Secrets to using the Breath to Support Sleep and Resilience
Though breathing is one of those body functions that we usually don’t think much about, breathing is what keeps us alive. And when done with a clear focus, proper breathing may bring about a wide range of health benefits, like improved sleep, reduced anxiety, and increased physical resilience.
How breathing works
Breathing the air around us is essential for the functioning of all human bodies. We need oxygen to perform all sorts of bodily functions like digesting, moving, thinking, and more. It’s also vital to expel the carbon dioxide in the body. The brain is continuously receiving signals of the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide to the body.
When we breathe in, the air is brought to the lungs by the trachea. The diaphragm moves down, allowing the lungs to expand with the breath, opening the door for oxygen to enter the bloodstream. This facilitates the many bodily functions we need clean air for.
Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of breathing. But since it is not something our bodies can use for nourishment, it is expelled upon exhalation. The exhalation happens effortlessly, in response to the inhalation; the diaphragm simply moves back to the starting position, and the lungs contract, as the breath moves out. This breathing process happens on average between 17,000 to 30,000 times a day. (1)
Due to the hectic pace of modern life, many individuals do not breathe properly. It’s pretty easy to allow our breathing to be just like a program running in the background, and a lot of people do. Shallow breathing may create problems in the long run, like increased blood pressure and heart rate. Therefore it is important to practice deep breathing, and specifically breathing through the nose, to increase the positive effects on your physical and mental health.
Deep Nasal Breathing
Deep breathing is also called belly or abdominal breathing because when you breathe through the nose it is easy to make the belly expand with a big breath. Although it is also possible to breathe through the mouth, it is more natural to breathe through the nose. In fact, as newborns, we cannot breathe through our mouths. This only happens after few months when our respiratory airways have fully developed. The benefits of nasal breathing are many, such as:
Protects the Respiratory System
The nasal passageway acts as a filter for airborne particles. Also, the mucus and nasal hair are helpful in catching any damaging bacteria that enter the airways. This prevents them from making it to the lungs, and possibly causing inflammation. Additionally, by breathing through the nose warmth and humidity are added, helping further protect the airway and lungs. Breathing cold dry air could potentially be harmful to the respiratory system. Plus, nasal breathing promotes sinus health by improving blood flow, keeping the tissues hydrated, and producing mucus too. (2)
According to the Centers for Control Disease and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of Americans don’t get sufficient sleep, putting them at risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and mental distress. (3)
Besides implementing tools for better sleep such as eating healthy, exercising, and reducing stress levels, practicing nasal breathing may deliver positive results for obtaining a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that breathing through the nose may reduce snoring and sleepiness during the daytime. (4)
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to a dangerous or stressful situation. However, if the feeling of anxiety lingers, at some point it becomes a chronic condition. It may then cause the individual suffering from it to stop living their life normally. Experiencing high levels of anxiety on a regular basis may also alter one’s natural breathing patterns, making them erratic. The breathing may become irregular in its length, strength, and depth, negatively impacting mood, consequently giving way to more stress. It may develop in a never-ending cycle, including mouth breathing. But by becoming aware of the breath and regularly practicing nasal breathing exercises, much of this can be greatly improved. (5)
Develops Physical and Cognitive Efficiency
One less-known but very important advantage of nasal breathing is the production of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that the body naturally produces. Nitric oxide is highly concentrated at the upper airway while exhaling, but its levels decrease significantly in mouth breathing.
Some benefits of increasing the production of nitric oxide are:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Dilated blood vessels, which improves circulation
- Improved flow of blood and oxygen to the brain
- Better immune response
- Increased energy levels
Enhances Emotional Resilience
Emotional resilience is also known as “inner strength”. Easily put, emotional resilience is coping in a healthy way when facing stressful situations. Developing emotional resilience may help a person to better deal with periods of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety.
Achieving emotional resilience is vital to a stable autonomic nervous system. More commonly referred to simply as the “nervous system”, it is composed of two main parts:
- The Sympathetic nervous system is in charge of activating the fight or flight response in case of a threat.
- The Parasympathetic nervous system reinstates the body to a relaxed and restful state, usually after experiencing stress.
By practicing breathing exercises, the intention is to make the parasympathetic system prevail by decreasing the stress levels. Creating a longer exhale is nourishing for the vagus nerve, improving “vagal tone”, which amounts to a more pronounced relaxation response. (6)
Facilitates Better Oral Health
Dentists also recommend breathing through the nose over mouth breathing. Their reasoning is very simple. When the mouth stays closed it gives a chance for the saliva to fulfill its purpose, washing harmful bacteria away and keeping the protective membranes of the mouth in good condition. Conversely, when the breathing happens through the mouth, the saliva becomes dry, making gums and teeth vulnerable to damaging bacteria. Moreover, allowing that harmful bacteria to get a toehold may kill off the oral microbiome, promoting oral decay, cavities, gingivitis, halitosis, receding gums, and periodontitis.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
James Nestor is a journalist and author who spent many years researching breathing. His book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art in 2020” explores why humans have stopped breathing properly, and the health consequences of this. His research extends to various fields like recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, medical texts, human physiology, and biochemistry. In his book, he recommends the following easy exercise to get accustomed to nasal breathing.
- Exhale through the nose
- Pinch the nose shut, hold the breath.
- When the need to breathe arises, slowly and with control breathe through the nose.
- Repeat as desired.
|1.||How the lungs work. Nih.gov. Accessed February 8, 2021. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/how-lungs-work|
|2.||Button B, Boucher RC, University of North Carolina Virtual Lung Group. Role of mechanical stress in regulating airway surface hydration and mucus clearance rates. Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2008;163(1-3):189-201.|
|3.||1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep. Cdc.gov. Published February 4, 2019. Accessed February 8, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html|
|4.||Löth S, Petruson B, Wirén L, Wilhelmsen L. Better quality of life when nasal breathing of snoring men is improved at night. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999;125(1):64-67.|
|5.||Tweeddale PM, Rowbottom I, McHardy GJ. Breathing retraining: effect on anxiety and depression scores in behavioural breathlessness. J Psychosom Res. 1994;38(1):11-21.|
|6.||Porges SW. Cardiac vagal tone: a physiological index of stress. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1995;19(2):225-233.|