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Slow, deep, abdominal and nose breathing (nasal breathing) has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (famously known for the “rest and digest” relaxation response), which is responsible for bodily restoration and rejuvenation. New studies are linking deep breathing to numerous and profound health benefits. (2)
Studies are suggesting that slow, deep, abdominal and nose breathing techniques that activate parasympathetic activity support gut, digestion, mood, sleep, cardiovascular and mental health. Deep breathing also boosts support for abdominal discomfort, stress, muscle tension and digestive issues. (2) While double-blind controlled studies on each of these health concerns with deep breathing have not been completed yet, based on the studies that have been done, the researchers suggest that deep parasympathetic-activating breathing is a very promising intervention for the factors mentioned above. (2)
In my study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, we found that deep nose breathing would increase parasympathetic activity while simultaneously decreasing sympathetic activity (the “fight or flight” response) during exercise. (1,5)
Nose breathing exercise forces the body to breathe deeply, and thus activates the parasympathetic nervous system naturally while upper chest, shallow, mouth breathing activates a stressful fight or flight response. (1,5) While the mental and physical health benefits of deep breathing are compelling, taking the time out to breathe deep, meditate or perform deep breathing exercises is a difficult task for many folks.
Nose breathing exercise is an easy way to get the benefits. It can deliver mental and physical health benefits both during and after exercise. During deep nose breathing exercise (nasal breathing exercise), the elasticity of the rib cage improves over time, allowing for deep nose breathing to be maintained at rest throughout the day. (1,5) As we breathe 26,000 times per day, this is a big deal.
Imagine gleaning the mental and physical health benefits of breathing 26,000 parasympathetic breaths each and every day, rather than breathing into the upper chest activating a sympathetic degenerative stress response with each breath – 26,000 times a day!
Breathe Away Your Stress and Boost Your Health
Stress is a well-documented contributor to accelerated aging and degeneration. (3) Nose breathing may reduce stress, and thus deliver numerous health benefits that are linked to an increase in parasympathetic activity. Many other profound health-promoting pathways from nose breathing are being discovered, and there are possibly even more on the horizon as more studies are being done!
- Nose breathing boosts nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a powerful immune-boosting molecule that is produced in the sinuses during nose (not mouth) breathing. The discovery of this molecule won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as a result of its important health benefits. (4)
- Nose breathing activates the vagus nerve, which triggers the rest, digest, and de-stress nervous system response. (1,2) The vagus nerve is also the main pathway used by the gut-brain axis that links the microbiome with brain, mood and cognitive function. (2)
- Deep nose breathing that activates the parasympathetic nervous system also stimulates baroreflexes in the blood vessels that are mediated through the emotional centers in the brain. For example, your blood pressure will go up when you are under emotional stress. This effect not only supports healthy blood pressure, but is also linked to emotional resiliency and mood stability. (2)
Nose Breathing (Nasal Breathing) and Performance
Numerous studies suggest that nose breathing has a positive effect on athletic performance. Here are some of the performance benefits related to nose breathing exercise:
- Improved lower lung gas exchange (2)
- Improved brain wave coherence (1,5)
- Increased alpha wave activity (1,5)
- Decreased perceived exertion or stress during exercise (5)
- Increased endurance (5)
- Increased parasympathetic activity (1,2,5)
Note: Learn about nose breathing exercise (nasal breathing exercise) in my book, Body, Mind and Sport.
In traditional India, children were trained to breathe through their nose so not to become mouth breathers. The Indian military was taught to exercise and sleep while breathing through the nose. It was reported that the nasal breathing military regiments had better immunity than the mouth breathing regiments. Now, we know that nose breathing boosts nitric oxide production, which is linked to better respiratory immunity. (4)
The mail runners of Central America and the long distance runners of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico were trained to run with pebbles or water in their mouths to train them to be nose breathers. Today, we have the science to prove that these ancient techniques actually did deliver better performance. (1,2,5)
Modern science is only beginning to understand the health benefits of deep nose breathing (nasal breathing). Since we all breathe 26,000 times a day, let’s learn how to do it right to glean the maximum physical, mental and performance benefits out of each breath.