Diaphragmatic breathing for health
So – you don’t need me to tell you how it important it is that you breathe, I‘m sure you get that. But how does the way we breathe effect our physiology, and can certain breathing techniques have a positive impact on key areas of your health like sleep, digestion, hormone balance and so forth.
What is good breathing?
I always tell my clients to look at newborn babies and infants to get an idea of what a quality breathing pattern should look like. When you do look at an infant breathing you notice the belly naturally rises and falls. This happens because the primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm and as the diaphragm contracts and pulls down it essentially expands the lungs and we suck in air.
Where does it go wrong?
Unfortunately many people today suffer with poor breathing patterns. Whether this is caused by excessive levels of stress, poor posture, bad nutrition, changes in mental-emotional health, muscle imbalances and so forth is up for debate and usually very individual.
Most commonly it is those that I see with the highest levels of stress that tend to have inverted breathing patterns and when prompted struggle the most to make use of the diaphragm and breathe correctly.
Why does it matter?
So you have an inverted breathing pattern, you are still standing and on the surface you are still able to do all the things you were able to do when you used your diaphragm more effectively, why should you care? The trouble with having a predominantly inverted breathing pattern is that it can have a number of physiological effects on the body.
- Change in muscle recruitment that means you overuse accessory breathing muscles like the chest, and certain muscles in the neck. Not only could this cause tightness, but may also over time contribute to significant changes in posture, causing a more rounded shoulder and forward head posture, something more akin to a vulture.
- Ineffective spinal stabilisation. Think about the last time you lifted a heavy weight, say performing a squat or a deadlift. What happens to your breathing? Ideally you take a deep breath in and you hold your breath through the part of the movement that requires the most effort. The diaphragm also plays a crucial role in the stabilisation of the spine. A weak and ineffective diaphragm may leave you more prone to spinal injuries and muscle strains.
- Inverted breathing patterns are also commonly associated with the body being in a stress response state. In theory simply breathing in this manner may actually shift the body into a state of stress, down-regulating certain hormones and increasing others related to stress and shifting the nervous system sympathetic dominant state.
- Brain-Gut connection – If the brain thinks you are in a state of stress, then this can have dire consequences on the function of the digestive system. Shifts in gut flora (good and bad bugs), reductions in enzymes and digestive acids is something that can come about from increase levels of stress. Both of these may impact how well we are absorbing our nutrients and also may leave us more susceptible to picking up digestive infections and food sensitivities. Essentially if the gut is then not functioning properly you have created the environment that could allow for any dysfunction in the body to develop.
Why we should breathe properly?
Not only could it have structural impacts but also it may affect almost every system in your body and send you into a spiral of ill health. You can live for a few weeks without food, a few days without water and only a few minutes without oxygen. Proper breathing should be a priority.
How to perform correct diaphragmatic breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is intended to help you use the diaphragm correctly while breathing to:
- Strengthen the diaphragm
- Decrease the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate
- Use less effort and energy to breathe
Diaphragmatic breathing technique
1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain still.
3. As you exhale let you stomach fall back towards the spine. Start by counting an in breath for 3 seconds and out breath for 3 seconds.
When you first learn the diaphragmatic breathing technique, it may be easier for you to follow the instructions lying down, as shown. As you gain more practice, you can try the diaphragmatic breathing technique while sitting in a chair, as shown below.
To perform this exercise while sitting in a chair:
- Sit comfortably, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- As you exhale, gently bring the abdominals back towards the spine. The hand on your upper chest should remain still.
Note: You may notice an increased effort will be needed to use the diaphragm correctly. At first, you’ll probably get tired while doing this exercise. But keep at it, because with continued practice, diaphragmatic breathing will become easy and automatic.
How often should I practice?
At first, practice this exercise 5-10 minutes before you go to bed. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend doing this exercise, to 3-4 x per day.