The importance of deep breathing for your health

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Kevin Mangelschots

Physical activity is vital in order to keep our muscles, joints, bones, and organs in tip-top shape.

Yet, the importance of deep breathing for your overall wellbeing can not be overstated.

It’s important to keep our physical and mental health sturdy by providing enough clean oxygen to our muscles and organs.

Diaphragmatic breathing exercises in particular are great movements to relax the body and mind by accessing and influencing the parasympathetic nervous system, which is a subsystem of the autonomic nervous system.

Nervous system biology 101

Your nervous system is made up out of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord.

The peripheral nervous system comprises the somatic nervous system and the autonomous nervous system.

The somatic nervous system is under our voluntary control. It allows us to move around by contracting our skeletal muscles at will.

The autonomous nervous system is what we’ll be talking about today.

The autonomous nervous system is not under our elective operation. This neural system automatically regulates certain parts of our body without our conscious interference, which means it happens outside our awareness.

The autonomic nervous system can be divided in two different neural systems:

 

Illustration depicting the differences between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.

  • Parasympathetic nervous system

    Its main function is calming the body by putting us into a relaxed state.

    For example, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, reduced rate of aging, …

  • Sympathetic/Orthosympathetic nervous system

    This neural system has a stimulating effect on our organic structure. It’s the system that is active when we experience a “fight or flight” situation.

    A couple examples of an engaged sympathetic nervous system are experiencing an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, heightened muscle tension, and producing more cortisol, which is our stress hormone.

We’re not going to explain each nervous system in depth, as this is too time-consuming and not really necessary for what I’m explaining today.

However, we’re going to talk a bit more specifically about the parasympathetic nervous system and how we can influence it with specific deep breathing exercises and by breathing deeply through our belly in general.

Parasympathetic nervous system's function

Illustration of how the parasympathetic nervous system works.

As we’ve already explained briefly, the parasympathetic nervous system has a calming and relaxing influence and function on the body.

Thus, its purpose is getting and maintaining our physical structure in a relaxed state. This way, we expend and waste less of our valuable energy.

The parasympathetic nervous system is very important for our general wellbeing because being in a stimulated state (engaged sympathetic nervous system) places an incredible amount of strain on our body, while simultaneously using a ton of energy.

This was especially essential in ancient times when food was scarce.

Not to mention that being in a prolonged state of hyper-stimulation and extreme energy output ages our body tremendously in just a short amount of time.

That’s why we typically want to be, and stay in a relaxed state. And an engaged parasympathetic nervous system can help us to loosen up and remain tranquil in order to prevent wasting valuable energy. This will also prevent the many detrimental side effects from being in a prolonged “fight or flight” response.

Take note that the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) has a very critical function in the body, and is thus not necessarily bad. But it is damaging to our bodies when it’s engaged for prolonged periods of time.

How does deep breathing affect the parasympathetic nervous system?

Image of the words, “deep breathing”, written in the sand of a beach.

One of the many benefits of parasympathetic breathing is that taking slow, diaphragmatic breaths naturally engages the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s why it has a calming effect by default.

Did you know that most people are not breathing deeply enough most of the time? There’s a big difference between deep and shallow breathing that the majority might not even be aware of.

Have you ever noticed that you take superficial breaths with your upper chest when stressed, and deeper, full breaths through your belly when relaxed? That’s not a coincidence, by the way.

Parasympathetic vs. sympathetic breathing

Picture of a post-it note saying, “Take a deep breath.”

When we compare parasympathetic vs. sympathetic breathing, then we’ll notice a couple of key differences.

Parasympathetic nervous system breathing is slow, controlled, deep, with an emphasis on a drawn-out exhalation that increases the parasympathetic activity, leading to relaxation. It’ll slow your breath and heart rate and cause your blood vessels to widen, while simultaneously narrowing the bronchial tubes.

On the contrary, sympathetic nervous system breathing is rapid, uncontrolled, and shallow, with an extended inhalation resulting in more stress due to the increased engagement of the sympathetic nervous system. This will increase your heart and breath rate.

Deep breathing benefits

  • It has been proven that deep breathing reduces stress

    A hand pushing the “off” button with the sentence “stress level” written above it.

    Diaphragmatic breathing aids us to feel calmer, and more relaxed, which improves our mood. It prevents, or at the very least lessens the negative mental and physical consequences of stress and breathing superficially.

    There’s a link between deep breathing and anxiety as well. Taking slow, deliberate, deep breaths has a positive result on anxiousness, and can help to reduce the sometimes crippling symptoms associated with anxiety and phobias.

