Breathing Easier

Deep breaths can do more than energize you. Research points to their healing power for headaches, menstrual pain, and a host of other symptoms. Learn how to put that power to work.

Shifting into overdrive may be an effective way to get everything done, but living from crisis to crisis can do a real number on your health. Your heart races, blood pressure increases, and your thinking becomes clouded by panic.

The prescription for overcoming all these effects is as plain as the nose on your face: deep breathing, specifically "belly breathing."

Belly breaths -- those deep enough to cause your abdomen, rather than your chest, to rise and fall -- fill your lungs with oxygen and affect your heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels. Just taking a few deep belly breaths stops your involuntary response to stress (breathlessness, pounding heart, and sweating) by signaling your nerves to tell your heart, lungs, stomach, and bladder to calm along with your breath.

"In our society, we are programmed to suck in our stomach and stick out our chest," says Chris Luth, a tai chi chuan teacher in Solana Beach, California.

As a result, the upper chest, specifically the muscles in your neck and upper back, takes over the chore of breathing. This can lead to the high blood pressure, racing heart, and shallow breath that fuel many of our ills, including headaches, heart disease, and hot flashes, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, director of integrative medicine at University of Arizona College of Medicine and author of the book Eight Weeks to Optimum Health (Fawcett, 1998).

Deep Breath Benefits

Reduces stress. Just three deep, full belly breaths can transport you from panic to calmness by allowing extra oxygen into your brain and lower lungs, making you better able to focus.

"I've found that with three to four breaths, my therapy clients will become less fearful," says Gay Hendricks, a psychologist and author of Conscious Breathing (Bantam, 1995). "Often, within ten minutes they've thought of solutions to their problem. It tells me that underneath that fear, there's a creative mind you can tap into."

Similarly, athletes use slow breathing to squelch performance anxiety, says John D. Curtis, a health education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse. His "present moment technique" has helped various professional and collegiate athletes.

"Most of our stress is worrying about the future or the past. This is a great technique to return us to the present," he says. Take a deep breath and hold it for up to five seconds. As you slowly exhale, you'll feel your body unwind.

Prevents headaches. Because most of us hold in our abdomens when we breathe, we use our shoulder and neck muscles to lift our rib cage and expand the chest, says Jack Sandweiss of the California Medical Clinic for Headaches in Encino, California. Tight neck and shoulder muscles can trigger tension headaches. By learning to breathe diaphragmatically, these muscles stay relaxed.

Lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing can reduce stress, a contributor to heart disease. Just two 10-minute sessions of deep, slow breathing can lower high blood pressure as much as 11 points, as reported last year in the medical research journal Hypertension.

"That's as much change as some patients would achieve with antihypertensive drugs," says Patricia Liehr, an associate nursing professor at the University of Texas and a stress-management consultant. "We find patients have forgotten how to keep breathing. They hold their breath and breathe very shallowly, almost as if breathing is something they squeeze into the day."

Deep breaths work because they lead to higher oxygen intake. The heart doesn't have to work as hard, which means heart rate and blood pressure come down, says Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health in Boston and author of Healing Mind, Healthy Women (Delta, 1997).

Thwarts menopausal hot flashes. Cutting your breathing rate in half -- six to eight breaths instead of 14 to 16 per minute -- can reduce the incidence of menopausal hot flashes, according to a 1995 study reported in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society. Neither muscle relaxation nor brain-wave biofeedback were found to work as well.

"When you feel a flash beginning to hit -- during a stressful or warm situation -- do slow, deep belly breathing," says study leader Robert R. Freedman, director of behavioral medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine.

Enhances your workout. Deep breathing builds endurance. Long, slow exhalations convert performance-crippling lactic acid into carbon dioxide, causing it to be expelled as you exhale, says Dr. Weil.

When you're biking or chugging on the stair climber, try to take full breaths, instead of racing from shallow breath to breath. Also, don't hold your breath as you lift weights and do crunches, Dr. Weil says, because this also builds up lactic acid. Try to exhale during the first half of the exercise and you'll notice fewer cramps and easier lifting.

Keeps you young. If you don't practice deep belly breaths at least twice a day, your lung capacity at age 70 will be a third of what it was when you were 20, says Ben Douglas, a retired anatomy professor and author of AgeLess: Living Younger Longer (Quail Ridge Press, 1990).

Like other muscles, the diaphragm and chest cavity become stiff with age if not used. "If you breathe deeply and don't smoke, you can have the lungs of a 35-year-old at 70," Douglas says.

A Breathing Exercise

The best way to breathe is diaphragmatically, according to Dr. Andrew Weil. Here's how:

  • For at least five minutes, focus on your breath without trying to manipulate it in any way. Then, with your mouth closed, inhale quietly through your nose, silently counting of four.
  • Hold the breath for seven seconds. Finally, exhale audibly through your mouth for eight seconds.
  • Work to make your breathing deeper, slower, quieter, and regular. Your belly should expand like a balloon as you inhale. As you exhale, allow your diaphragm to deflate, then your rib cage, and finally your chest.
  • Repeat the entire exercise four times, twice daily.

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