The science of breathing stands on quite ancient foundations. Centuries of wisdom instructs us to pay closer attention to our breathing, the most basic of things we do each day. And yet, maybe because breathing is so basic, it’s also easy to ignore. A brief review of the latest science on breathing and the brain, and overall health, serves as a reminder that breathing deserves much closer attention – there’s more going on with each breath than we realize.
Controlling your breathing calms your brain.
While the admonition to control breathing to calm the brain has been around for ages, only recently has science started uncovering how it works. A 2016 study accidentally stumbled upon the neural circuit in the brainstem that seems to play the key role in the breathing-brain control connection. The circuit is part of what’s been called the brain’s “breathing pacemaker” because it can be adjusted by altering breathing rhythm (slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit; fast, erratic breathing increases activity), which in turn influences emotional states. Exactly how this happens is still being researched, but knowing the pathway exists is a big step forward. Simple controlled breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 method may work by regulating the circuit.
Breathing regulates your blood pressure.
“Take a deep breath” is solid advice, particularly when it comes to keeping your blood pressure from spiking. While it’s unclear whether you can entirely manage blood pressure with controlled breathing, research suggests that slowing your breathing increases “baroreflex sensitivity,” the mechanism that regulates blood pressure via heart rate. Over time, using controlled breathing to lower blood pressure and heart rate may lower risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm, and generally decreases stress on blood vessels (a big plus for cardiovascular health).
Counting breaths taps into the brain’s emotional control regions.
A recent study showed that controlling breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain,” particularly in brain regions related to emotion. Participants were asked to count how many breaths they took over a two-minute period, which caused them to pay especially focused attention to their breathing. When they counted correctly, brain activity (monitored by EEG) in regions related to emotion, memory and awareness showed a more organized pattern versus what’s normally experienced during a resting state. The results are preliminary, but add to the argument that controlling breathing taps into something deeper.
The rhythm of your breathing affects memory.
A 2016 study showed for the first time that the rhythm of our breathing generates electrical activity in the brain that influences how well we remember. The biggest differences were linked to whether the study participants were inhaling or exhaling, and whether they breathed through the nose or mouth. Inhaling was linked to greater recall of fearful faces, but only when breathing through the nose. Participants were also able to remember certain objects better when inhaling. Researchers think that nasal inhalation triggers greater electrical activity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional epicenter, which enhances recall of fearful stimuli. Inhaling also seems linked to greater activity in the hippocampus, the seat of memory.
Controlled breathing may boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism.
While this is the most speculative of the study findings on this list, it’s also one of the most exciting. The study was evaluating the “Relaxation Response” (a term popularized in the 1970s book of the same name by Dr. Herbert Benson, also a co-author of this study), which refers to a method of engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to counteract the nervous system’s “fight or flight” response to stress. Controlled breathing triggers a parasympathetic response, according to the theory, and may also improve immune system resiliency as a “downstream health benefit.” The study also found improvements in energy metabolism and more efficient insulin secretion, which results in better blood sugar management. If accurate, the results support the conclusion that controlled breathing isn’t only a counterbalance to stress, but also valuable for improving overall health.