neuroscience

The Breath: Unlocking the Power Within

Introduction

There is something we live with every day, yet we rarely ever give it attention. We constantly rely upon it, yet we never give it care. The existence of life requires its support, yet we never consider it an essential aspect of health. Breath is the center of life, and it deserves to be the center of our attention too.

We are constantly breathing, even without conscious effort. We were born breathing, and we will die when it stops. The effortless nature of its presence we take for granted, and this carries consequences. The body is a giant ecosystem, constantly interacting with itself to maintain balance. It is like a soup, where adding one disturbance or ingredient will act as a ripple that cascades across in influence. Therefore, the body shares a remarkable resemblance to fractals, where one small, repeated pattern leads to significant systematic impact. We never think about the pace or depth of the breath, yet it influences our physiology in a similarly cascading effect.

Our Breath Negligence

There exists a growing concern regarding the lack of breath health. In the general population, 9.5% suffer from dysfunctional breathing (Jones et al., 2013). Dysfunctional breathing can include breathing too deeply, too rapidly, breathing erratically, or sighing to a degree deviated from healthy functioning. It can result in breathlessness, chest tightness, tremors, dizziness, and tingling sensations in the limbs (Jones et al., 2013).

It can also lead to more extensive and crippling issues: 30% of people with asthma and 75% of people suffering from anxiety have dysfunctional breathing (Courtney, 2016). Stress can undoubtedly induce irregular breathing. However, the same is true the other way around. Habits feed other habits, and they influence themselves in feedback loops. 

Our breathing patterns affect both the mind and the body. Poor breathing can lead to health complications, but the opposite is also true. Practicing healthy breathing can positively improve health in many ways. 

side view photo of woman with her eyes closed holding her her as sunlight shines on her face
Photo by Ingrid Santana on Pexels.com

Healthy Breathing

The focus on healthy breathing patterns and how to treat breathing disorders are still in their infancy and require greater attention (Jones et al., 2013). Nevertheless, they are making headway with research providing helpful tips and recommendations to keep in mind. 

The Buteyko Technique represents one approach to healthy breathing. Introduced in 1950s Russia by Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, the method promotes nose and diaphragmatic breathing (McKeown et al., 2021). Dr. Buteyko found that mouth and chest breathing were two major causes of chronic hyperventilation (McKeown et al., 2021). Mouth breathing promotes inferior movement of the mandible and the tongue to fall to the floor of the mouth, leading to reduced pharyngeal space and more difficult airflow (Onerci, 2013).

Both the mouth and nose function as airways. However, the primary function of the mouth is to consume food and drink, whereas the sole purpose of the nose is to breathe. The sinuses of the nose even act as filters for the process. The nose evolved to be our primary tool for the breath. It is not surprising to think that we are healthier when we use it as such. So, close your mouth, and breathe.

Acquiring breathing styles and habits that promote slower breathing is also vital. Slower breathing, usually around six breaths per minute, frequently appears in research at a very healthy pace (Cysarz & Büssing, 2005; Lehrer et al., 2003; McKeown et al., 2021; Russo et al., 2017). Breath at this pace seems to increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity, as indicated by increased heart rate variability and baroreflex sensitivity (Lehrer et al., 2003; Russo et al., 2017). Modern life keeps us stressed, which keeps PNS activity low, and the opposite sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity high. The SNS can be helpful, but only in times of emergencies. Therefore, modern people should learn how to keep this system in check and find a way to increase PNS activity. Slow and calm breathing through the nose is one crucial step. 

Using Breath as a Tool for Health

So far, we have discussed healthy and unhealthy breathing patterns and habits. Breath is an essential aspect of health, and our daily habits will influence more significant health outcomes both in the short term and long term. It is even possible that breathwork can have immediate influences on the body, allowing it to be a tool to take great control over our body and health. 

The technique and research described is the invention of the “Iceman” Wim Hoff. Wim Hoff is famous for many world records in withstanding freezing temperatures (Kox et al., 2012). His talents are self-proclaimed to be a consequence of the breathwork he invented, giving him greater control over his body.

In 2012, there was an attempt to validate his claim when experimenters injected him with clinically controlled E coli and observed his immune response (Kox et al., 2012). They tested him while performing his breathing technique, using it in an ice bath, then finally doing both whiles injected with E coli This bacteria is used to test immune response in labs and can mimic a hyperinflammatory reaction, leading to autoimmune health concerns (van Lier et al., 2019). Therefore, symptoms reflect a healthy response, suggesting an immune response without overexpressing pro-inflammatory cytokines that would indicate further complications.

In the study, Wim Hoff showed a markedly decreased immune response, scoring a “1” on the symptoms scale where the average was 6.6 (Kox et al., 2012). The experimenters also observed that when in the ice bath, both with and without the injection, Wim Hoff showed increased cortisol levels (Kox et al., 2012). Cortisol is a stress hormone produced through high SNS activity. Cortisol increases the anti-inflammatory IL-10 and aids in immunodepression (Alvarez et al., 2007). Additionally, his breath technique showed increased epinephrine and norepinephrine, both SNS neurotransmitters (Kox et al., 2012). His breath was influencing his SNS and immune response. 

