Managing that stress is easier said than done, but there is evidence to suggest that deep breathing can be an effective intervention to help improve many chronic health conditions, says Yufang Lin, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio.
It’s important to note that breathing exercises are a complementary therapy, says Dr. Lin. “Deep breathing should not replace any of the other medicines or interventions that your doctor recommends,” she says. Put differently, deep breathing is not an alternative therapy.
There’s a lot to recommend deep breathing as a complementary therapy, says Baxter Bell, MD, a former family doctor who now teaches yoga and practices medical acupuncture. “There really aren’t any side effects, and breath exercises can be accessed any time of the day. It’s very empowering to be able to use breathing to help reduce stress and improve focus,” he says.
Stress affects most health conditions, says Philip Barr, MD, a board-certified integrative health doctor and staff physician at Global Cardio Care in Los Angeles. “Basically, our nervous system flows to every tissue in the body. If the stress side of our nervous system is overactive, it literally affects every tissue in our body; any kind of disorder that is already going on in that organ system can be made worse by stress,” he says.
“When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which is associated with stress-related symptoms such as faster breathing, heart-rate elevation, irritability, elevated blood pressure, anxiety and body tension,” says Lin. That’s part of what is known as the fight or flight response, she says. Slowing down and engaging in deep breathing basically counters the sympathetic nervous system, she says.
“When you engage in deep breathing, your abdomen is soft as you engage your diaphragm and take a deep breath in with the intention of really filling up the whole lung with air,” Lin adds. “You’re slowing down the heart rate, reducing your blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles.”
As with exercise or meditation, deep breathing will be most beneficial if you treat it as a daily practice, says Lin. “It can help in the moment — I’ve had patients who were anxious lower [their] blood pressure and heart rate significantly with just a minute of deep breathing. However, you will have the most benefit if you practice regularly,” she says. This will help your body will recognize what you are doing and be more responsive,” she adds.
Ready to take a deep breath and jump in? Research shows deep breathing can offer benefits for several health conditions. Here are some examples.
People experiencing anxiety can lower their blood pressure by 30 points or more by doing some deep breathing, says Lin. “But if you talk with them about something anxiety-provoking, their blood pressure is going to right back up again,” she says.
To get lasting health benefits, including those for blood pressure, consistency and regular practice is key, says Lin.
Breathing exercises are a nonpharmaceutical way to help people with lung conditions such as asthma and COPD manage some aspects of their disease.
Chronic stress is a common problem that has become even more prevalent since the COVID-19 pandemic began, says Dr. Bell. That stress can lead to a disruption of normal breathing rhythm, and in turn contribute to anxiety and other mental health conditions, he says.
By doing mindful breath exercises, they can start to rebalance their breath system, which can lead to improvements in the way a person feels and thinks, he says. “The more stressed we become, the harder it can be for us to think clearly,” he says.
Calming the sympathetic response via deep breathing can also help you relax and reduce muscle tension, says Lin. “This may help with a condition such as headache in a few ways. It will reduce the tension in your neck and shoulders, which could improve headache pain. If you’re more relaxed, you’ll be able to rest better, which will also help you feel better,” she says.
There can be digestive benefits of in deep breathing, says Megan Elizabeth Riehl, PsyD, clinical assistant professor and health psychologist at the University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor. “The physiological movements of the diaphragm can help relieve tension in the digestive tract and can help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, constipation, diarrhea, and urgency,” she says.
Lin agrees that deep breathing may help with these symptoms because tension can interfere with good digestion.
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