Take a deep breath and improve your health

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on October 1, 2012 at 4:55 PM

During the Medicine and Yoga Symposium in Copper Mountain, CO last August, Dr. Satkirin Khalsa gave the medical providers in attendance some surprising advice. She told the conference participants that there is one simple technique that could be used in the medical office to improve the health and wellbeing of every patient: deep breathing.

Dr. Khalsa revealed that she spends a few moments at the beginning of every office visit taking 2 or 3 deep breaths with each patient. She reports that not only do the patients feel calmer and register a lower blood pressure, but she herself feels more focused, alert and connected with the patient. In addition, the patient experiences firsthand the benefits of deep breathing and is more likely to use it as a practice in daily life after being shown how to do it.

Of course, breathing is something we all do all the time so we don’t really have to learn how to do it, but most of us tend to take short, shallow breaths unless we make a conscious effort to breathe deep and long. And just taking a few deep breathes several times a day can have some very important benefits:  

  • Stress reduction 
  • Pain relief due to endorphin release 
  • Decreased blood pressure 
  • Improvement in asthma symptoms 
  • Strengthening of weak abdominal muscles 
  • Increased mental clarity and focus 
  • Improvement in insomnia

So how does deep breathing provide such positive results? Basically, taking a deep breath triggers the firing of the parasympathetic nervous system, which signals the body to relax. During times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system fires and creates a “fight or flight” reaction by causing the release of adrenalin. This leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, along with tension in the muscles and changes in the digestive tract, to name a few. Over time these physical reactions to chronic stress can cause damage to the heart, circulatory system, digestive tract and brain.

But the parasympathetic nervous system provides the counterbalance to the sympathetic system and helps the body secrete hormones that result in relaxation and lower blood pressure and heart rate. The details of how this complex system works are not as important as knowing that a few deep breaths can help you get through a stressful day and can actually improve your performance and focus while protecting you from the damage caused by stress.

Try a few long deep breaths right now, just to see how good it feels: sit up straight and place your hands over your upper abdomen so that the fingertips are touching. Exhale fully through your mouth, then take in a long slow breath through your nose and into your belly, causing your fingertips to spread apart. Hold the breath for two to five counts and then exhale slowly through your nose. Match the length of your exhale to the length of your inhale. You should be able to gradually increase the length of each inhalation and exhalation as you start to relax and get comfortable with the breathing.

Most people feel better right away after a few deep breaths, calmer and more alert. Use this technique of deep breathing throughout the day to help you cope with a stressful situation, get focused on a task or relieve a headache. Try it at the doctor’s office too, to lower your blood pressure, which might be falsely elevated due to nervousness.

Dr. Khalsa believes that the practice of medicine would be revolutionized if only every medical provider would stop for a moment and breathe with his or her patients. She may indeed be correct, for it is often true that the simplest changes can create the most dramatic impact. But don’t wait for your healthcare provider to recommend deep breathing to you. Take your health into your own hands and breathe your way to a more peaceful, joyous life.

Categories: Lifestyle, Healthcare, Illness & Healing

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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