The Power of Breathing to Calm Your Brain

For years, humans have relied on breathing as a way to achieve peace of mind. As you know, one of the most basic and effective forms of meditation is to become aware of your breath and follow it, in and out of your body.

Well, it looks like science is confirming all of religion’s teachings on the positive effects of breathing.

A recent article in Psychology Today talks about a 2016 conducted by neuroscientists from Stanford, UCLA, and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and outlines all the positive impacts that breath control has on the brain.

From Psychology Today:

A 2016 study (link is external) accidentally stumbled upon the neural circuit in the brainstem that seems to play the key role in the breathing-brain control connection.

The circuit is part of what’s been called the brain’s “breathing pacemaker” because it can be adjusted by altering breathing rhythm (slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit; fast, erratic breathing increases activity), which in turn influences emotional states.

Not as cold | by Noukka Signe

Exactly how this happens is still being researched, but knowing the pathway exists is a big step forward. Simple controlled breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method may work by regulating the circuit.

Positively Impact on Blood Pressure

“Take a deep breath” is solid advice, particularly when it comes to keeping your blood pressure from spiking. While it’s unclear whether you can entirely manage blood pressure with controlled breathing, research suggests that slowing your breathing increases “baroreflex sensitivity,” the mechanism that regulates blood pressure via heart rate.

Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate may lower risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm, and generally decreases stress on blood vessels (a big plus for cardiovascular health).

Counting breaths taps into the brain’s emotional control regions.

A recent study (link is external) showed that controlling breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain,” particularly in brain regions related to emotion. Participants were asked to count how many breaths they took over a two-minute period, which caused them to pay especially focused attention to their breathing.

When they counted correctly, brain activity (monitored by EEG) in regions related to emotion, memory and awareness showed a more organized pattern versus what’s normally experienced during a resting state. The results are preliminary, but add to the argument that controlling breathing taps into something deeper.

The rhythm of your breathing affects memory.

A 2016 study (link is external) showed for the first time that the rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that influences how well we remember. The biggest differences were linked to whether the study participants were inhaling or exhaling, and whether they breathed through the nose or mouth.

Inhaling was linked to greater recall of fearful faces, but only when breathing through the nose. Participants were also able to remember certain objects better when inhaling. Researchers think that nasal inhalation triggers greater electrical activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional epicenter, which enhances recall of fearful stimuli. Inhaling also seems linked to greater activity in the hippocampus, the seat of memory.

Controlled breathing may boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.

While this is the most speculative of the study findings on this list, it’s also one of the most exciting. The study (link is external) was evaluating the “Relaxation Response” (a term popularized in the 1970s book of the same name by Dr. Herbert Benson, also a co-author of this study), which refers to a method of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the nervous system’s “fight or flight” response to stress.

Controlled breathing triggers a parasympathetic response, according to the theory, and may also improve immune system resiliency as a “downstream health benefit.” The study also found improvements in energy metabolism and more efficient insulin secretion, which results in better blood sugar management. If accurate, the results support the conclusion that controlled breathing isn’t only a counterbalance to stress, but also valuable for improving overall health.

One way to control breathing for a positive effect is to use the 4-7-8 breathing method.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends using this technique at least twice a day. It’s great for treating moderate anxiety and even helping you fall asleep at night. Go here to see him demonstrate this breathing exercise.