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16 Dec

Why You Should Practice Deep Breathing (and How to Do It)

Stressed, anyone? Whether it’s the holidays, the weather, or just the same old tensions, you know that stress takes its toll on your well-being. Sure, you’d love to motivate yourself to take up a meditation practice, yoga class or some other endeavor that promises an effective retreat from the weight of daily pressures. (A vacation from your problems, anyone?) How about taking a deep breath? No, seriously. Experts are increasingly lining up to recommend simple breathing exercises for both immediate stress relief benefits – as well as deep, lasting physiological advantages.

Last week, NPR highlighted the power of breathing in an interview with several researchers, including Dr. Mladen Golubic of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Listen to the audio clip below or read the transcript here.

Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever

According to Golubic, breathing exercises create positive changes that help improve conditions as serious as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart failure (PDF). Breathing exercises improve lung function by “stretching” airway tissue and inducing the release of a “protective chemical” known to maintain airway integrity. As Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health suggests in the NPR interview, deep breathing also shifts the body out of sympathetic nervous system control and into parasympathetic mode, a healthier, calmer state in terms of general well-being and biochemical balance. This curbing of stress hormones (like cortisol), in turn, preserves the body’s immune function and keeps blood pressure and heart rate in check.

Finally, deep breathing for relaxation can also influence gene expression related to inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular metabolism. Yes, I’ve covered this one before, but here’s a look back for those of you who have joined us recently. The longer you practice deep breathing, the more pronounced the benefits for any particular condition and for gene activity.

So, this all sounds good and fine, you say. How can I make it work for me? What do you actually do? Although the breathing exercises experts describe closely parallel the breath work in traditional yoga practice, you don’t need to take up yoga to learn the techniques. It’s really about increasing your oxygen intake and – as author and researcher Dr. Herbert Benson suggests – inducing the body’s relaxation response.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Simply get comfortable in any position and put your hands on your chest and stomach.
  2. To maximize oxygen intake, it’s important to learn to breathe from your abdomen (“belly breathing”) rather than your chest. Focus on your breath until you feel your stomach rise and fall more dramatically than your chest with each inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Breathe in through your nose, hold the breath for a few seconds and then exhale through your mouth. The time it takes to exhale should be about twice what it is to inhale. (Many suggest a 4:7:8 pattern – 4 to inhale, 7 to hold, and 8 to exhale.) Let go of other thoughts while you breathe.
  4. Do 4-8 breath cycles 1-3 times every day.

If you’re having trouble focusing on just your breath, consider incorporating a simple repetitive movement or phrase. In an Italian study, researchers asked two groups of participants to repeat yoga mantras or part of the rosary (the Ave Maria, in case you’re curious) six times a minute to correspond with natural circulatory fluctuations in the human system. The rhythmic recitation allowed both sets of participants to synchronize their cardiovascular patterns and increase their oxygen intake. Both groups reported a greater sense of well-being and displayed favorable physiological changes (greater Baroreflex sensitivity and less variable heart rate).

There’s even a device on the market called RESPeRATE that measures the frequency of breathing and chimes to encourage the user to breathe deeper and less often. It’s marketed specifically as a means to lower blood pressure. The research supports the product, but it’s the rhythmic concept (easily replicable with a watch second hand or metronome) rather than the $300 device itself.

The logic of the Primal Blueprint has always embraced the simplicity of living well. A healthy lifestyle needn’t feel like a burden, punishment, or deprivation. It’s about the succession of small steps and simple acts. The ease of basic breathing exercises reflects the same logic: small efforts go a long way when practiced regularly.

If you don’t already practice deep breathing, it’s one of the most straightforward, undemanding goals you can set for yourself. Sure, it could be a painless New Year’s resolution, but why wait to start something that could help get you through the holiday a little less stressed, a little bit healthier. There’s no better deal out there.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Do you do deep breathing exercises? How and where do you do them? What have you noticed since you started? Are you interested in starting a routine? Share your thoughts and questions, and thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I am not sure if I am the only one, but this post causes my google reader to close, and I had to come directly to the site to read it. perhaps it is the audio file?

    John wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Anyone else experiencing problems with this post? I suppose it could be the audio file. I don’t often include streaming audio in posts.

      Mark Sisson wrote on December 16th, 2010
      • It works fine for my Google Reader.

        Paleohund wrote on December 16th, 2010
      • No troubles with Google Reader. I’m using their Chrome browser.

        Travis wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Thank you for this useful informations.. :)

      Kristen Stewart wrote on January 9th, 2014
  2. No problem for me.

    SuperMike wrote on December 16th, 2010
  3. I believe the “protective chemical” that is released is surfactant. It is also released when you yawn.

