How Slow Breathing Works
Slow breathing has been gaining in popularity lately. It’s reported to have numerous psychological and physical benefits, not least in reducing stress and high blood pressure. Other effects have also been documented in the scientific literature, such as alleviating anxiety, depression and pain, improving sleep. It can also improve the quality of life for sufferers of various chronic diseases. Slow breathing can even help reduce menopausal hot flashes (or ‘flushes’, depending on what side of The Pond you’re on).
So how does it work? Why is it that something as simple as breathing slowly can affect our health so broadly? How slow breathing works for the body (and mind) is still being unpicked but scientists are now starting to understand how it’s so beneficial for us.
How slow breathing works to improve your health
It stimulates the ‘calming’ branch of our autonomic nervous system
Understanding slow breathing and how it’s good for us has often focused on the effect it has on our autonomic nervous system (ANS). This is the part of your nervous system which controls the automatic functions of the body, such as breathing, heart rate and digestion. When we become excited or alarmed, the ANS increases our breathing rate and heart rate and releases stress hormones to prepare us for action (due to activation of the ‘sympathetic’ branch of the ANS). And when we’re resting and relaxed, the ANS reduces our breathing and heart rate (via activation of its ‘parasympathetic’ branch).
As suggested by its name, the ANS works automatically in that you have no direct conscious control over most of its functions – except for your breathing. However, all the autonomic nervous system functions are closely interlinked. This means that exerting conscious control over your breathing can also affect the other autonomic nervous functions such as your heart rate and your blood pressure.
In other words, by slowing down your breathing, you can bring the rest of your autonomic nervous system into its calmer mode too. (Specifically, slow breathing has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This nerve connects various organs including the heart, lungs and brain and stimulating it can effectively dampen down the sympathetic nervous system.)
It improves the efficiency of our heart and circulatory system
Slow breathing also improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular system. It involves a complicated set of interactions between the lungs, heart and blood vessels. The upshot is that breathing slowly seems to cause various aspects of the functioning of the heart and blood vessels to come into harmony with that of the lungs in a way that optimises how they all work.
It improves the efficiency of our breathing
Studies have also found that controlled slow breathing in healthy people optimises their oxygen intake. When you’re breathing more slowly, you’re obviously taking fewer breaths during a given time. But those breaths you do take are more effective in getting air and oxygen through your lungs and into your bloodstream. And they actually require less “respiratory effort” than when you’re breathing at your normal faster rate.
It affects our brain
Studies into slow breathing have noted that the physical changes are usually associated with mental changes. The people doing the slow breathing reported feeling more pleasant, relaxed and less anxious or stressed.
As well as altering the autonomic nervous system, slow breathing affects the central nervous system too, including the brain. There are various ways this happens.
For example, we’ve probably all noticed how our mental state can affect the way we breathe. When we’re stressed, we tend to find ourselves breathing faster and more shallowly. It works the other way round too in that the way we breathe sends signals directly to our brain. Sensors (e.g., in our chest nerves and in the arteries) detect the physical movement of our chest and lungs during breathing and send nerve signals to the brainstem. When we’re breathing slowly, this prompts activity in other areas of the brain to become synchronised with the breathing rhythm, resulting in slower brain waves and greater relaxation and alertness.
There are also a multitude of other subtle interactions going on – too complex for me to unravel here! – but which result in our feeling calmer and generally better. As summarised by some of the scientists themselves (Zaccaro et al, How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life):
In general, slow breathing techniques enhance interactions between autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility, linking parasympathetic and CNS [central nervous system] activities related to both emotional control and well-being.
And once this begins to happen, it’s a virtuous circle. Just feeling yourself calm down physically makes you calmer mentally, which in turn enhances your physical relaxation, and so on. Even the simple act of focusing your attention on your breathing for a short while is beneficial. It can draw your attention away from any stresses and strains that are on your mind. And this inward attention itself can produce a calmer, more meditative state of consciousness.
Does slow breathing affect health in the long-term?
Doing a wee session of slow breathing has immediate effects. You can often feel it beginning to calm you down within minutes. But it looks like it also has longer term benefits too. Indeed, if you’re someone who often feels stressed or generally tense, then your sympathetic nervous system may be chronically over-activated. If so, regularly doing sessions of slow breathing can help to alleviate this, bringing down your stress levels more comprehensively.
