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How often do you stop to consider your breathing? Although breathing is vital to keep you alive, new science is discovering breathing influences your brain function, too.
In this article, you’ll discover how you can harness the power of your breath for better brain health.
You breathe around eight million times during a single year, taking both conscious and unconscious breaths. When you breathe unconsciously, which accounts for most of your breaths, your brain decides when you take a breath depending on the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood. Breathing provides your body with oxygen and removes unwanted carbon dioxide produced by your cells. When you’re completely at rest or sleeping, you tend to breathe unconsciously. Your breaths will be slow, steady and deep, your diaphragm lowering and your belly expanding with each breath.
When stress creeps in during waking hours, you tend to take shallower breaths involving your upper chest rather than your diaphragm. This is what your body does when it’s preparing you to react to some sort of threat – you need to be on high alert. The trouble is, breathing in this way in turn tells your brain you’re still stressed, so shallow breathing continues in a vicious cycle.
Just as your emotions affect your breathing, you have the ability to override your breathing habits. If you’re anxious and continually taking short, rapid breaths, by simply slowing down your breath you can calm your nervous system from the chatter caused by ongoing stress. Taking deep breaths and focussing on exhalation is great at signalling to your brain that you needn’t be on permanent stress alert.
Many schools of natural medicine routinely harness the power of breath to improve health. The benefits of deep breathing on stress reduction, immunity and mental health are well documented, but its effects go beyond this, with studies now finding breathing may influence the functioning of your brain.
Scientists discovered breathing affects brain waves, patterns of electrical activity in your brain’s neurones, most notably in the parts of the brain responsible for the processing and consolidation of memory 1. Breathing deeply and rhythmically, especially if you inhale through your nose, helps to regulate these brain waves, in turn affecting your perception, emotion, memory and thinking, and helping you to perform cognitive tasks better, like problem-solving and processing language.
Deep breathing may support your brain in other ways, too, for example by helping your brain’s waste disposal system, called your glymphatic system, to flush away unwanted toxins. Breathing increases the circulation of blood and cerebral spinal fluid, in turn helping to regulate the pressure inside your skull. As you inhale, cerebrospinal fluid moves upwards, while blood tends to move downwards, and the reverse is true during exhalation, flushing toxins out of your brain. If your diagram is strong and your breathing is deep and steady, blood and cerebrospinal fluid can flow more easily. Like any other muscle, your respiratory muscles can become out of condition if your breathing is constantly shallow.
You have this incredibly effective tool at your disposal right now, so why not make the most of it? If you start to pay attention to your breathing, you can begin to influence the rhythm of your breaths.
First, start with some simple mindful breathing. While sitting comfortably, place one hand on your chest and one on your tummy. Breathe in slowly through your nose and notice how your chest and abdomen move – you want your chest and shoulders to remain fairly still, and your stomach to expand as you inhale. As little as five minutes of mindful breathing can be incredibly beneficial.
Your therapist can advise you about plenty of other breathing techniques. Breathing is just one natural tool that is free and works with, rather than against your body, yet is very powerful when it comes to supporting optimal health in the way nature designed. A whole array of other natural methods can support your brain health, including lifestyle measures like optimising sleep, managing stress and moving more, as well as harnessing the power of foods and nutrients and looking after your gut. But you are an individual, so the most appropriate pathway for you will be different than for the next person.
Do you need personalised support for your brain health? Then book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.
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