Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or deep breathing, is a technique where you breathe deeply into your diaphragm, instead of shallowly into your chest. This can be beneficial for relaxation, stress reduction, and overall respiratory health.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, you should sit or lie in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
Then, inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing the belly to fall to its normal position. Repeat this process for several minutes. (The hand placed on the chest is to notice and make sure that you are not doing upper chest-based shallow breath)
Diaphragmatic breathing has several advantages, including:
- Stress reduction: Diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce stress and tension by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response in the body.
- Improved lung function: By breathing deeply into the diaphragm, you can increase the amount of oxygen that reaches your lungs, which can help improve lung function.
- Improved digestion: Deep breathing can help improve digestion by massaging the internal organs and promoting the release of digestive enzymes.
- Improved sleep: Diaphragmatic breathing can help promote relaxation and reduce insomnia, leading to better sleep.
- Improved heart health: Deep breathing can help lower heart rate and blood pressure, which can help improve heart health.
- Improved mental clarity: Diaphragmatic breathing can help improve focus and concentration, leading to better mental clarity.
- Pain relief: deep breathing can help reduce chronic pain by releasing endorphins.
- Improved overall respiratory function: Diaphragmatic breathing can help strengthen the muscles used for breathing, leading to better overall respiratory function.
Stress & Anxiety Management
Diaphragmatic breathing reduces stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” response in the body. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease the levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
When you breathe deeply into your diaphragm, it sends a signal to your brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The process of deep breathing also increases the amount of oxygen in your body, which can help to relax the muscles and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Additionally, deep breathing can help to release tension in the body by allowing the breath to move into areas of the body that may be holding stress. This can include the shoulders, neck, and chest.
Moreover, diaphragmatic breathing can also help to stimulate the Vagus nerve which is the longest cranial nerve in the body that runs from the brainstem down to the abdomen. This nerve plays a crucial role in regulating the body’s stress response and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
In summary, diaphragmatic breathing can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, increase oxygen levels in the body, release tension, and stimulate the Vagus nerve, which can all work together to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
As discussed, the vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body and runs from the brainstem down to the abdomen. It is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s “rest and digest” functions. The nerve plays a key role in regulating many of the body’s automatic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and respiratory rate.
The vagus nerve also plays a role in regulating the body’s stress response. When the nerve is stimulated, it can help to decrease the levels of stress hormones like cortisol and increase the levels of feel-good hormones like serotonin. This can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and promote feelings of relaxation.
Also Read: The feel-good hormones
Activating the vagus nerve can also have other health benefits. For instance, it can improve heart health by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. It can also help to improve digestion by increasing the release of digestive enzymes and promoting the movement of food through the gut.
Activating the vagus nerve can be done through various activities such as diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, meditation, and certain types of exercise. Certain treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) used for depression also stimulate the vagus nerve.
It’s important to note that some people may have a weak vagus nerve response, which can lead to issues such as chronic inflammation, poor gut health, and anxiety. In such cases, it’s important to consult a doctor or a health professional to find out the best ways to improve the function of the vagus nerve.
Also Read: Heart Rate & Exercises
Are there any risks or side effects to diaphragmatic breathing?
In general, diaphragmatic breathing is considered a safe technique with few side effects. However, if you experience any discomfort or pain while practising diaphragmatic breathing, it’s important to stop and speak with your healthcare provider.
Some people may experience lightheadedness or dizziness when first starting to practice diaphragmatic breathing, especially if they are not used to breathing deeply. This is usually temporary and can be reduced by starting with shorter sessions and gradually increasing the duration as your body becomes accustomed to the technique.
Additionally, for people with certain medical conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diaphragmatic breathing may be harder to perform due to breathlessness, so it’s important to speak with a doctor or a respiratory therapist before starting. Also, people who have recently had surgery on their diaphragm or have diaphragm paralysis should be cautious when practising diaphragmatic breathing and consult a doctor before starting.
Finally, it’s important to note that diaphragmatic breathing is a complementary technique and should not replace any treatment prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Improving Lung Capacity
Diaphragmatic breathing can help to improve lung capacity over time. When you breathe deeply into your diaphragm, you can increase the amount of oxygen that reaches your lungs, which can help to improve lung function.
Diaphragmatic breathing can also help to strengthen the muscles used for breathing, particularly the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle used for breathing. A stronger diaphragm can help to increase the amount of air that can be taken in with each breath, leading to a greater lung capacity over time.
Deep breathing can also help expand the alveoli (small air sacs) in the lungs, which can also lead to greater lung capacity.
It’s important to note that diaphragmatic breathing is not a treatment for lung diseases and should not replace any prescribed treatment. However, it can be used as a complementary technique to help improve lung function and breathing capacity in people with lung conditions such as asthma or COPD, under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Can heart patients do it?
Diaphragmatic breathing can be beneficial for heart health, as it can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure. However, it is essential for heart patients to consult with their healthcare provider before starting diaphragmatic breathing, especially if they have any specific heart condition. For example, people with heart failure or other cardiac conditions that make it hard for them to breathe, diaphragmatic breathing might be harder to perform and might cause discomfort.
Overall, diaphragmatic breathing can be a safe and beneficial technique for heart health when performed under the guidance of a healthcare professional, and it can be used as a complementary technique to help improve heart health.
Also Read: Exercise & Diet for a healthy heart
Sympathetic Vs Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, the other being the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” functions. It helps to slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease the levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it also helps to increase blood flow to the digestive organs, which can help to improve digestion and nutrient absorption. It also stimulates the secretion of certain hormones and enzymes that aid digestion and metabolism.
The parasympathetic nervous system also plays a role in regulating other bodily functions such as urination, defecation, and sexual arousal. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by the Vagus nerve which is the longest cranial nerve in the body and runs from the brainstem down to the abdomen. It is activated through various activities such as diaphragmatic breathing, yoga, meditation, and certain types of exercise.
It’s important to note that the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system work together to help the body respond to different situations. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in response to stress or danger and is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline levels.
When the balance between the two systems is disrupted, it can lead to health issues such as chronic inflammation, poor gut health, and anxiety.
Practising techniques that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, such as diaphragmatic breathing, can help to promote relaxation and reduce stress, improving overall health and well-being.
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