Updated: Oct 3, 2020
Hello Readers! This blog post is part 2 of my belly breathing series. If you have not read part 1 yet, I highly recommend that you go back and read that post so you don't get too confused with any jargon or terminology in this post (click here to read). In this blog post, I will explain why practicing, and using, belly breathing is so important. Belly breathing simply means that you breathe in/out using the diaphragm muscle to its fullest range of motion (ROM). There are SO MANY physiological and psychological benefits to practicing belly breathing, which are described below. Stay tuned for part 3 which will explain different ways to practice belly breathing.
Below is a list of some of the documented benefits of practicing belly breathing:
Improved diaphragm mobility
Reduced neck and back pain
Better breath support and coordination for speaking, eating, and swallowing
Down-regulation of the nervous system
Improved lung volume and increased blood oxygen levels
Reduced blood pressure
Reduction in mental health issues
Improved exercise tolerance
Reduction in blood cortisol
Improved cognitive skills
Let's take each one of these benefits and discuss them further (just in case you are not yet convinced that practicing belly breathing is worth doing...😉).
1. Improved Diaphragm Mobility
Research has repeatedly shown that practicing belly breathing can lead to increased range of motion (ROM) of the diaphragm. When you consciously mobilize your diaphragm, by mindfully practicing diaphragmatic breathing, you actually impact the diaphragm's mechanoreceptors. Mechanoreceptors include a diverse group of nerve endings that detect changes in pressure, touch, and movement, and then they relay that information to your central nervous system (i.e. the brain and spinal cord). Specifically, belly breathing practice impacts the muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs. Muscle spindles are mechanoreceptors found right smack-dab in the middle of the muscle tissue, and they are wired to respond when a muscle lengthens or stretches. When muscle spindles are stimulated via increased muscle length, they ultimately cause the muscle to contract and shorten, so the muscle does not stretch too far and cause injury. Conversely, Golgi tendon organs are mechanoreceptors found within the the collagen fibers of tendons (i.e. connective tissue that generally connects muscle to bone). Golgi tendon organs are hardwired to respond to increased muscle tension or shortening. When Golgi tendon organs are stimulated via increased muscle tension, they inhibit further muscle contraction by causing the muscle to lengthen. And again, this occurs in order to prevent injury to the muscle. As you begin to regularly practice belly breathing, the mechanoreceptors in your diaphragm can become habituated to the increased lengthening and shortening. This ultimately allows your diaphragm to contract (on inhalation) and lengthen (on exhalation) with much more mobility and ease.
2. Reduced Neck and Back Pain
When the diaphragm is not used maximally, it results in passive shortening of this muscle, which reduces its mobility, and consequently, puts the entire respiratory system (and really the entire body) at a mechanical disadvantage. As a result, the body has to compensate by recruiting more chest, neck, back, and rib cage muscles to achieve ventilation. This can lead to chronic neck and back pain since you end up using accessory muscles of respiration way more than you should to support your breathing. This has a double negative effect. First, your accessory muscles of respiration have other contractile functions that they are responsible for (e.g. your neck muscles are highly involved in speaking and swallowing; your upper back muscles are highly involved with shoulder and shoulder blade movements). If you are using your accessory muscles of respiration "on the regular" for breathing, it interferes with these muscles' ability to perform their other operations (e.g. contracting for speaking or swallowing, or contracting to allow for safe shoulder movement). Second, when you overuse a muscle, it can lead to a repetitive use injury and/or trigger points to develop. Either of these effects can lead to increased pain or discomfort in the overused area. When you overuse your chest, back, and neck muscles for breathing, it can lead to discomfort, or even injury, in those muscles. Your diaphragm's primary function is for breathing. Thus, make your diaphragm do its job, fully and completely, and allow your accessory muscles of respiration to do their main jobs, fully and completely.
The diaphragm is also postulated to be involved in trunk stability and posture control through its cooperative actions with the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. The transversus abdominis muscle is the diaphragm’s partner. Recall from part 1 of this series that the transversus abdominis muscle is your deepest abdominal muscle that wraps around your entire belly area like a cummerbund. It has been hypothesized that decreased contractility of the diaphragm can lead to decreased activity in the transversus abdominis. When your transversus abdominis is weakened and/or has reduced mobility, it can lead to lumbar (i.e. low back) instability and pain. In fact, lumbar instability is one of the major causes of low back pain. Because of its cooperative actions with the transversus abdominis, the diaphragm is actually considered a key figure in trunk stability and posture control. Taking your diaphragm through its full ROM, via belly breathing, can ultimately help stabilize your lumbar spine, potentially reducing low back pain.
3. Better Breath Support and Coordination for Speaking, Eating, and Swallowing
Your breath actually provides the power source for your voice – without your breath, you simply cannot produce your voice. As discussed in part one of this series, many individuals use clavicular or thoracic breathing as their primary mode of ventilation. The issue with these breathing patterns for speech production is that you end up taking less air into the lungs, reducing the power supply to your voice box (aka larynx). When your voice box has a reduced power supply to draw from, it causes you to tense the muscles of your chest, neck, shoulders, upper back, and face, thereby reducing mobility in these muscles. Conversely, when you breathe using belly breathing, you get maximal expansion of the ribs and lungs, providing a much larger power supply to the voice. This increased breath support reduces tension in the muscles that contract for voice and speech (neck and facial muscles), swallowing (neck and facial muscles), and upper body movements (e.g. shoulder, upper back, chest, head, neck). The reduced tension allows your voice to have more endurance, clarity and better quality. Also, belly breathing makes eating and swallowing easier and safer because it improves the coordination of the suck-swallow-breathe sequence that is required for safe swallowing. If you do not coordinate your breath with your swallow very well, you can aspirate (i.e. food and liquids enter the lungs) and eventually end up with pneumonia.
