With stress, anxiety and chronic disease on the rise, breathwork has recently received an unprecedented surge in public interest due to it’s therapeutic potential to improve physical, mental and emotional health. Each year there are a number of studies being conducted and published on the positive impact of breathwork. In this section, I will provide you with a brief overview on the ways conscious breathing directly influences the way we feel, think and live. If you would like to learn more about the science of breathing, I recommend purchasing a copy of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor.
Here are a few ways breathwork can impact your body and mind:
Breathwork can have a significant impact on the nervous system, which is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and stress response. One of the main ways that breathwork affects the nervous system is through its impact on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is made up of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, which is activated in response to stress or danger, while the PNS is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, which is activated during times of relaxation and low stress.
Different types of breathwork can activate the PNS or SNS, depending on the technique used. For example, slow, deep breathing is often used to activate the PNS, while rapid, shallow breathing can activate the SNS.
When the PNS is activated, it can help to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, slow heart rate, and promote relaxation. This is why techniques like diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing, which focus on slow, deep breaths, can be effective for reducing stress and anxiety.
On the other hand, when the SNS is activated, it can increase heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure, preparing the body for physical activity or intense mental focus. Techniques such as Kapalabhati, which involve rapid, forceful exhales, can activate the SNS and increase energy and focus.
Endocrine System and Hormones
Breathwork practices can have a significant impact on the endocrine system, which is responsible for producing and regulating hormones in the body. The endocrine system is closely connected to the nervous system, and changes in the nervous system can affect the functioning of the endocrine system.
Breathwork practices that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, such as slow, deep breathing, can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation. This can lead to a decrease in the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands and can have negative effects on health when levels are chronically elevated. In contrast, breathwork practices can increase the levels of hormones that promote relaxation and well-being, such as oxytocin, which is known to promote feelings of social bonding and trust.
In addition, breathwork practices that involve breath retention, such as pranayama techniques, can increase the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This can stimulate the respiratory center in the brainstem, which in turn can activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a key regulator of the endocrine system. The HPA axis can influence the release of hormones such as cortisol, as well as other hormones such as growth hormone and thyroid hormones.
Research has also suggested that specific breathwork practices can have a direct effect on the functioning of the endocrine system. For example, one study found that Kapalabhati, a type of yogic breathwork, was associated with an increase in levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), both of which are important for reproductive health.
Breathwork can have an impact on the release and regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow for communication between neurons, and they play a crucial role in regulating mood, emotion, behavior, and other bodily functions.
One of the neurotransmitters that can be affected by breathwork is dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Deep, slow breathing can stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain, leading to a sense of relaxation and well-being.
Another neurotransmitter that can be affected by breathwork is serotonin, which is associated with mood regulation, sleep, and appetite. Some studies have shown that certain types of breathwork, such as pranayama, can increase serotonin levels in the brain, leading to improved mood and reduced anxiety.
Breathwork can also affect the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine, which are associated with the “fight or flight” response. Slow, rhythmic breathing can help to calm the body’s stress response and reduce the release of these neurotransmitters, leading to a greater sense of relaxation.
The Vagus Nerve
One of the key physiological mechanisms underlying the effects of breathwork is the activation of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves, and it plays a crucial role in regulating many aspects of our bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and breathing. When the vagus nerve is activated, it can have a calming and restorative effect on the body and mind, which is why many breathwork practices focus on stimulating this nerve.
There are many different breathwork techniques that can activate the vagus nerve, such as slow, deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and alternate nostril breathing. These practices are thought to increase the tone of the vagus nerve, which can help to reduce inflammation, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and improve mood and cognitive function.
Research has shown that regular breathwork practices can have a range of positive health effects, including reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, improving sleep quality, and enhancing immune function. While the exact mechanisms underlying these benefits are not fully understood, the activation of the vagus nerve is thought to play a key role.