Breathing your way to better health

Deep breathing can help reduce stress and potentially your risk of some diseases.

Inhale. Exhale. It’s something you do tens of thousands of times each day, probably without thinking much about it. While it may seem strictly utilitarian, breathing isn’t only life-sustaining; it can be life-enhancing when used as a tool, says Dr. Shalu Ramchandani, a health coach and internist at the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Simple breathing exercises incorporated throughout your day can actually disengage a potentially health-harming chronic stress response and help insulate you from the damage that it can inflict on your body.

Stress takes a toll

“Addressing stress is probably the most important area in preventive care,” says Dr. Ramchandani.

Elevated stress levels affect a variety of health behaviors. If you are under chronic (long-term) stress, you often don’t sleep well, eat well, or have the motivation to exercise. It may also fray your social ties, because people tend to isolate more when they are under chronic stress, she says.

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Persistent stress over time is a health risk because it triggers your body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your fight-or-flight response. When this response is activated, the body begins to pump out a flood of hormones, such as adrenaline, which gives you the energy to flee from danger. It also releases cortisol, which has numerous roles in the body, including helping to regulate your metabolism and your immune system. While this response can be helpful if you’re faced with a sudden emergency, such as being chased by an aggressive dog, ongoing exposure to elevated levels of these hormones can produce inflammation in the body and dampen your immune response, says Dr. Ramchandani.

Chronic stress can produce a host of unpleasant physical symptoms such as chest tightness and difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, digestive issues, insomnia, and migraines. It also induces changes to your mental health, making you feel anxious or depressed or driving behavioral problems such as drinking too much alcohol or overeating.

Patients who are under persistent stress may gain weight, and they may also be more likely to develop chronic diseases, including diabetes or high blood pressure, says Dr. Ramchandani.

Many people don’t attribute their symptoms to stress, she says. She describes patients who come into her office with physical symptoms but can’t identify any obvious stressors. Yet as the conversation continues, they may mention caring for a sick parent, working long hours, or having child care responsibilities.

“I see this all the time in my practice. Women often don’t realize how much stress they are under. We often wear many hats — in our professional careers and as mothers, spouses, and daughters. We do it all. Women often multitask and are great at creating to-do lists and caring for everyone else. But we often neglect our own needs or put ourselves last on the list,” says Dr. Ramchandani.

Understanding breathing

Stress can impair your breathing when you’re not aware of it. Your chest tends to tighten as your tension levels rise.

“People might also hold their breath or breathe irregularly when stressed,” says Dr. Ramchandani. Breathing may become shallower, causing stale air to linger in the lungs instead of being expelled. This prevents new air from flowing in the way it should. “The inhalation becomes shorter, which in turn limits the amount of used-up air that can be exhaled,” she says. This leads to chest breathing.

“When we were babies, we were belly breathers. When you watch babies, you see their belly rises as they inhale,” says Dr. Ramchandani.

Adults, she says, should make a conscious effort to return to this type of breathing.

“It’s the most effective way to get the lungs filled with fresh air, allowing for the greatest amount of oxygen exchange,” she says.

To get back in the habit, Dr. Ramchandani says that women should try to incorporate brief, mindful deep-breathing sessions into their day. Breathing exercises can help you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counters the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system preps the body to take action, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in when you are relaxed, regulating your resting heart rate, metabolism, and other basic bodily functions.

Engaging the parasympathetic system can help buffer stress hormones and consequently decrease inflammation. It also brings other health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and better immunity, says Dr. Ramchandani. Because elevated cortisol levels can drive you to reach for comfort foods and gain weight, lessening the amount of this hormone in your system can also improve weight control and reduce the risk of insulin resistance, a condition where the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin effectively, raising blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance and obesity can increase your likelihood of developing diabetes and other chronic diseases.

Breathing your way throughout your day

To get started using breathing exercises for stress reduction, Dr. Ramchandani recommends several strategies.

Take a pause. The reason people often don’t notice their body’s stress response is because they’re busy. To better recognize stress, you need to stop periodically and listen to your body.

“When you become more self-aware, you start to notice the distress signals, such as muscle tightening and tension,” says Dr. Ramchandani. Also take note of your behavior. “Did I neglect going for my run this week because I packed in all these other things for everyone else?” says Dr. Ramchandani. “You have to take that time out to recognize stress in order to find ways to care for yourself,” she says.

Make deep breathing a habit. Schedule short deep-breathing sessions throughout your day, ideally a few breaths every hour. Even short sessions — a handful of deep breaths at a time — can make a difference. Focus on slowing your breathing. Count to four as you breathe in, and again as you exhale. Try to breathe using your diaphragm. Allow the air to fill your chest and your belly to rise at the same time. It can help to use reminders to do your breathing throughout the day. For example, you might take a couple of breaths every time you sit down at your computer or whenever you get a text message, says Dr. Ramchandani.

Schedule a block of time. Try to fit in one five- to 10-minute block during the day to complete a guided meditation. You can find short exercises online or through a smartphone app. “I really like meditating in the morning, because it allows me to check in with myself and set my intentions for the day,” says Dr. Ramchandani. But any time of the day can work. “It doesn’t matter when you do it, as long as you are able to do it consistently,” says Dr. Ramchandani.

Get ahead of stress. One thing that is also helpful is to do some breathing exercises when you know you are going into a nerve-racking situation. For example, take a few breaths before you step into a meeting, or in anticipation of a difficult conversation. “If you allow yourself five or 10 deep belly breaths it helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and puts you in a better position to handle the stress,” says Dr. Ramchandani.

Stretch your muscles. When you take your daily pauses, try to incorporate some simple stretches to help you recognize tight muscles and relax them. Perform some slow neck rolls, stretch your torso by turning from side to side, or do a few shoulder circles. Ease the tension out of your back by bending down to touch your toes with your legs straight.

Focus on yourself. Women often feel like they are being selfish if they take time for themselves. But doing so is crucial to your well-being, says Dr. Ramchandani. Take a few minutes each day to do something you enjoy, without a goal in mind.

Ultimately, you may not be able to stop life’s stressors, but you can learn to respond to them in a more positive way.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. Psalm 119:7 NIV

Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. Psalm 119:2 NIV

Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Mark 11:23 NIV

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NIV

But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. Joshua 22:5 NIV

Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. Psalm 119:111 NIV

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 NIV

As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. Proverbs 27:19 NIV

May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. Psalm 20:4 NIV

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” Jeremiah 17:9-10 NIV

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13 NIV

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