Of course, the increase in SNS activity is contrary to previously discussed studies of slow breathing, but Wim Hoff’s technique involves short bursts of breathing followed by holding the breath. For more information and details, see here. This technique seemingly increases the SNS, aiding in the immune response. A repeated experiment with other individuals trained in this technique resulted in similar results of decreased inflammation (Buijze et al., 2019). However, it remains unclear from this study alone whether it was the breathing technique or the submersion into the ice bath that provided the most benefit.

Further research was required. A paper in 2020 showed that the breathing technique performed by Wim Hoff resulted in increased levels of lactate and pyruvate. These substances induce the production of the anti-inflammatory IL-10 (Zwaag et al., 2020), further suggesting that breathing techniques can influence the immune system. We may have far more control over our bodies than we give credit for via breathing techniques.

man wearing black cap with eyes closed under cloudy sky
Photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

Our Innate Power

In many ways, we are powerless to many forces in life. Nature is a powerful force, and we are subject to its direction. Especially in recent times, it can be easy to feel powerless in the face of disease, suffering, and death. However, one should remember that though the external world may be largely out of our control, the inner world is not. We are our body, and we are not simply a mind housed in some foreign machine that breaks down and aches. The whole system is us, and we can learn to control it. 

This article intends for any reader to recognize that there is power over the self with every respiration. Through mindfulness, meditation, and breathing techniques, one can learn to use the breath to calm the mind and heal the body. Let us remember that proper health care and medicine begin with self-care and self-regulation. You are the front lines of your health; what a sigh of relief. 

“One should remember that though the external world may be largely out of our control, the inner world is not.”

Sydney Bright

References

Alvarez, S. M., Katsamanis Karavidas, M., Coyle, S. M., Lu, S. E., Macor, M., Oikawa, L. O., Lehrer, P. M., Calvano, S. E., & Lowry, S. F. (2007). Low-dose steroid alters in vivo endotoxin-induced systemic inflammation but does not influence autonomic dysfunction. Journal of Endotoxin Research13(6), 358–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/0968051907086465

Buijze, G. A., de Jong, H. M. Y., Kox, M., van de Sande, M. G., van Schaardenburg, D., van Vugt, R. M., Popa, C. D., Pickkers, P., & Baeten, D. L. P. (2019). An add-on training program involving breathing exercises, cold exposure, and meditation attenuates inflammation and disease activity in axial spondyloarthritis – A proof of concept trial. PLoS ONE14(12), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225749

Courtney, R. (2016). A Multi-Dimensional Model of Dysfunctional Breathing and Integrative Breathing Therapy – Commentary on The functions of Breathing and Its Dysfunctions and Their Relationship to Breathing Therapy. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy06(04), 4–6. https://doi.org/10.4172/2157-7595.1000257

Cysarz, D., & Büssing, A. (2005). Cardiorespiratory synchronization during Zen meditation. European Journal of Applied Physiology95(1), 88–95. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-005-1379-3

Jones, M., Harvey, A., Marston, L., & Ne, O. C. (2013). Breathing exercises for dysfunctional breathing/hyperventilation syndrome in adults. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD009041.pub2.www.cochranelibrary.com

Kox, M., Stoffels, M., Smeekens, S. P., van Alfen, N., Gomes, M., Eijsvogels, T. M. H., Hopman, M. T. E., van der Hoeven, J. G., Netea, M. G., & Pickkers, P. (2012). The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response: A case study. Psychosomatic Medicine74(5), 489–494. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182583c6d

Lehrer, P. M., Vaschillo, E., Vaschillo, B., Lu, S.-E., Eckberg, D. L., Edelberg, R., Shih, W. J., Lin, Y., Kuusela, T. A., Tahvanainen, K. U. O., & Hamer, R. M. (2003). Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Increases Baroreflex Gain and Peak Expiratory Flow. Psychosomatic Medicine65(5), 796–805. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.PSY.0000089200.81962.19

McKeown, P., O’Connor-Reina, C., & Plaza, G. (2021). Breathing Re-Education and Phenotypes of Sleep Apnea: A Review. Journal of Clinical Medicine10(3), 471. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm10030471

Onerci, T. M. (2013). Nasal Physiology and Pathophysiology of Nasal Disorders. In Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-37078-6_15

Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe13(4), 298–309. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817

van Lier, D., Geven, C., Leijte, G. P., & Pickkers, P. (2019). Experimental human endotoxemia as a model of systemic inflammation. Biochimie159, 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.014

Zwaag, J., Horst, R., Blaženovic, I., Stoessel, D., Ratter, J., Worseck, J. M., Schauer, N., Stienstra, R., Netea, M. G., Jahn, D., Pickkers, P., & Kox, M. (2020). Involvement of lactate and pyruvate in the anti-inflammatory effects exerted by voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Metabolites10(4), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3390/metabo10040148

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