Don’t forget to breathe!

By Emma Thompson (Musculoskeletal Therapist)

What is the one thing in life that we take for granted every second of every minute of every day? Something that is vital to our very survival, a natural process that we habitually execute without a conscious thought, a practice that we neglect to develop and nurture as we grow because it simply occurs.

There is an expectation that we just know how to breathe. We enter the world doing it and we do it every day for the rest of our lives, yet very rarely are we actually educated on the correct ways to do so. Incorrect breathing techniques are not life threatening, but the ramifications that they can have on our overall health and wellness can contribute to disease, inflammation, musculoskeletal concerns and chronic conditions that impact the way we live.

Deep breathing triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, calming the body instantly and creating an environment ideal for our physiological functioning. It increases body awareness and cultivates a positive relationship between the body and mind promoting the release of negative energy. Mental stress and constricted breathing are inter-connected, garnering it the ability to affect our overall emotional balance.

‘Mental stress and constricted breathing are inter-connected.’

One of the main muscles of respiration is the diaphragm. If the diaphragm is not contracting efficiently, muscles in the upper chest and neck are recruited to assist, in short term (aka during exercise or respiratory distress) this can be very necessary and acceptable but unfortunately for routine respiration they do not have the physiological properties to perform consistently. They easily fatigue and overtime tighten which can contribute to a cascade of many common aches and pains around the head, neck and shoulders resulting in tension headaches, neurological pains and joint dysfunction. When the diaphragm is performing, accessory muscles of respiration can switch off, rest, repair and be ready to fire once required.

‘The diaphragm also happens to play an important role in stimulating lymphatic flow.’

The diaphragm also happens to play an important role in stimulating lymphatic flow. Lymph relies on the pumping action of deep breathing for fluent movement of lymphatic fluids; it creates relaxation of muscles, stimulation of internal organs and increase in oxygen levels throughout the body.

Shallow breathing can disturb the natural rhythmic connection of our intestinal digestion (the process that helps moves food through the gut) this is communicated through a network of nerve connections from the brain, which senses stress and forwards it onto the enteric nervous system (intestinal brain), further contributing to changes in composition of gut bacteria balance. Overtime this can increase our stomachs sensitivity to acid (among other things)  and lead to problems such as IBS, constant bloating or more serious inflammatory conditions. Correct breath helps stimulate natural contraction of the intestinal muscles, meaning a more rhythmic intestinal movement.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this isn’t a trick and it certainly isn’t new. The time you put aside each day to consciously breathe and relax may well be the best investment you ever make for your overall health and wellbeing.

Here are two easy methods of breathing to incorporate into your daily ritual, once or twice a day to kick off a little breath education.
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing.
  • Whilst seated, place one hand on your sternum and one on the belly button
  • As you breathe in try not to allow any movement underneath your top hand (sternum) instead focus only on your bottom hand (belly button) it should move out as you breathe in
  • As you breathe out let all the air from your lungs, drawing your belly in towards your spine as you expire.
  • Close your eyes and take 5 deep breaths. If your finding it difficult try lying flat and doing the same as above.
2. The 4-7-8 breathing technique.
  • Breathe in through your nose for 4-seconds, hold for 7-seconds, and exhale through your mouth for 8-seconds