Deep Breathing — The Truly Essential Exercise

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

Can you guess the health habit my patients find the hardest to follow? It’s regular exercise. Despite their best intentions, most of my patients allow exercise to fall by the wayside when life gets busy or stressful — which is all the time, right?

But there is a way to begin or renew your commitment to physical fitness, something that should come easily to every woman because you have to do it anyway.

The Secret Is Simply To Breathe… Deeply and Often

SS-Blond-Woman-Deep-BreathingWhether you are currently exercising or not, think about how your routine could be enriched by paying more attention to your breath. Mindful exercise that synchronizes movement and breath has the power to change more than how you look.

In a 2005 review and analysis of several studies, Richard Brown, MD and Patricia Gerbarg, MD reported that yogic deep-breathing techniques were extremely effective in handling depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders. These techniques can serve as an excellent adjunct to conventional medical treatment — or in some cases as a suitable substitute — in treating myriad psychological disorders, as well as eating disorders and obesity.

I have noticed that a surprising number of my patients show irregularly high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. Interestingly, the carbon dioxide level is often abnormal when all the others tests of the blood are fine. In fact, I probably see more abnormal tests for carbon dioxide than for standard glucose, kidney or liver tests.

While this is not life threatening, it does tell me that my patient is not inhaling enough oxygen or exhaling enough carbon dioxide, which can have consequences such as fatigue, mental fog and decreased tissue function. I often note “needs to breathe” on a patient’s chart. Not the shallow chest breathing many of us default into, but deep, meaningful breaths, or “belly breathing”.

So let’s discuss why and how you should learn to breathe for your health.

Breathing For Health

Fit middle aged woman relaxing after workoutAt Women to Women, many patients come through our doors knowing that diet and exercise form the cornerstone of good health. They want to “be better” about going to the gym but just can’t seem to stick with their exercise plan for more than a month or two. Most of my patients find it much easier to change their diet than their physical activity levels because they have to find time to eat — not so with exercise.

One of the reasons aerobic exercise is good for you (and is so good at clearing away mental cobwebs) is that it ups your heart rate and forces your lungs to take in more oxygen while expelling more carbon dioxide. This gives your heart a good workout — it is a muscle after all — and pumps a quick jolt of oxygen through your cells, even those that may have been operating at reduced capacity.

Shallow breathing (or chest breathing) causes a constriction of the chest and lung tissue over time, decreasing oxygen flow and delivery to your tissues. Deep, rhythmic breathing expands the diaphragm muscle, the cone-shaped muscle under your lungs, expanding the lung’s air pockets, invoking the relaxation response, and massaging the lymphatic system.

Stimulating the Lymphatic System

Breathing serves as the pump for the lymphatic system, just as the heart serves the circulatory system. Your cells must have oxygen to survive moment to moment. To thrive, they rely on a complex exchange between the circulatory system and the lymphatic system. Blood flow carries nutrients and ample amounts of oxygen into the capillaries, while a healthy lymphatic system carries away destructive toxins. Proper breathing is the moderator of this exchange.

We don’t often think about our lymph nodes unless we hear about someone with cancer, which is surprising, because we have twice as much lymphatic fluid as blood in our bodies.