Deep breathing has plenty of health benefits
by Nicole Christina - Wednesday, March 19th, 2014
In Goes the Good Air...

I’m a big fan of getting a big bang for your wellness buck. Actually, free is even better. I don’t want to have to buy special outfits or special multi-mode timekeeping devices to do it. My experience is that if the activity is too hard, too expensive, too inconvenient or just too time-consuming, I’ll do it once or twice and then go back to walking the dogs as my primary wellness activity.

I’m not alone. Evidence: Check out all of the lightly used treadmills you can buy for pennies on the dollar in the spring when the New Year’s resolutions are just a faint memory. It sounded so good at the time. Now, it’s a bulky clothes hanger.

Which brings me to one of the best health-enhancing practices around. It’s free, easy, very effective and you can do it anywhere. It’s been used for thousands of years, and we’re just bringing it in to the mainstream as an important part of maintaining one’s mental and physical health.

It’s abdominal breathing.

You probably think you’ve got this down already. But I wonder if you’re aware that, like most of us, you’re breathing shallowly most of the time, bringing the oxygen only into the tops of your lungs.

Imagine you’re driving and someone swerves into your lane. Your instinct is to hold your breath. That’s the panic response that’s natural, and one that we’re more accustomed to in our stress-soaked daily lives. The resulting shortage of oxygen in the system makes for an increase in anxiety and a decrease in the ability to concentrate.

With a little attention, you can change your breathing into what can be a very powerful tool: your secret weapon in managing stress. When you breathe abdominally (students of Lamaze may remember this part), you can see your belly button rise and fall. In addition to this entertaining fact, when your abdomen is engaged, it signals the vagus nerve, which runs up to your brain, and lets it know that all is well. That process signals your whole system to relax. And it’s totally in your control!

The other real benefit to breathing deeply, for those of us who are concerned about eating and weight, is that our bodies need oxygen to properly burn and assimilate the calories and nutrients we are taking in. Remember the science bit about needing oxygen for combustion? If you’ve ever overeaten, a very helpful exercise is to breathe abdominally. This helps your food digest in a more efficient way. This fact doesn’t get much attention, but if you want to read more about the importance of breathing and diet, you might pick up Marc David’s excellent book, Eating for Pleasure, Weight Loss, and Satisfaction.

The other overlooked fact related to weight gain is that stress hormones love to hang on to fat, especially around the abdomen. The less stress you feel, the less your body will produce cortisol, and the less fat you will accumulate. You can eat kale smoothies all day long, but if your body is in stress mode, it cannot assimilate those nutrients, and it will be prone to weight gain.

Abdominal breathing is my go-to stress reducer, which comes in handy on the way to taking my son to school in the morning. Not that it’s not a mother-son bonding fest. Add a calming phrase like “this will pass” or “I’m OK,” and you have a really powerful tool that will give you a real bang for your buck.

Nicole Christina is a local psychotherapist of 20 years. In addition to her clinical practice, she develops and runs mindful eating and mindful menopause seminars.