    And while practicing diaphragmatic breathing all the time will be challenging at first, it’s something we can gradually accomplish by becoming more aware of our breathing patterns. Start by noticing the differences between deep and shallow breathing, as most people are not breathing deeply enough.

  • It lowers the heart rate

     

    Deep breathing exercises lower our heart rate which has multiple health benefits like reducing the risk of a stroke, decreasing cardiac workload, …

  • It lowers blood pressure

    People, especially athletes, tend to have lower blood pressure. That’s especially true if they incorporate deep breathing exercises and other relaxing techniques such as meditation and yoga, to name a few.

    A lower blood pressure has multiple health benefits, such as a lower risk of stroke, a decreased danger of health problems such as heart and kidney diseases.

  • Allows your body to tolerate intense exercise

    Image of a man performing a back squat with a barbell.

    Intense exercise means expending a lot of vigor at a rapid pace. In order to manage this intensity appropriately, correct breathing must be a priority.

    This means that learning to control our breathing can enhance our physical performances.

  • Expend less energy

    Each breath in itself exerts energy.

    Breathing less often by breathing more deeply through our diaphragm allows us to conserve more energy, freeing up valuable resources for other essential tasks.

  • Improves core stability

    Diaphragmatic breathing can assist with stabilization of the trunk.

    These often times overlooked intrinsic muscles play a much more important role in regard to core stability than was previously thought.

Parasympathetic deep breathing exercise

Illustration of a woman performing deep breathing exercises when lying down on her back on the ground.

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.

    Lying down on your back is generally an easier position to take deep breaths since it allows the lungs to contract and expand fully, and since there’s less muscular tension.

  2. Put one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest.

    By putting one hand on your belly, and the other hand on your chest, you’ll feel if you’re breathing through your belly instead of engaging in shallow breathing.

  3. Take a deep breath through your nose.

    Taking a deep breath through your nose means your belly should expand while inhaling air deeply through your nose.

  4. Breathe out slowly through your nose.

    Breathe out in a slow and controlled manner through the nose. You know you’re doing good when your belly “shrinks” again.

    → Your chest should not rise or move when you’re taking deep breaths, correctly.

    If your chest does tend to rise, then that’s typically the result that you are breathing through your chest instead of your diaphragm. This intends that you’re breathing too shallow, which is suboptimal for your general wellbeing and overall athletic performance.

    The first step towards slow, deep breathing without having to think is knowing and noticing the differences between deep and shallow breathing.

This is just a specific example of one parasympathetic deep breathing exercise, but many more exist.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Is breathing autonomic or somatic?

Illustration depicting the differences between the autonomic and somatic nervous system.
 
Breathing typically happens automatically due to our autonomic nervous system because it doesn’t require any conscious effort or thought to do so.
 

Yet, it can be controlled by the somatic nervous system if we consciously decide to manipulate our breathing. We can make our breathing quicker, more shallow, and uncontrolled to engage the sympathetic nervous system, or slower, deeper, and controlled in order to relax by employing our parasympathetic nervous system.

For everyday use, we want to engage our parasympathetic nervous system since it’s healthier, requires less energy, and is less taxing on the body.

Effects of deep breathing on the brain

Illustration of a brain with arms and legs lifting weights while smiling, indicating that working out makes the brain feel, and work better.

Deep breathing affects the brain positively. It engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts our body in a tranquil state by easing anxiety. Thus, the fight, flight, or freeze response remains at bay.

Breathing deeply will increase the oxygen supply to the brain, which is highly beneficial if we have to think or make critical decisions.

It allows us to concentrate for longer periods of time, while also having more energy because exerting ourselves requires a lot of oxygen.

Furthermore, it aids to improve our mood since we’re more relaxed while experiencing less stress.

How does deep breathing reduce stress?

Image of a fit woman holding a yoga pose at the beach.

Deep breathing reduces stress by triggering a relaxation response due to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, our body gets put in a relaxed state, reducing tension and mental strain.

Deep breathing causes us to breathe deeper, more controlled, and slower, which has a positive, smoothing influence on our body’s involuntary function. It’ll slow down our heart rate, breath rate, and blood pressure, which is typically very beneficial for our overall wellbeing.

Final note

Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

Deep breathing is critical to activate our parasympathetic nervous system in order to wind down our body and to decrease stress as a result.

That’s why it’s in everyone’s best interest to learn how to practice diaphragmatic breathing to improve our health while reducing anxiousness at the same time. Taking some time to think about our breathing patterns while consciously taking diaphragmatic breaths will go a long way towards creating a healthier lifestyle.