Most of us take breathing for granted. It’s not really something you think about on a day to day basis. We take approximately 20,000 breaths per day, with each of these breaths we bring vital oxygen into our lungs and individual cells and take out harmful carbon dioxide. Without the breath, our cells would literally be starved of oxygen, meaning that they could not generate energy and would die.
The blood is often considered our life force, often termed “lifeblood”, however, the real life force is what the blood is carrying around: Oxygen. An average person could live without breathing for six minutes; after that time the cells in the brain start to die, causing irreversible brain damage.
Thankfully, it is impossible to die from holding your breath (unless underwater) as your body would lose consciousness after about three minutes and the autonomic nervous system would kick in, automatically kick-starting your breath. It is all rather clever, isn’t it?
If the breath is considered the life force, why do we pay so little attention to it? Many studies have already looked at air quality (1) and the undeniable truth that the cleaner the air you breathe, the healthier you will be. In summary: If every single cell in our body requires oxygen to create energy to function, tainted oxygen will penetrate and damage those cells, leading to a myriad of health problems. This is well known.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Few people look at HOW they breathe, which is equally as important. I am talking about the depth and pace of our breath, which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). As the name implies, this part of the nervous system is in charge of all involuntary responses such as respiration, heart rate, pupil dilation, urinary response, blood pressure, digestion and sexual arousal (2). Now for a little bit of science.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The ANS is the control board for the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls our “fight and flight” response. This response is triggered by danger, stressful events or emotions which kick start the adrenal glands, situated atop the kidneys, instructing them to release two stress hormones: adrenalin and cortisol.
The brain cannot distinguish between real and perceived threat
These hormones increase respiration to bring more oxygen into the blood to prepare the body with enough energy to fight or flee. Blood that is sitting in the digestive organs is relocated to more essential organs such as the lungs and heart.
Therefore, digestion is literally put on hold. Ever wondered why when you are stressed you don’t have an appetite, or if you do eat for the comfort of it you have stomach pain or heartburn? The body is not prepared to digest food.
The parasympathetic nervous system explained
This response is perfectly normal and needed when we are actually in danger; however, the brain cannot distinguish between real and perceived threat. What that means is, the brain cannot tell that the board meeting you are about to step into isn’t ACTUALLY going to kill and eat you. Your sympathetic nervous system is triggered by your perception of danger in the situation, and at that moment all the alarm bells are going off, so it jumps to attention.
In short, when your breath quickens and is shallow, your body perceives that it is in danger, releasing stress hormones to prepare it for battle. This is not something you want to be experiencing every day, yet in the current world we live in with all our stresses, worries, bills and deadlines, we live in a near perpetual state of “fight or flight”.
The Breath and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
If the breath can trigger a stress response, does it then stand true that it can also trigger a relaxed response? Yes! If quick, shallow breaths awaken the sympathetic nervous system; long, deep breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. The connection between the ANS and the brain is a two-way street. A stressed brain can tell the lungs to breath faster, but the lungs can also tell a stressed brain to relax through deep breathing.
The parasympathetic nervous system, when triggered, relaxes muscles and glands. It slows down the heart, promotes digestive enzyme excretion and releases the gastrointestinal sphincters for proper digestion and elimination.
Learning how to control your breath in perceived stressful situations can activate the parasympathetic nervous system
Ever wondered why when you are stressed you cannot go to the toilet but as soon as you take your favourite book to the loo and you are relaxed it is all plain sailing? Once you are relaxed, you can readily assimilate food, digest and eliminate waste.
Learning how to control your breath in perceived stressful situations can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and change your physical and emotional response of being stressed to being relaxed. This takes practice and involves the Vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve (there are 12) in the body that is a sensory nerve, meaning that it takes sensations from organs and other nerves in the body and transmits them to the brain to decode. The Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, running from the brain to the large intestine. It heavily relies on information passed on by the parasympathetic nervous system to communicate “relax” the brain. It is for this very reason that Yin Yoga sequences tone the Vagus nerve when tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system is desired.
Knowing how much impact your breath can have on the function of your body and mind gives you the power to be in more control of your reactions. When you understand the process behind your stress response, you can learn how to tap into it and train your body to move towards a more relaxed state of mind. It is all in the power of the breath.
A word of advice
Breath work is a powerful tool to add to your tool kit for dealing with stress and anxiety. If you are currently taking prescription medications for stress or anxiety talk to your physician about breath work before making any decisions to change or stop your medication.
- Few of us take notice of how we breathe
- The brain will start to die after 3-4min of no oxygen
- Fast, shallow breaths trigger the sympathetic nervous system – “fight or flight” response
- Slow, deep breaths trigger the parasympathetic nervous system – “rest and digest” response
- Yin Yoga can target the vagus nerve which connects the brain to the gut, telling it to relax