Do you really know how to breathe?
While standing and talking to me, any participant of such a survey is obviously alive so I can understand their potential bemusement and the look of confusion when asked such a question.
Breathing is connected to every function of our body! It is what nourishes our blood with oxygen via the lungs and expels the gases which are bi products, keeping our blood healthy.Depending on which article you read we can live somewhere near 3-4 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but without air we would not survive much longer than a minute.
Breath and the Autonomic Nervous System.
As the word autonomic suggests the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) it is that part of the nervous system that works autonomously and controls things like our heart, lungs, eyes, liver, kidneys, stomach, bladder without us having to actually thinking about it.The ANS consists of two branches the Parasympathetic and the Sympathetic. As you can see below both branches have different functions, and together they are responsible for the full function of each organ.
Both branches also contribute in other ways. The Parasympathetic Nervous Systems is what calms us and the Sympathetic Nervous System gets us amped up.Have you ever noticed either yourself or a sports person take a big breath in before the beginning of your favourite sport? The purpose of that in breath, is to activate the Sympathetic arm of the ANS which gets the heart pumping faster, which gets more blood flowing, which delivers more oxygen to the muscles so that they can operate more effectively over the duration of the game and as a result keep up with the opposition players.
When the game is over and the intensity is not required, a sigh or a heavy out breath will activate the Parasympathetic arm of the ANS and brings the player to a more calm or relaxed state and into ANS balance. The ANS kicks in when you feel threatened or in danger. When someone has scared you, do you recall how you respond? If you are like most of people, you will instinctively step back, lift your head up, expand your chest and take a big breath in.
This activates the fight or flight response which is a function of the Sympathetic Nervous System (think alert) designed to keep us alert and in a state where we can respond and to a threat by defending ourselves or hightailing it out of there.
You might also recall when the person who scared you turns out to be a cheeky friend or relative and there is not actual danger, you will lean forward, breath out a number of times and your heart rate will decrease. This is the Parasympathetic arm taking over for a while to restore balance.
The longer OUT breath!
Imagine if you could that I was able to control the amount of air you breathe and placed a restriction on your IN breath and made it so that it was shorter than your out breath, for example 5 seconds in and 6 seconds out.
What do you think the consequences of such a restriction might be?Well initially, not much. Most of us would not even notice such a minor difference. Have you ever had one of those, extra Gravity days? Where getting out of bed was just to difficult? Was moving the Doona off your body was just too hard so you decided to stay in bed?
What might have been happening is that, the Parasympathetic Arm (think calm) of the ANS had become the dominant arm of the ANS and was calming you too much. Although this could occur for a number of reasons, for some of us it may be because your out breath was slightly longer than the in breath.
Having a longer OUT breath than an IN breath for an extended period, could lead to unexplained feelings of being constantly tired, lacking energy and motivation, and if Parasympathetic dominance persists may cause the person to begin feeling slightly down in the dumps and and if the breathing pattern become a habit and then over time a pattern of behaviour it has the potential to lead to a chronically depressed state and take the form of depression.
The longer IN breath!
Imagine the alternative now. The restriction is now place on your OUT breath, and it is now shorter than your in breath, for example 6 seconds IN and 5 seconds OUT.
Once again the difference seems negligible however the reality is that a longer in breath will result in a person being slight amped up or on edge, short and snappy, often defensive, it could show up as fidgeting, restlessness, a constant need to be doing things and people experiencing this may describe themselves as stressed.
This is a sign of the Sympathetic Arm of the ANS exerting it’s dominance and if the breathing pattern was to remain for a long period of time and if Sympathetic dominance was to persist that person will remain in the Fight or Flight state all the time, leading to feelings of constant exhaustion.
Have you ever gone to bed slept for 9 hours and woken in the morning feeling like you are even more tired than the night before? This could simply be caused by your in breath being longer than your out breath and keeping you amped up and your ANS could be in Sympathetic Dominance even while you sleep. It could explain why you wake often and have mostly broken sleep, feel fatigued during the day and find yourself dozing off at your desk.
The impact on you body of the fight or flight response.
So what happens in your body during the fight or flight response? According to the University of UTAH during an episode of self preservation the body releases a hormone called “Cortisol where it begins signaling several cells types resulting in an increase of blood pressure and increase in sugar levels, and suppression of the immune system, and prepares the body for extreme action”.
Now that is perfectly good in a situation where a person may be in real danger, and once the danger has passed the Parasympathetic arm of the ANS should kick in and restore balance making you calm again. The challenge is however, if we are keeping ourselves in a constant state of Sympathetic dominance by our IN breath being longer than our out breath we may be unwittingly causing ongoing elevated readings for our Blood Pressure and also keeping blood sugar levels high and creating the symptoms of Diabetes.
Could this be worth considering as a potential reason why some people that appear healthy, externally fit and not over weight are still susceptible to high blood pressure and diabetes?It just occurred to me, could it also be possible that heavier people who are constantly gasping for air to do everyday tasks like walking are also more likely to have higher readings of their Blood Pressure and at greater risk of Diabetes simply because they may be Sympathetically dominant for prolonged periods?
Balancing the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System)
The fact that the ANS works autonomously from other parts of the body may lead some of us to believe that we can’t do anything to control it. The reality is most of the time the ANS does a great job and we wouldn’t really want to take control of it. Being able to influence the ANS however could prove to be beneficial.
As mentioned above we are influencing the ANS just by having a different length to our IN and OUT breaths without being aware of it, so why not just bring our awareness to our breath and make our IN breath the same length as the OUT breath?Simply breathing at 5 cycles per minutes, 12 seconds per cycle, which is 6 seconds for the in breath and 6 seconds for the out breath, will within just a few minutes balance your autonomic nervous system.
If you had previously had a longer in breath the results of a balancing the ANS will be a reduction in the levels of Cortisol, blood pressure will decrease sugar production will decrease and a sense of calm will come over your body.On the other hand if you have a longer OUT breath making this the same length as the IN breath will also create balance of the ANS and bring people out of feeling slow and lethargic and lacking motivation.
Five minutes of balanced breathing 6 seconds in and 6 seconds out before bed will balance your ANS and you will begin to notice that when you woke in the morning you had the best nights sleep ever.5 minutes of balanced breathing can balance the ANS and the positive effects of that can last for many hours in the day and the more often you practice balanced breathing the long the effects will last.Warm regards,Bill