4. Down-regulation of the Nervous System
Down-regulation simply means that your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) turns "off," allowing your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to take over. Recall from my "Autonomic Nervous System" series (link here) that your SNS is your "fight, flight, or freeze" system that is responsible for helping you deal with dangerous or stressful situations. When your SNS is activated, it brings about feelings of stress, panic, and high arousal (or alertness). Conversely, your PNS lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It stimulates digestion, cellular repair, elimination (i.e. urine, defecation), and overall body systems maintenance. Your PNS also elicits feelings of balance, peace, and contentment. When your PNS is active, it allows you to meaningfully connect with social partners and to learn new things. Research has repeatedly shown that belly breathing stimulates your PNS and inhibits your SNS, typically measured via heart rate variability (HRV - link here for more info).
5. Improved Lung Volume and Increased Blood Oxygen Levels
When you take slow, deep, belly breaths, you actually increase the amount of oxygen in your blood compared to shallow, clavicular breathing. When the oxygen levels are increased in your blood, it results in more oxygen reaching your various organs, tissues, and individual cells. Oxygen is required in nearly every single metabolic process in the body, so increasing your blood oxygen level, through deep belly breathing, provides your body with the “fuel” it needs to carry out its cellular processes. Deep, belly breathing has also been shown to increase your baseline lung volume, meaning that your lungs can actually start taking in more air in each breath cycle. Recall from part 1 of this series that your lungs are made of nonmuscular elastic tissue. The elasticity of your lungs allows them to increase and decrease in size during breathing. When your lung size is repeatedly increased through deep, belly breathing, your lungs begin to take on that new expanded shape at rest. Thus, a belly breathing practice can literally change your lung tissue so that you can transfer more air in/out of your lungs, even when you are not practicing belly breathing.
6. Reduced Blood Pressure
Several studies have shown that belly breathing leads to a reduction in both your systolic blood pressure (i.e. the pressure exerted against your artery walls when your heart beats) AND your diastolic blood pressure (i.e. the pressure exerted on your artery walls between heart beats). This is likely due to the increased PNS activation brought about by belly breathing. Remember, your PNS lowers your heart rate AND blood pressure (again, see part 1 of my Autonomic Nervous System series for more information on the PNS - click here).
7. Reduction in Mental Health Issues
Belly breathing is considered an effective, non-pharmacological intervention for anxiety, depression, and stress. Additionally, deep breathing is currently used in clinical treatments for mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and other stress-related emotional disorders. Slow-paced diaphragmatic breathing is also a component of treatment for anxiety, pain, and motion sickness.
8. Improved Exercise Tolerance
Belly breathing has also been shown to improve a person's tolerance to exercise. While the exact mechanism behind this finding is not entirely understood, it is likely due to the increased lung volume and diaphragm mobility that is gained from belly breathing. When your diaphragm moves more efficiently and with greater excursion, you simply move more air in, and out of, your lungs. Obviously, air movement and gas exchange is incredibly important for exercise performance. You need to get as much oxygenated air as you can to your working muscles, so they can continue to contract to move your body in your workout. Conversely, you need to be able to quickly and efficiently remove carbon dioxide from your working muscles so that lactic acid does not accumulate, causing muscle cramps or discomfort.
9. Reduction in Blood Cortisol
Belly breathing is also associated with reductions in blood cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenal glands in response to sympathetic nervous system stimulation (for more info on the sympathetic nervous system, click here). Cortisol levels increase when we have to cope with stressful events. Cortisol can reduce, or shut down, functioning in your immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. It can also increase blood sugar levels. All of these effects are awesome if you are trying to escape real danger or deal with a legit stressor. The problem in our modern culture, however, is that we live such stressful, busy lives, so we are constantly stimulating our sympathetic nervous system. This leads to chronically high amounts of cortisol in your body. When cortisol levels remain high "on the regular," it causes a TON of health issues in your body (but that is a topic for a future blog post). Taking a few belly breaths every day can help to lower the amount of cortisol in your blood, since belly breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (which inhibits cortisol release; for more information on the PNS click here).
10. Improved Cognitive Skills
EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) studies have shown that a belly breathing practice can improve attention (especially sustained, focused, and selective attention). Additionally, studies have shown that belly breathing is associated with a reduction in ADHD symptoms. Other studies have documented improvements with both memory and executive functioning skills (e.g. impulse control, goal-setting, planning, organization, etc.) after belly breathing.
Belly breathing, which occurs when you use your diaphragm muscle to its fullest ROM, causes your belly to inflate like a balloon on the inhale. Belly breathing confers many positive effects to both the body and the mind. When you practice belly breathing, you can decrease your blood pressure, blood cortisol, and mental health issues. You can improve cognitive skills, lung volume, and exercise tolerance. Belly breathing also helps to down-regulate your nervous system, leaving you feeling calmer and more at ease. Belly breathing is the preferred mode of breath to support speaking and singing. Lastly, belly breathing can help to reduce back and/or neck pain. As discussed in part 1 of this series (link here), many people unfortunately use clavicular breathing as their "go-to" breath pattern. Chronic clavicular breathing is not healthy for the body since it activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to feelings of anxiety, worry, and panic. Belly breathing, by contrast, has many documented benefits on a person's physiology AND psychology. And, the good news is that YOU can change the functioning of your diaphragm simply by practicing belly breathing for a few moments each day. Stay tuned for part 3 of this series which will describe how/where to complete belly breathing.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, and breathing physiology. If you have specific questions about your breathing or beginning a breathing practice, please consult with your physician. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can book services on my website ("Book Online" from the menu at the top of the page), or you can email me at email@example.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT
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