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How quickly you breathe has a profound effect on whether your body is in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) or parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) state. The average person breathes about 18 times per minute, putting them in a chronic state of mild hyperventilation, leading to stress. By slowing down the breath, you can take yourself out of fight-or-flight mode and relax.
In his book, Breath, James Nestor describes the scientific benefits of this exact breathing pattern:
“Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency.”
Slow breathing is one of the best tools to increase overall health.
By slowing down the breath, this breathing pattern helps promote a healthy balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and increase blood flow and oxygenation to the brain and body. Slow breathing increases the amount of Co2 and nitric oxide in the bloodstream, which in-turn opens up blood vessels and causes cells to release their old, used oxygen molecules and pick up fresh oxygen molecules from the bloodstream.
Chest breathing is an emergency response, triggering our body’s fight-or-flight mode. Conversely, breathing out of the belly (diaphragm) stimulates the vagus nerve & activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, our rest-and-digest mode. It’s also considerably more efficient than chest breathing. Place one hand on your chest while you breathe and one hand on your stomach for a simple reminder to breathe out of your belly.
Noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating. Nose breathing is up to 20% more efficient than mouth breathing and leads to cleaner, warmer air for your lungs. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, is associated with higher rates of snoring, sleep apnea, allergies, and illness.
These breaths should be slow, but not too deep. Inhaling too much oxygen can actually lead to acute hyperventilation and trigger panic attacks & anxiety. Focus on gently sipping air through the nose on each inhale.
Want a little boost? On each exhale, keep your mouth closed and hum like a bee. This technique has been shown to boost nitric oxide production by 16x. Nitric oxide is a powerful compound that has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral benefits. It is a vasodilator that increases blood flow, breathing efficiency, physical performance, immunity, mood, and more.
Slow breathing practices are a staple of just about every tradition: Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, and even Catholic. While nearly every ancient culture has a slow breathing practice, what’s interesting is that they almost all end up being roughly the same cadence – 5.5 breaths per minute. This 5.5 breath-per-minute pace has been used in more contemporary respects too – with 9/11 survivors who struggled with glass lung syndrome and by podcaster Joe Rogan.
Sources: Breath by James Nestor and Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown.