Nasal Cycles, Diaphragmatic Breathing, and the Health Benefits of Breathwork
From the perspective of physical health, breathwork techniques are good for a wide array of health conditions, ranging from respiratory problems such as asthma and pneumonia to psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression and attention-deficit disorder. Certain breathwork practices can help regulate blood pressure and balance the nervous system, by deactivating the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, known as our rest and digest mode.1 It has been shown that breathwork alkalizes the blood pH, has an anti-inflammatory effect, increases muscle tone, and helps with management of chronic stress.2
Dan Brulé is a breath master and global teacher of a program called Breath Mastery, who has taught over a hundred thousand people, including corporate executives, athletes and Navy SEALs, internationally. According to Brulé, it is possible to learn how to ‘breathe your way to peak performance, optimum health, and ultimate potential.’3
Most people do not pay heed to the manner in which they breathe, convinced that the style of breathing makes no difference to their overall wellbeing. Yet our breathing follows the nasal cycles—alternating periods during which one of the nasal cavities is active, and the other one congests. If inhalation is predominantly done through the right nostril, the heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature increase. This is the nostril associated with the elevated physical state, commonly associated with our fight-or-flight response to perceived danger. While breathing through the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system, breathing predominantly through the left nostril is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to lowering the body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. Ideally, the nasal cycle should be regular and balanced.
The Dangers of Chronic Mouthbrething
More important, however, is the fact that an inability to breathe effortlessly through the nose can critically impair our health. When we inhale through the nose, the mucous membrane that lines the nose warms the breath, moistens it, and filters our particles and pollutants which could otherwise cause irritations, allergies or infections. Furthermore, nose breathing boosts nitric oxide in the body. This molecule plays a role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen to the cells. The amount of nitric oxide in the body impacts our immunity, weight and mood.
Mouthbreathing often causes insomnia, snoring and sleep apnea which, in turn, can increase the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, and can cause learning disabilities and mood disorders. Mouthbreathing also has some devastating effects on oral health, causing cavities, periodontal disease and bad breath. According to some estimates, forty percent of the population has chronic nasal obstruction, which often causes people to become ‘habitual mouthbreathers.’4
Mouthbreathing, or breathing predominantly through the mouth due to nasal congestion and other conditions, makes the body easily fatigued and stressed. In the 1990s, Dr. John Douillard, known for having trained top athletes, conducted a series of studies which concluded that breathing through the nose decreases perceived exertion during physical exercise in half, and significantly increases endurance. Furthermore, Dr. Douillard found that nose breathing significantly increases the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and lowers the tone of the sympathetic nervous system. In terms of brain coherence, Dr. Douillard’s studies also showed that, in comparison to mouthbreathing, nose breathing results in higher brain coherence, and leads to higher alpha brainwave patterns.5
What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and a leading expert in mental health and fitness, has designed a ‘breathing IQ test.’ She has found that a staggering 95 percent of all people breathe in a ‘biomechanically unsound’ way—having a short and shallow breath.6 The reason for that is the shift from diaphragmatic breathing to breathing using accessory breathing muscles.
The diaphragm is a muscle that plays a critical role in the breathing process. It is located below the lungs and the heart, and through its rhythmic contractions it regulates our breathing. Babies and small children naturally use the diaphragm to breathe—this can be observed by the movement of their belly up and down. This is called ‘belly breathing’ or ‘diaphragmatic breathing.’ However, in adulthood, most people begin to develop a different breathing style, in which the focus shifts away from the diaphragm (the main breathing muscle) and toward the accessory breathing muscles (the muscles within the rib cage, the neck and the shoulders). In comparison to diaphragmatic breathing, this type of breathing is shallow, and characteristic of the ‘fight or flight mode’ in response to stress.
While having a stressful lifestyle is a leading cause for this shift from diaphragmatic to shallow breathing, sedentary lifestyle is another contributing factor. The consequences of this shift are often serious—when our breathing is shallow at all time, we continuously signal the body to trigger a stress response. This raises the cortisol levels and increases the risk of stress-related disorders and diseases.7