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Is The Way You Breathe Helping or Hurting You?

Is The Way You Breathe Helping or Hurting You?

Are you breathing properly? You might think yes, air is going in and out of my body and I am alive. But is this happening in the most efficient way to help your overall health and give you the maximum amount of energy for the least amount of effort. 

Everything in our bodies is connected and that includes our mind that powers everything. So when you have stress at work or home or your knee arthritis is playing up, that has a knock on effect that can lead to a chain events that ends up with you shallow breathing and actually having to exert more effort to take in less breath.

So let’s look at what breathing actually is and how it can get out of sync.

Our diaphragm is the main muscle that draws our lungs down into our abdomen, creating a vacuum effect in our lungs that draws air in. It’s the way our bodies have evolved to be most mechanically efficient and use the least amount of energy to do the most essential thing we need to survive, Breathe. 

When we get out of sync due to various factors we will discuss, that whole mechanism doesn’t function as it should and we move over to what’s called upper rib breathing. This is when instead of breathing through our stomachs we use the muscles in our upper back and neck to lift our ribs and expand the lungs to draw in air. So instead of naturally letting our diaphragm and stomach expand, we’re using other muscles that are not designed for this type of long term repetitive action. This results in a smaller breath of air entering the lungs as they get bigger as they descend and upper rib breathing does not allow them to expand to their full potential, so it gives us less air for more effort.

What causes us to get out of sync with our breath.

A simple way of describing our nervous system is by looking at it in two parts. We have the fight or flight mechanism which is called the sympathetic nervous system, this dilates our blood vessels and gets us ready for action to run or save ourselves from danger.

Then we have the rest and digest Parasympathetic nervous system. This is the state we aim to be in most of our day, so we can be calm and let our bodies be in the most optimal state. (unless a car swerves at us and we need to quickly move of course, then we thank our fight or flight sympathetic system)

If you’re stressed at work, arguing with someone or you just had some bad news you’re your body is an alert sympathetic state. The next time you experience anything like this feel what your body is doing, how are your shoulders, are you holding your stomach tight?

When we get tense, and stressed we tend to hold our shoulders up by our ears and our stomach tight. This is the primal fight or flight that can be switched on in a second but is unfortunately a little harder to switch off with all the stimulus we are exposed to in day to day life.

Now what this does to our breathing and how this impacts our whole body:

As discussed being stressed causes us to be tense and use muscles to breath that we shouldn’t, therefore using more energy and getting less breath. A consequence of this is that as these upper rib muscles are not designed to be used constantly for breathing, they fatigue quicker and tighten which then adds more compression to the joints in our spine. Have you heard someone say I have a tension headache cos I hold my stress in my shoulders? Think of a muscle that goes from your neck to your rib cage. Every time you contract that muscle your neck is the anchor for the muscle pulling your ribs up, so you are essentially pulling your head closer to your body, adding compression to the joints in your spine. These muscles also pull on the back of your skull creating tension headaches.

Shallower breaths also result in higher levels of carbon dioxide in our blood which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. So now it has a snowball effect.

 So now let’s look at all the benefits belly breathing can bring to your health

By taking longer and fuller breaths using the full capacity of our lungs we’re using less effort, and the great part is as we breath out we actually stimulate our parasympathetic system (Rest & Digest). So longer calmer breaths relax us more and promotes a healthier state for our bodies to be in. 

 Breathing and digestion problems?

Another amazing thing about the diaphragm is that it’s actually giving you an internal massage every time you use it! As it draws your lungs down into your abdomen it massages your digestive organs and helps your digestive tract to move food along. So not only is belly breathing assisting your digestion by putting your body in a calm state, it’s actually helping to move the food along by physically massaging your organs. Wow.

Now you can start to see why stress can cause such a wide range of problems from bad posture to digestive issues like constipation and acid reflux.

Now for the most important bit, how do you make your body do this without having to think about it all day?

 Do this exercise for 5-10 minutes daily as a minimum. The more you do it the better and more normal it becomes.

  1. Sit in a comfy position or lay down flat somewhere.
  2. Place a hand on your chest and a hand on your stomach.
  3. Take a slow breath in through your nose and allow your stomach to expand (it may feel like you can’t get a full breath as your muscles and ribs are not used to this movement but stick with it and it will get increasingly easier).
  4. Now through pursed lips slowly breath out as you relax your stomach.
  5. Your out breath should be double or more the length of your in breath to stimulate your restful state.
  6. The more your train your body and brain to breath like this the more natural it will become and the more unconscious it will be. If you have problems sleeping then this is a great exercise to do while you're laying in bed, aim for 10 minutes and see if you can relax yourself off to sleep.


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