    I wouldn’t know this, but my fiance is a med student and their class is currently in the pulmonology phase.

    yodiewan wrote on December 16th, 2010
  4. Nope, no problem at all for me. I’m not using a “google reader” though, whatever that is.

    Perhaps when you use a google reader and have a problem and then come to the site and there’s no problem you might want to post on the google reader site rather than the site having no problem? :)

    JohnC wrote on December 16th, 2010
  5. It’s like I run out of air when I do the deep breathing. I have to take several small breaths after each deep breath to fill my lungs with air.

    Wendy Wasson wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • It’s like anything else. Proper practice will improve performance. I was taught varying breathing techniques through martial arts and I had the same issue at first. After a few weeks I found myself able to take deep breaths (and move) without the little breaths in between.

      Brett wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Try using your lower abdomen more when you breathe in, but don’t restrict the motion of your chest–just don’t concentrate on puffing it out, and let it rise and fall naturally, following the lead of your lower abdomen. It’ll help get more oxygen into your lungs.

      Besides that, just getting used to it like Brett says will help too.

      Uncephalized wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • It’s because the average human uses 1/3rd of their lung capacity. Abdominal breathing will gradually allow you to use your lungs to a greater capacity. In spiritual traditions of Asia, breathing has always been regarded as a science of energy management and important to healing arts.

      Aaron Curl wrote on December 17th, 2010
      • To clarify, your lungs are in your chest, not your abdomen. Therefore the statement “abdomenal breathing” can be confusing, probably because there’s no such thing. However, relaxing the abdomen will allow the lungs to expand their capacity and will also tend to push the abdomen out, whereas tightening the abdomenal muscles will also restrict the ability to take a deep breath.

        Shary wrote on June 5th, 2012
  6. I saw an attachment of the audio file in my Thunderbird RSS Feeder.

    Christine wrote on December 16th, 2010
  7. Sometimes I will practice breathing for as long as 24 hours per day.

    rob wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Even while you sleep huh? Interesting strategy. I do the same with hearing

      Christos wrote on December 16th, 2010
  8. Qi gong uses breathing techniques like this as a central theme to their art.

    Edward wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Qigong is ALL about the the breathing;) You need breath to cultivate qi.

      I’ve been practicing qigong for a few years and learning proper breathing mechanics (my qigong teacher is also a breathwork instructor- bonus!!) was life changing.
      I didn’t realize how much I had been holding my breath and depriving my cells of proper oxygenation. My energy levels improved a lot right away after learning to breath correctly.

      I think proper breathing is right up there with sleep and diet when it comes to health, but we take it for granted even more so than those other elements.

      Erin wrote on December 16th, 2010
      • yeah right, and the sun is blue

        C2H5OH wrote on December 17th, 2010
  9. Thanks Mark, your post could not come at a better time. I am really stressed these days, and I started taking a couple of deep breaths just after reading this.

    This breathing led me to yawn a few times, and now I feel more relaxed.

    laurett wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • I yawned as soon as you mentioned yawning :)

      Kitty wrote on December 17th, 2010
      • Same 😛

        Dave wrote on December 22nd, 2010
  10. I used to do this when I had a bout of depression which really helped me move forward.

    As normal though once back to full health I stopped doing it.

    I fully believe that this type of breathing is fundamental to wellbeing, mentally and physically, especially when done on a regular basis

    Thanks Mark for reminding me of one of our own self healers.

    Tony wrote on December 16th, 2010
  11. No problems for me.

    I frequently do deep breathing before going into the doctor, as apparently I have white coat syndrome.

    Eric wrote on December 16th, 2010
  12. After a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing I’ve been able to lower both my pulse and blood pressure significantly for a short duration.

    During my running days when my at rest rate was in the low 40s, I would really freak out doctors when I took slow, deep breaths before they took my pulse. They would often check me twice, thinking their machine was off.

    Paleohund wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • Wanna freak them out even more? When they put the blood pressure cuff on your arm and pump it up, flex your muscle a little, once they write something down, relax…lol I did that once and the Doctor went and got another cuff!!! lmao! Having fun with stuff that is normally boring!

      Primal2010 wrote on December 17th, 2010
  13. I’m 7 months pregnant and have been regularly practicing deep breathing and meditation to prepare for labor (as best I can!).

    It wasn’t until I started doing breathing exercises that I realized how erratic and shallow my breathing became when I was really upset or stressed. I think it’s very interesting how our breathing and emotional states are related.

    Allison wrote on December 16th, 2010
  14. I’ve done the 4:7:8 breathing in stressful meetings at work for about a year and it really helps bring the stress down.

    I also yawn on purpose, which is supposed to have similar effects to deep breathing. Three or four yawns on purpose will often trigger a serious of regular yawns.