Slow breathing is a handy thing to do when you find yourself in a stressful situation or before entering into one. You can do it anywhere as it doesn’t have to be obvious you’re doing it. However, the more you practice doing it on a regular basis, the more easily you’ll be able to slip into it at a moment’s notice.
NOTE: Note that here we’re referring simply to the practice of slow breathing. We are not referring to different breathing techniques such as the various kinds of yogic breathing or more modern techniques or even deep breathing. Slow breathing is simple to do and doesn’t involve any special knowledge or training. It consists simply of breathing more slowly than usual for a period of time.
How to do slow breathing effectively
What speed should we aim to breathe at?
One question is how slowly should we be breathing to get these wide-ranging health benefits? A recent review of studies by Australian researchers found that the breathing range of 6 – 10 breaths per minute seemed to have the most potent effects on our breathing and nervous system. One ‘breath’ refers to one inhalation and exhalation. They also noted that no adverse effects of this appeared in the literature.
More specifically, there seems to be an emerging finding that breathing at six breaths per minute is most effective for bringing about the co-ordination of the breathing and cardiovascular systems and brain which seems to be so beneficial.
As David Robson, writing for the BBC, states,
Interestingly, people practicing breathwork seem to find a sweet spot at around six breaths a minute. This appears to bring about markedly greater relaxation through some kind of a positive feedback loop between the lungs, the heart and the brain. “You’re kind of unlocking or promoting the amplification of a basic physiological rhythm,” says Donald Noble [of Emory University in the US]. He points out that this frequency can be found in the repetitive actions of many spiritual practices – such as the Ave Marias spoken in rosary prayers and the chanting of yogic mantras. Perhaps those practices evolved through an unconscious recognition of this restorative breathing rhythm and its capacity to send people into a relaxed but focused state of mind.
How do we keep track of our breaths?
Obviously, you can do slow breathing simply by paying attention to and counting your breaths. However, once you start doing this, you’ll realise that it’s really easy to drift off and lose track, particularly as you become more relaxed.
As such, it can be helpful to have a soundtrack to breathe along with. And – conveniently! – we have guided audio tracks available for just such a purpose. These audio tracks span the recommended range of 6 to 10 breaths per minute.
Using guided slow breathing audio tracks
Naturally, everyone breathes at a different rate, and at different rates at different times. So you can just choose an audio track that’s slower than your current breathing rate and practice with that. You can gradually work your way down to slower and slower breathing rates as you get used to doing it.
If you’re new to slow breathing, you can use the tracks with a higher number of breaths per minute to get started, e.g., 10 or 8 breaths per minute. (10 breaths per minute is close to many people’s natural breathing rate.)
6 breaths per minute is a good pace to strive for. That’s slow enough to really relax you. And the more deeply you relax, the more profound the therapeutic benefits.
Slow breathing with relaxing background music
Listening to relaxing music has also been found to be relaxing in and of itself. Listening to music can also relieve stress and anxiety and lower high blood pressure. So most of our audio tracks have soothing music in the background. For each breaths-per-minute cycle, you can choose from tracks with three different types of background music.
Choose your own background music
For each breaths-per-minute cycle there is also an audio track with only the breathing prompts and no background music at all. You might find this more relaxing, or you might want to play your own background music. Studies of listening to music and blood pressure have found that how you personally respond to a piece of music is crucial to its effect on your mind and body, and your blood pressure. So this option allows you to choose music that you find particularly relaxing and/or joyful, in order to get the maximum health benefits.
To listen to short samples of the Breathe Slow audio tracks, click here: Breathe Slow samples
Download Breathe-Slow audio tracks
The entire Breathe Slow collection of guided slow breathing audio tracks is now available for $17 (about £13 or €15).
You’ll get a total of twenty audio tracks: four tracks for each of the five breathing cycles – 10, 8, 6, 5, and 4 breaths per minute. (For each breathing cycle, three of the four tracks have different types of background music and the fourth track has no background music – just the breathing prompts.) So you can always choose a track to suit your desired breathing rate and your musical mood!
The Breathe-Slow audio tracks come with a 60 day no-questions-asked 100% money-back guarantee if you’re not completely satisfied with your investment. Note that this is a digital download ONLY – no CDs will be sent to you.
To order physical CDs, click here:
(note that the physical CDs do not include the 4 breaths per minute tracks)
How Slow Breathing Works to Improve Your Health: References
Post by Alison, August 2021