In The Healer’s Manual, author Ted Andrews outlines four tenets for maintaining health and preventing disease: proper diet, proper exercise, proper rest, and proper breathing.1 We don’t often hear breathing mentioned as an important aspect of well-being. But just as breath is essential to life, correct breathing is essential to optimal health.
When acute stress occurs, the body’s normal physiological adaptation is a shortened, rapid breathing pattern in the upper chest cavity. As high stress levels persist, this abbreviated breath pattern becomes a chronic habit, and produces a domino effect of negative consequences in the body.
Shallow breathing significantly increases the amount of carbon dioxide the body exhales, markedly altering the body’s pH and creating a condition called respiratory alkalosis. “Increased pH (alkalosis) causes smooth muscle constriction. Smooth muscles surround the blood vessels and the gut and are embedded throughout connective tissue. As a result, one of the first effects of alkalosis is that the diameter of blood vessels reduces, impeding normal circulation, increasing blood pressure, as well as altering fascial tone throughout the body and interfering with normal peristaltic function in the intestines, thus leading commonly to irritable bowel syndrome or constipation. One research study suggested that up to 90 percent of non-cardiac chest pain can be brought on by [rapid, shallow] breathing.”2
Prolonged stress locks in this abnormal breathing pattern, affecting the body structurally, physically, and physiologically. As the breath remains shortened, alkalosis is induced, “making delivery of oxygen to the tissues (brain, muscles) less efficient, leading to reduced motor control, lower pain threshold, impaired balance, increased feelings of agitation, fatigue, and a variety of cognitive (“brain-fog”) and emotional repercussions (anxiety, panic tendencies, etc.).”2
Over time, dysfunctional breathing becomes a cycle, making it difficult for the body to revert back to its normal function. “Chest breathing is inefficient because the greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs, areas that have limited air expansion in chest breathers. Rapid, shallow, chest breathing results in less oxygen transfer to the blood and subsequent poor delivery of nutrients to the tissues…Using and learning proper breathing techniques is one of the most beneficial things that can be done for both short and long term physical and emotional health.”3
The deep breathing techniques taught in yoga provide multiple benefits. A yoga student must be physically and mentally present to learn specific techniques, creating self-awareness of one’s breath in the moment it is occurring (being present). Yoga breathing also has an important physiological component. The deep exhalations of abdominal breathing stimulate nerves at the base of the lungs which activate the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation and allowing normal physiological functions to reset.
Massage can help break dysfunctional breathing patterns and assist the body in returning to health. As muscle tension is released, the body’s circulation and oxygenation increase and the nervous system is calmed, breaking the stress cycle and creating a higher state of well-being.
This is an original article from Dreamclinic, Inc. Dreamclinic is a Health and Wellness company committed to sharing information about commonly experienced health conditions and how they may be impacted through the use of bodywork and other natural approaches. Dreamclinic offers massage, acupuncture, and Reiki sessions at its Greenlake and Queen Anne clinics, as well as onsite massage at workplaces around Puget Sound. Contact us to learn more about how Dreamclinic can help you, your family or your workplace experience greater health.
1. Andrews, Ted. The Healer’s Manual. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2006, page 5. Print.