    Primal Pete wrote on December 16th, 2010
  15. There’s so much I have to remember to do each day, and now I have to breathing exercises as well. I’m getting stressed out…

    wozza wrote on December 16th, 2010
  16. This is great advice and goes along with good yoga practice. Im training for my 1st #halfmarathon and I practice deep breathing during the easier parts of my long run. Amazing how teh very simple things in life can make the biggest difference.

    Amber wrote on December 16th, 2010
  17. I’ve taken some qigong and yoga, and it’s amazing how helpful practicing deep breathing is. I also use it frequently to get through Crossfit workouts. For those who are feeling stressed about having to remember something else — I realize you’re being mostly facetious, but deep, rhythmic breathing will soon become second nature.

    Page wrote on December 16th, 2010
  18. I have been meditating for a few years now and proper breathing is a central component of proper meditation. I always feel physically and mentally refreshed when done and use it as a cool down to my workout. I hope meditation will gain wider acceptance in the US.

    Matt wrote on December 16th, 2010
  19. Someone once suggested breathing in as deeply as possible, hold, then breathe out as long as you can imagining you are filling a balloon – when you think you can’t breath out anymore, go the extra breath. It really helps aid relaxation.
    Also, it caught my attention about praying the Rosary. I don’t believe Ave Maria is part of the Rosary. I wonder if the writer was thinking ‘Hail Mary’? Not important, just caught my attention.

    Beth wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • “Hail Mary” in Italian is “Ave Maria”. It’s the name of the prayer, and the first line. The research was Italian, maybe they just didn’t translate the name of the prayer.

      Bean wrote on December 17th, 2010
      • OK, I suppose the first words are “Ave O Maria” to be precise, in case anyone is nitpicking.

        Bean wrote on December 17th, 2010
  20. strongly strongly suggest no one holds their breath for more than a few seconds and assuredly not for 7 seconds.I speak from very real personal experience.
    The exhaling twice as long as one breathes in seems to be fine but the holding it for that lenght of time naddah..esp if one does it daily.
    I canny recall the explanation physiologically but try it for a few weeks and see what happens.
    Might have just been me but i would hate others to suffer what i did.
    BTW meditation seems to have originated from hunting…many seem not to be able to ‘hold’ the one pointedness ..
    Try looking at something that moves such as a flame or an insect and also i’ve found that if my paleo-lifestyle (i loathe this term !) is all running well one really doesnt need to ‘meditate’ life , vomit, is a meditation !!..but seriously so

    Simon Fellows wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • You should read about chi gung then. The art of breathing like Mark suggests has been done for many, many years. It was probably just you and you have to work up to holding your breath. Everyone starts in a different place.

      Aaron Curl wrote on December 17th, 2010
    • the 4:7:8 doesn’t have to be seconds. It’s just the ratio, so it can be counted quickly or longer, depending on where your breath is at.

      Primal Pete wrote on December 17th, 2010
  21. Very interesting. I bought the iPhone app BreathPacer and it works nicely for this.

    The instructions of the app says “height is a very good predictor of this rate [your therapeutic breating pattern] because blood volume circulated through the cardiovascular system varies based on height”.

    I’m gonna give this program a try too:

    7 minutes of holding my breath didn’t really feel right though. Is there any science behind that recommendation?

    Potion wrote on December 16th, 2010
    • An app for breathing. Why doesn’t that suprise me?

      fitmom wrote on December 17th, 2010
  22. There is a breathing technique developed by a Russian medical doctor, Konstantin Buteyko. For about 20 minutes, you reduce the frequency and depth of your breath. You test your progress every 5 minutes by holding or “pausing” your breath: a healthy, non-asthmatic person should be able to pause comfortably for 50 to 60 seconds.

    This rebalances the level of carbon dioxide in your lungs and in your blood. Carbon dioxide is an effective bronchodilator and actually relaxes all of your smooth muscle, including your digestive tract.

    Buteyko believed that processed food caused certain people to “overbreath,” lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in their blood. He claimed that he could find no credible report of a death from asthma prior to 1900.

    I was a lifelong asthmatic, taking an inhaler 5 times a day, and within 2 weeks of trying this technique, have never looked back. 4 and a half years and no medicine.

    And it is very relaxing, fun, easy and more low key than some of these OCD western versions of yoga.

    Nick wrote on December 16th, 2010
  23. I have been doing breathwork since last Feb. Exrcises I learned 40 plus years ago in a yoga class. My exercised focus more on holding the breath until it becomes difficult. My brother who runs 10 – 18 miles cannot come close to the time I can hold my breath. I do believe that over time breathwork can have profound effects.

    larry wrote on December 16th, 2010
  24. I don’t know if it’s all in my head, but my blood pressure always seems a lot lower after I’ve done some concentrated breathing. I have weird a tendency to be stressed/uptight/whatever while driving and end up holding my breath.

