Learning how to comfortably hold your breath after you exhale may be the best anti-aging practice yet.
Breathing Science for Longevity
As we age, many of our physiological functions start to break down, leading to the degeneration of the physical body. One of those functions is breathing—as you get older, you start to breathe faster, less deeply, and into your upper chest. But thankfully, according to a whole host of new studies, there are simple breathing exercises you can do to maintain a deeper breath and slow the aging process.1-3
How Breathing (and Elastic Recoil) Changes with Age
Breathing becomes shallower with age because of a process called elastic recoil. Take in a deep breath and notice that it takes some effort. Then let the air out. That part of the process is generally pretty effortless. After an inhalation, the lungs automatically exhale due to the elastic recoil of your rib cage. Even when you inhale, recoil is at play and you have to push against it—hence the effort when you take in a breath. That recoil is constantly squeezing down on your heart and lungs, to the tune of some 26,000 breaths per day.
With age, your rib cage becomes tighter and you need to work harder on your inhalations in order to overcome a more rigid elastic recoil and ultimately fill your lungs. Of course tightness in your rib cage is accelerated by sitting in front of a TV, computer, or steering wheel for hours on end. On your inhalations, your diaphragm—the primary muscle of inspiration—contracts, sucking air into the lower lobes of your lungs and inflating the entire rib cage. But when you slouch, your diaphragm is already semi-contracted, or pushed down, and unable to fully expand your lungs, or rib cage. Over time, with less activity, the strength of the elastic recoil overpowers the diaphragm’s ability to fully inspire. Breathing becomes shallow and the processes of aging accelerates.4
Try it: Take in a big breath while sitting up straight. Easy right? Now, slouch way forward and try to take the same deep breath. It’s almost impossible to take the same depth of breath.
The Consequences of Overbreathing
With aging comes shallow breathing and with shallow breathing comes a form of chronic tissue hypoxia that has been linked to a variety of age-related health concerns, even death.1-3 Hypoxia means that cells are unable to get the oxygen they need to survive. Chronic cellular hypoxia is ultimately linked to cell death and the opportunistic proliferation of mutagenic stem cells. Shallow breathing also forces the body to breath faster, overbreathing oxygen while breathing out too much CO2. This creates a dangerous imbalance in O2 and CO2.7
Through something called the Bohr Effect, breathing in too much O2 tightens the bonds between hemoglobin in your blood and O2. The less CO2 you have due to shallow overbreathing, the tighter that bond becomes. This causes an O2-CO2 imbalance in which O2 stays bound in the blood without being efficiently released into your cells. The cells age, become hypoxic, and ultimately fail.5
In a 2017 study in the journal Medicine, 76 respiratory cancer patients were asked to perform a morning breathing exercises (MBE), while 46 patients in a control group did not perform the breathing exercise. Study participants were followed for 10 years.
The five-year survival rate for the MBE group was 56%; for the control group it was 19%. The 10-year survival rate for the MBE group was 17 times greater than the non-MBE control group. During the second five years of the study, the increase in survival rate was linked to an increase in end-tidal breath holding time (ETBHT), which measures the improvement in alveolar O2 pressure (measured near the many tiny air sacs in the lungs that allow for rapid gaseous exchange) and alveolar CO2 pressure capacity. What does this mean? The research showed that longevity rates surged when study participants could increase their ability to hold their breath after an exhalation.3
Breath holding, or kumbhaka in Ayurveda, allows CO2 levels to build up and restores the proper ratio between O2 and CO2. As CO2 levels rise, O2 is delivered to your cells, reversing states of hypoxia.5
Short-Term Hypoxia Boosts AMPK and Longevity
While chronic cellular hypoxia contributes to aging, a lack of cellular oxygen in small doses can actually trigger a well-documented rejuvenating effect called intermittent hypoxia.
During short bouts of hypoxia, the body expresses certain genes that increase oxygen delivery to cell mitochondria and amp up the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), or cellular energy. This process is driven by hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) that have been shown to support the aging process.
The body seems well-equipped to successfully respond to any threat in order for the species to survive. Studies confirm, for example, that cells will make more energy during periods of starvation—a common occurrence for our ancestors.6
Longevity research has linked states of intermittent hypoxia to increased production of the longevity enzyme AMPK (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase). Living a long and healthy life requires maintaining an optimal level of AMPK, which commonly declines with age, but, as we’re learning, can be reversed with breathing exercises, including kumbhaka.1,8
AMPK is an enzyme found in every cell of every mammal and helps us make energy in the form of ATP. AMPK senses the level of available ATP in every cell and then regulates the delivery and storage of that energy based on supply, demand, and hypoxia.1,8,9
Essentially, AMPK provides the energy we need to eat, think, talk, move, and mate—all requirements for species survival and longevity. When AMPK is low due to hypoxia, ATP becomes depleted, producing a waste product called adenosine monophosphate (AMP). Rising levels of AMP from states of intermittent hypoxia trigger AMPK to release stored energy by burning fat and sugar reserves in the body, which naturally regulates healthy weight and blood sugar.1,8-10
Hypoxia-inducible factors, or HIFs, respond to short bouts of hypoxia by increasing AMPK, which inhibits the production of mTOR—an enzyme linked to accelerated aging.1 Without adequate levels of AMPK, mTOR levels would rise, increasing unhealthy cell growth and proliferation, as well as unhealthy metabolic activity—all aging accelerants.
AMPK triggers the rejuvenating process of autophagy—a natural survival response of cellular recycling—while mTOR blocks it. Autophagy is triggered by hypoxia as well as short-term calorie restriction. When food or oxygen rations are temporarily low, the body becomes more resourceful and economical in its delivery of cellular fuel via AMPK. The body goes into a no-waste program that is life extending.1,10-12
A Breathing Practice for Longevity
Breath Retention, or Pranayama kumbhaka in Ayurveda and yoga, is classically performed on either the inhalation, exhalation, or both. During a bahih kumbhaka, or exhalation breath hold, the emphasis is on holding the breath after a full exhalation. In this situation, the lungs are emptied and CO2 levels quickly begin to rise.
Practice Beginner Breath Holds with Ujjayi Pranayama
- Sit Comfortably. Take a long slow 5-6 second count inhalation through your nose using Ujjayi Pranayama, followed by a 5-6 second count exhalation.
- After 5 minutes of long slow comfortable breathing at a rate of 6 breaths per minute (as above), gently pause the breath after each exhalation for 2-6 seconds. Adjust your breath hold and count based on comfort. There should be no strain.
- Practice for 10 minutes twice a day, allowing your inhalations, exhalations, and holds to lengthen over time.