Regardless of why someone is working with me, I teach all my clients how to breathe properly. Slow diaphragmatic breathing is the first step to healing, health, and wellness. It balances your autonomic nervous system, it moves lymphatic fluids, and it even changes your brain. I will very quickly review some basic information and highlight why it's important.
The Autonomic Nervous System
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of understanding the basics of our human nervous system. Knowledge is power! The more you know about how your mind and body work, the more empowered you will be to improve your health and well-being.
You can thank your nervous system for your six senses:
It also provides you with three other senses which you possibly didn’t know existed!
Perceiving internal sensations like hunger (interoception)
Sensing position, movement, and acceleration of body parts (proprioception)
Sensing actual or potential tissue damage (nociception)
Our Nervous system is like a tree, it has a lot of branches!
The first two branches are:
Central: Our Control Hub
Peripheral: Our Connection with the Outside World
Let's focus on the peripheral nervous system for one minute (right branch).
Our peripheral nervous system helps us sense the outside world (sensory neurons), and move around (motor neurons). Our motor neurons help with voluntary motor movement (e.g., walking, talking, eating), and involuntary movement (e.g., digestion, heart rate, blood pressure).
This involuntary bit is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Let's focus in on this branch!
Your ANS has two final branches, the relaxation branch (left) and the stress branch (right).
"Rest and digest" is the relaxation branch and it activates your body's repair and healing system.
"Fight or flight" is the stress branch and it activates your body's emergency system.
These two branches often activate the same body part in opposite directions (e.g., increase or decrease blood pressure).
Why is this Important?
Chronic stress is the silent killer. It destroys the part of your brain that helps with memory, it decreases your immune system, and it increases your risk of many diseases including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Stress is good in small doses such as emergency situations (e.g., running from a tiger) or during situations that require energy, arousal, attention, and concentration (e.g., public speaking, sports, or exams).
Relaxation increases your immune system, heals your body, brain and mind, and decreases your chances of getting many diseases. We want to makes sure there is balance between these two systems because too much of anything is bad, including too much relaxation! That's right, too much relaxation is bad. To learn more about how acute stress is good, read my blog: Relaxation is Overrated
The Lymphatic System
Okay, what the heck is the lymphatic system?
Simply stated, it is your body's garbage removal system! Your cells make waste every second, and without proper removal, garbage builds up and that's not good news!
Having a well-functioning lymphatic system is critical to health, wellness, and healing. Lymphatic vessels lie just below your skin and form a web to help with a variety of immune functions like fighting off infections, viruses, and bacteria, as well as healing injuries and preventing cancer. The lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump like your blood, so it must rely on body movement to circulate. One way to move your body, besides exercise, is to breathe into your diaphragm. That's right, breathing into your diaphragm moves lymphatic fluid. Not only does diaphragmatic breathing decrease stress, improve memory, and increase relaxation, it also helps to remove waste, decreases inflammation, and subsequently improves healing and other chronic conditions like chronic pain.
Changing Your Brain
Slow diaphragmatic breathing can create structural changes in your brain over time. Changing how you breathe changes your brain, which of course influences your mind.
So one step toward changing your mind is learning to breathe properly. Breathing slowly into your diaphragm changes brain regions related to strategic thinking, reaction, and self-regulation. When you breathe slow and deep, the vagus nerve in your lungs and heart send a signal to your brain to improve these brain regions. The vagus nerve also activates relaxation, causing many positive changes in different bodily systems including hormones, neurotransmitters, and immune cells.
Breathing slow and deep into your belly balances your ANS, improves your immune system, increases attention, activates relaxation, helps with digestion, improves mind and body healing, decreases anxiety, decreases chronic pain, increases memory, improves reaction speed, and the list goes on. It's a simple thing, breathing, but how we do it powerfully influences our mind and body!
To learn more, read my blog: How to Breathe Properly