“Breath is the finest gift of nature. Be grateful for this wonderful gift.” - Amit Ray
We all start life with a gasp for air and even get a score on how we do. Our Apgar result is the first literal and metaphorical test on how we start life. How much control we have over our first moments with oxygen is debatable, but the influence thereafter is significant.
Breathing is both involuntary and voluntary and not many body functions share this unique dichotomy. Here we are, breathing all day on autopilot and yet at any moment we can take the controls and reap all kind of benefits.
In fact, our body instinctively knows about these benefits which is why, autonomically, you do things like breathe more quickly under stress. New research from Northwestern University has some insight into why this happens. It turns out depth and rhythm of breathing, “enhances memory recall and emotional judgement,” and “may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation.”
Of course, this is short term advantage and comes with a price tag. This sympathetic nervous system reaction (think fight or flight), also floods our system with cortisol and other hormones, but breathing can help us manage that too if we grab those controls.
According to Esther Sternberg, researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, our breathing itself can trigger a switch in our nervous system. She says, “deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction — the one that calms us down,” and this effect lasts over the long term in influencing this autonomic system’s ongoing reaction to stress.
So, yeah, better controlled breathing has substantial health benefits. You know where this is going, right?
This deep breathing work has a name, pranayama, and a rich and long history in the practice of meditation and yoga. If these things trigger a bit a resistance in you, say you’re metaphorically allergic to lotus flowers or incense, consider that Harvard has an entire department dedicated to the practice of breathing.
In fact, the Scientists at Harvard’s Lazar Lab display a quote by meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa (on their research page), that seems to speak to the cultural baggage that Eastern breathing practices carry for some.
"Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to be a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes."
Body benefits of deep breathing, such as reduced blood pressure and beneficial cardiovascular effects, have been known for years, but this new Northwestern study, along with the research from the Lazar Lab, shows that practiced deep breathing changes your brain.
Lead author of the Northwestern study, Christina Zelano, says, “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network.” Head researcher at Harvard’s Lazar Lab, Sarah Lazar says, “Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. We also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain.”
And, we can add another Harvard researcher’s results into the mix as well. Herbert Benson, who started his research on breathing practice back in 1975, is involved in new studies that find controlled breathing changes our gene expression. Specifically, genes that manage, “energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.”
So, to review, practiced breathing, such as that done in meditation and yoga, changes your body’s autonomic response to stress, improves cardiovascular health on several levels, alters brain function and alters your genes.
No more excuses. Any activity that controls breathing is worth your time.