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 .
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:
- Simply get comfortable in any position and put your hands on your chest and stomach.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.