    Richard wrote on December 16th, 2010
  25. Hey Mark, I have a question I have really been wanting to ask you. I eat fairly primal with the only exception of having my meats/fish/poultry cooked. But, there is one snack that I make myself. It is called Biltong and it consists of topside/silverside beef (grass fed I live in New Zealand and most if not all our cows are grass fed the majority of the time) which is marinaded for 24-48 hours in a solution containing apple cider vinegar, salt (around 25 grams per kilogram of meat + most of it gets washed off with the vinegar) coriander seeds and pepper.
    After having been marinaded it is hung up in a box I made with a 40W light bulb at the bottom and vents at the bottom and top creating a convection current of warm air, this air reaches temperatures of only 30 degrees celsius. After about 3 days hanging and drying roughly 50-60 percent of the original weight is lost through evaporation. This “cured” meat can then be stored for quite some time and tastes unbelievably good. I really would like to hear your thoughts/opinions on this as I love eating the stuff. Oh and by the way I keep all the fat on its the most delicious part.

    Cameron wrote on December 17th, 2010
  26. The Buteyko method is a proven way of improving asthma. While a Buteyko instructer would agree with what is being said here, that one should breath through their diaphragm and less often, they say it works because it is shallow not deep breathing! My experience with is says this is true and the individual who ran out of breath doing the exercises in the commnets above may have also noticed the same thing.

    Buteyko believed that in modern world we tend to hyperventilate, ie we breath too much and that we blow off too much C20 in the process, which he claims to be and reducing very important for normalising hormones and reducing inflammation.

    There is some primal logic to this aswell as Weston Price noticed that when societies modernized then children started mouth breathing leading to too much breathing.

    I wont defend the science simply because i do not know it well enough. What I will say is that it worked for my asthma when strictly paleo eating couldnt.

    Kevin wrote on December 17th, 2010
  27. Deep Breathing is an art of healing or breath related cure originally introduced to the world through the art of Yoga. Thank to it. Because of Yoga many people have found solution to their health problems. In Yoga it is popularly known as PranaYama which means Exercise to your Soul.

    Richard Wetton wrote on December 17th, 2010
  28. The deep abdominal breathing taught in Qigong—Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties.

    Qigong breathing and exercises kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind–taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. They pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn’t do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging–the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 14 years and still practicing!

    Bob Ellal wrote on December 17th, 2010
  29. In pilates you use the chest to breath, but expanding it to the sideways.

    Esther Gokhale argues that you should breath with your chest rather than using the abdomen in similar way as in pilates. She says it´s the correct way.

    I find this breathing very calming and relaxing, so I like this breathing tecnique. I feel like I can breath deeper this way than with the abdomen.

    What´s your opinion on that.

    AD wrote on December 17th, 2010
  30. Hey thanks for the ‘Hail Mary’ – ‘Ava Maria’. Makes sense and interesting to know the history. Now I’ll include humming ‘Ava Maria’ while breathing.

    Beth wrote on December 17th, 2010
  31. I deep breathe when I feel stressed and find it helps a lot over the short term. Now I’m better at realizing I’m stressed and doing those breaths

    Joe wrote on December 17th, 2010
  32. As a former competitive golfer, I used 2 deep breaths then one valsalva breath before every shot. It worked better than any sport psychologist.

    Bill wrote on December 17th, 2010
  33. Good post, Mark. I often use a 4:4:4 protocol to lower my heart rate after physical activity, prepare for sleep, or when deepening a yoga pose. Diaphragmatic breathing is a skill in-and-of-itself.

    John Sifferman wrote on December 17th, 2010
  34. An easy way to “get” abdominal breathing is to lay on the floor and put a Kleenex box on your lower abdomen. You can feel the weight of it as your breathe from the belly as it rises and falls.

    Bob Ellal wrote on December 17th, 2010
    • As a voice teacher, this is what I usually do (although I use a book) with most of my students when introducing this kind of breathing. It’s amazingly difficult for people to switch over to abdominal breathing after years of breathing somewhere up around the clavicles…but every little kid you see does it naturally!

      Shay wrote on December 30th, 2010
  35. I’m no expert, but I believe that Qi Gong generally does not recommend holding the breath, as in Yoga. Especially for those with a heart condition. Deep breathing from the belly is the more important aspect.

    Art wrote on December 17th, 2010
  36. In normal qigong one doesn’t hold the breath, although there is a brief gap natural gap between inhalation and exhalation. I have done various styles that advocate holding percentages of breath in the lungs ands so forth–but dropped them. What’s natural is best. I learned my qigong from Ramel Rones, one of three formal disciples of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (Google him). Some dimwit commented negatively on my advice about the Kleenex box. No doubt he learned his qigong online: “Ten minutes to be a qigong master.”

    Bob Ellal wrote on December 17th, 2010

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