July 21st, 2024

Common Sense Health: How you breathe affects your health

By Dr. Gifford-Jones and Diana Gifford-Jones on June 28, 2024.

An old Chinese adage goes, “If you know the art of deep breathing, you have the strength, wisdom, and courage of ten tigers.” When a kung fu master takes a meditative moment before delivering the kiss of the dragon, these powers are summoned, and woe be the opponent! But is this practice of deep breathing also responsible for the seemingly long lives of these great masters?

Breathing is something we do naturally and without thought. But ask people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or lung cancer. There’s no taking the lungs for granted, and a great deal of thought goes into the process.

Does it matter, how you breathe? Breathe in, breathe out, isn’t that enough? It turns out, you may want to make some adjustments in how you do it, and you can have a little fun at the same time.

Researchers conducted an interesting study. Over the course of one month, they compared the practice of mindful meditation with three different types of daily, 5-minute breath work exercises. One group of study participants were instructed to breath using longer inhalations and shorter exhalations. Another group performed box breathing or tactical breathing, which is equal duration of inhalations, breath retentions, and exhalations. A third group probably had a laugh or two as they undertook something called cyclic sighing, which emphasizes prolonged exhalations.

One can’t be sure, from reading the study, if indeed any of the study participants in the third group had a chuckle or two while doing their 5-minutes of sighing. Since it was conducted remotely during the pandemic, researchers wouldn’t know either. But imagining the potential humour only accentuates the study’s results.

Maybe 5 minutes of breathing with prolonged exhalations can be done in relative silence. But after all, it’s called cyclic sighing. So add the vocalization, and especially when two or more people do it together, the humour becomes more palpable.

All three groups achieved greater benefit from daily 5-minutes of breath work than from the practice of mindful meditation. These benefits were measured in terms of rate of respiration, resting heart rate, and heart rate variability. But the cyclic sighing group had the highest benefit.

Here’s another fun fact about the study. Researchers found that study participants doing cycle sighing benefited more from the exercise the more days they did it compared with mindfulness meditation, an effect not observed in the other groups.

When might you want to try cyclic sighing? The study suggests everyday. But here’s another consideration. In moments of stress and anger, taking time out to breathe deeply has been shown to have positive benefits.

The physiological effect of deeper, slower breathing is a calming of the nervous system. In turn, calmer nerves mean lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduced production of stress hormones, and less build up of lactic acid in muscles.

Add in a bit of laughter and what happens? It may, initially, speed up your heart rate. But the relaxation that follows brings that rate right down. It increases endorphins in the brain that improve mood. It stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation. Laughter can ease pain both by distraction and by stimulating the body to fight pain with its own natural painkillers.

Why not try it now, as you finish reading this article? Set a timer for 5 minutes and commence taking deep breaths in, followed by longer sighs of exhale. Anyone around will ask what on Earth you are doing. You can have a good laugh in explaining and inviting them to join in.

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