These practices will help everything from sleep to your sex life
You don’t think twice about it but, just like most things we take for granted, breathing has a profound impact on our mood, mind, and body. We’re not just talking about reducing stress either—breathing techniques can improve everything from sexual pleasure to sleep quality. (You can even Breathe Your Way to a Fitter Body.)
So why, exactly, does breath have such a strong impact on your body? “The input from the respiratory system sends the most important messages the brain receives,” says Patricia Gerbarg, M.D., co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath and founder of Breath-Body-Mind.com. “If something is wrong with your breathing and you don’t fix it within a couple of minutes, you’re dead. So anything that’s changing in the respiratory system has to have top priority and receives the full attention of the brain.”
Changing the rate and pattern of breathing affects the way the autonomic nervous system (ANS) functions, Gerbarg says. When the sympathetic nervous system—the part of the ANS we associate with “fight or flight” mode—is activated, your body is constantly on alert, ready for a threat. Certain types of rapid breathing can help activate this system. Other slow breath practices can help bring this excitation back down to baseline and reduce the amount of adrenaline coursing through your body, she explains. Simultaneously, slow breath techniques activate the counter-balancing parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to slow the heart rate, restore energy reserves, reduce inflammation, and send messages to the brain that it can now relax and start to release beneficial hormones.
What kind of techniques are we talking about? We had experts break down three of the most beneficial breathing practices to lower stress and anxiety, garner energy during the day, and to help you sleep better at night.
Also called diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, and abdominal breathing, this technique reduces your blood pressure, heart rate, and production of your stress hormones, explains Kathleen Hall, Atlanta-based stress expert and founder of the The Mindful Living Network.
Try it: Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath through your nose, feeling your belly expand as your lungs fill with oxygen. Inhale slowly for four counts, then slowly exhale through your mouth for four counts. Do six to eight slow, deep breaths per minute for five minutes at a time.
This technique is the basic calming breath. This creates an ideal daytime state of calmness with alertness. In order for it to be sedating, like when you want to fall asleep, you increase the length of the exhale, says Gerbarg.
Try it: Sit or lie down. Close your eyes and, breathing at about five breaths per minute through your nose, very gently inhale four counts and exhale four counts. Increase the exhale to six counts for sedation.
Skip the caffeine—this technique stimulates oxygen flow, which wakes up your mind and your body, says Hall.
Try it: Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take in short, staccato, deep breathes through your nose, filling your abdomen. Inhale quickly and deeply over four counts, pause, then quickly exhale through your mouth. Perform eight to 10 quick, deep breaths per minute for three minutes at a time. Stop if you get lightheaded.