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Pranayama, Nitric Oxide + Stress Reduction
As rising levels of stress are linked to ever-rising levels of chronic disease, researchers look to time-tested stress reducing techniques to break this cycle.
Recently, more and more studies are published on the science of breathing, also called pranayama. The word prana means life force and ayama means to expand, suggesting that pranayama breathing exercises expand life force into the body, eliciting a host of health benefits.
For example, I recently wrote about a study on the pranayama technique called bhramari or humming breath, in which this breathing technique was shown to boost production of nitric oxide (the Noble Prize-winning “panacea” molecule) by fifteen times compared to normal nose breathing. Interestingly, the cure-all molecule, nitric oxide, was found to only be produced during nose breathing, not mouth breathing.2
Benefits of Kapalabhati Pranayama
Kapalabhati is derived from two words: kapala, which means skull, and bhati, which means to illuminate. Kapalabhati is designed to accelerate breath from the lower abdominals into the skull, supporting healthy drainage of toxins from brain lymphatics, also known as glymphatics.
Kapalabhati is a rapid nose breathing or pranayama exercise where a normal inhalation is followed by a forceful exhalation. During normal respiration, the exhalation is more passive, driven primarily by the relaxation of the diaphragm, and the inhalation is more active, as a result of contraction of the diaphragm. During kapalabhati, the abdominal muscles, the secondary muscles of breathing, are engaged to elicit a forceful exhalation.
Contracting the abdominal muscles during kapalabhati creates pressure to the abdominal organs in the form of a health-promoting visceral massage, while boosting the rest-digest-repair parasympathetic nervous system.1
Studies find that kapalabhati produces emotional stability and improved stress-handling ability. Elevated parasympathetic activity has been linked to better oxygenation of the brain and heart, while maintaining a low heart rate—thus the name kapalabhati or skull illuminating.1
During kapalabhati pranayama, all five lobes of the lungs are oxygenated, whereas during normal respiration, the lower lobes of the lungs are unused and considered dead space. Oxygenating the dead space not only boosts oxygenation potential of breathing, but enhances detoxification and fat burning—weight loss potential found mostly in the highly vascularized lower lobes of the lungs.3
The forceful nature of kapalabhati increases blood supply and circulation to the abdominal organs and glandular system, supporting their healthy and normal function.1 While kapalabhati is best for moving kapha and congestion out of the brain, it is also balancing for vata and pitta if not done in excess. Kapalabhati in excess can aggravate pitta and vata and awaken spiritual energy or kundalini fire. As a spiritual technique, kapalabhati should be practiced under expert supervision.
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Note: While kapalabhati does not cause hyperventilation, like with any breathing exercise, do not continue if it causes dizziness or lightheadedness. Hyperventilation is as a result of build-up of carbon dioxide during rapid breathing. Studies show that during kapalabhati, carbon dioxide levels remain the same as during breathing at rest.1 Kapalabhati is best performed with an empty stomach, bladder, and bowels.
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Kapalabhati for Healthy Heart, Blood Sugar + Weight
Metabolic Syndrome is a series of imbalances that include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and midsection or central obesity.
Kapalabhati elicits an abdominal-respiratory-autonomic nervous system massage that stimulates respiratory, abdominal, and gastrointestinal receptors. Since kapalabhati also enhances circulation to the brain, there is a mind-body activation of the calming parasympathetic nervous systems and dialing down of the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system, along with a noted balancing effect on the hypothalamus, which regulates blood sugar and metabolic activity.1
Studies show that kapalabhati increases basal metabolic rate, reduces fat deposition, and ultimately ends up in weight reduction. Kapalabhati has also been found to normalize fat distribution of the body, thus reducing both waist circumference and hip circumference.1
Studies show that kapalabhati increases liver enzymes (lipases) that increase uptake of triglycerides, as well as lower insulin levels and cholesterol.
The abdominal stretching and visceral massage effect of kapalabhati helps in regeneration of pancreatic cells, which aids increased uptake and utilization of glucose in tissues, thereby reducing blood sugar levels and insulin resistance.1
Insulin resistance, the common problem in both PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) and Metabolic Syndrome, is combated by improving blood supply to muscles and enhanced insulin receptor expression on muscles. High insulin, insulin resistance, and the resultant impaired glucose tolerance are effectively treated by long-term kapalabhati practice.1
Kapalabhati in stressed patients was found to improve mitochondrial energy production, upregulation of the mitochondrial-energy-making enzyme ATP, and insulin function that aids in mitochondrial resilience.1
Note: One study conducted in university students showed that a four-week practice of kapalabhati did not produce significant improvement in blood studies. This indicates that these exercises should be carried out for longer periods of time to evaluate efficacy.1