Breathe from your belly. Relax your neck and shoulders. Breathe more deeply. Slow down your breathing. But how? And Why?

The Diaphragm?

The diaphragm is a thin sheet of a muscle that attaches to the bottom of the rib cage and the pleura, which is a lining surrounding the lungs. The pleura creates an impermeable air barrier between the lungs and the abdominal area. When the diaphragm contracts it pulls downward on the pleura, creating a vacuum in the lungs and drawing air into the lower lobes of the lungs.

90% of our lung capacity is in the lower lobes of our lungs. Using the diaphragm to fill them is the key to an efficient and effective oxygen exchange. The good news – the diaphragm can be strengthened and the diaphragmatic breathing pattern can be trained!

It’s Natural

As infants and children we naturally learn to breathe diaphragmatically, with the lungs being filled from below and the tummy rising and falling as the diaphragm does it’s work – creating a vacuum and filling the lungs as air is drawn in through your nose, With the air expanding the rib cage – much like filling a balloon with air – and then with the elasticity of the rib cage and it’s “bucket handle” movement, air is passively expelled through your mouth and/or nose. Efficiently. Effectively.

Upper Respiratory Breathing

The upper lung lobes are important as well. They provide 10% of your lung capacity, and this extra lung capacity is important to allow your body to perform at it’s highest level of exertion. For example, during physical activities, athletic or recreational endeavors. And if you need to engage a fight or flight response, that increased capacity has been essential for our survival as a species.

Breathing – Bad Habits

Many people develop breathing patterns using their upper respiratory muscles to fill their upper lung lobes as their primary breathing pattern. They start their breathing with using their neck, shoulder and upper back muscles – also called accessory breathing muscles – rather than starting their breathing pattern with their diaphragm. This becomes a habit, with the diaphragm becoming secondary and often very inactive.

In our society with the peak in our physical activity at age 6, a high degree of sitting during school, at work & commuting, we can get away with functioning while using our upper respiratory pattern and 10% of our lung capacity as our primary breathing pattern. And we develop these habits that carry into our daily lives.

Rogue Fight or Flight

When we breathe with our upper respiratory musculature, we engage a series of reflexes – including activation of our sympathetic nervous system. Your body responds. Adrenaline and cortisol (from the adrenal gland) are released into your bloodstream.

Adrenaline quickly affects receptors in your heart and muscles, increasing tension and muscle contractions in your neck, shoulders & upper back (your upper respiratory musculature). Your heart rate and respiratory rate increase. Your blood pressure goes up. Your parasympathetic nervous system – essential for our basic metabolism, digestion and homeostasis of our systems – is shut down.

Your central nervous system, including your brain, is focused on responding to a threat – invoking feelings of stress, fear, anxiety, need for safety and survival that is reflexively preparing your body and brain for a fight or flight response. Adrenaline’s initial effect is over the course of a few minutes – it’s short-lived but it’s responsive and powerful.

Cortisol stimulates the release of more glucose into your bloodstream, providing more energy for your body to respond to the anticipated fight or flight response. The half-life of cortisol is 1-2 hours, meaning that once released into your bloodstream it requires 1-2 hours for half of it to be metabolized. Cortisol will continue to increase glucose in the blood stream while cortisol is present.

If you continue to breathe with an upper respiratory pattern, then more cortisol and adrenaline are produced. Excessive or chronic cortisol production can have significant negative affects on your body – including weight gain, immune system depression and adrenal fatigue. These are important issues for us to consider, but are beyond the scope of today’s blog.

If upper respiratory breathing is primary, your body is in a perpetual state of sympathetic nervous system over-use. Symptoms can include muscular tension headaches, neck and back pain, fatigue, eye and jaw strain, sinus congestion, dizziness, muscle tightness and difficulty concentrating, irritability or insomnia. Sound familiar?

Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

Yes, you can do it! For those of you who have developed upper respiratory breathing habits, it will feel strange at first. And then, with practice over several weeks, it will become natural.

First of all, start in a restful position, either lying down on your back or sitting in a chair. Be sure you can completely relax your head, neck & shoulders as well as your trunk, hips and legs. You may need to support your head and knees/legs with a pillow while lying down, or sit in a comfortable and supportive chair to be sure you are completely relaxed.

As you breathe in through your nose, you should feel your tummy rise as you draw air into your lungs. Let your lungs fill and your rib cage expands passively. Hold the deep breathe briefly, and then exhale by slowly and passively letting the air pass through your mouth. To exaggerate the pattern and to improve your body awareness, practice with using a 4:7:8 ratio of time for the inhale: hold: exhale components. I’d advise to do no more than 3-4 repetitions with this exaggerated pattern, as doing more than that may result in hyperventilation.

Practice to Form a Habit

Practice makes perfect – and achieves a new habit. Incorporate diaphragmatic breathing before you fall asleep, when you wake up, while driving your car or while working at your computer. You’ll be amazed at the impact you will have on your body and your brain.

Within a 2-minute cycle of diaphragmatic breathing, you drop your production of adrenaline and cortisol by 50%, and you will engage your parasympathetic nervous system – reversing the sympathetic nervous system/ fight or flight responses we have discussed.

Remember, it will require several weeks to develop a habit, so don’t get frustrated. In addition, your diaphragm – a muscle – will need to strengthen itself, and you will typically need 4-6 weeks to make a significant improvement in strength.

Your Body Will Respond – Managing Stress

We cannot always mitigate the stresses on our body and our mind during each day, but we can become aware of our dysfunctional breathing patterns – the first step. And we can understand why it’s important to breathe diaphragmatically – the second and most empowering step.

We can learn to breathe diaphragmatically as a habit. Upper respiratory breathing patterns are essential for fight or flight responses, but we certainly shouldn’t be engaging our sympathetic nervous system throughout a large part of our daily lives.

You will relax and sleep better. Your blood pressure and heart rate will decrease. You will think more clearly and creatively. You will perform better during cognitive tasks. You will be less irritable. You will have less muscular tension and pain in the upper respiratory muscular and body areas we have discussed.

You will be more aware of your body and it’s responses. You will be able to stop or minimize some of the effects of stress and anxiety in your body and in your mind.

Healthy Breathing – Sleep & Live Well

Diaphragmatic breathing will not only make a significant difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of our breathing patterns, but it will help us to allow our parasympathetic nervous system to support our metabolic recovery needs. Including optimal sleep, function of our digestive and reproductive cycles, and being able to live our lives in a balanced state of physical and mental health and well-being.

It’s been my pleasure to talk about this important topic – breathing. Something we all do on a regular basis! I hope you gained a better understanding of what diaphragmatic breathing is, why it’s important, and how you can learn to breathe diaphragmatically during your day – and more importantly that it will make a positive difference in the quality of your life.

My best to you as we move for health,

Dr. Darcy