Just Breathe - exercise your parasympathetics

Americans breathe too quickly.

Yep, you heard me right. We breathe too quickly. Technically it is “normal” to breathe at a rate of around 15 breaths/minute. But for the best health benefits we should really be breathing at less than eight breaths per minute. Some sources say you should get under 3 breaths per minute!

Why?

Good deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember in high school biology class talking about the “sympathetic” versus “parasympathetic” nervous system? (Nope?) How about the “Fight and Flight” vs. “Rest and Digest” systems?

The sympathetic nervous system handles stressful activities. It is designed to prime your body to run away from raging bears, fight invading armies, escape from the jaws of a shark, etc. (Good luck with the last one, by the way.) It raises the blood pressure, releases glucose into the bloodstream, shunts blood from the digestive and reproductive systems to the vital organs and muscles needed to run/fight. It is an adaptive response the body uses in times of acute stress.

Unfortunately, many of us are “stuck” in a sympathetic state. We’re stressed out from worry, work and raising babies. We have too many demands on our time. We have too many chemicals in our environment. Our bodies can’t relax because they are constantly trying to deal with all these insults.

So what’s the problem? There is no bear! There is no shark, and there is usually not an invading army. (Maybe an army of toddlers, but that’s another story.) But our bodies still act like it. We have chronically elevated blood pressure and blood glucose (read: diabetes), we can’t digest and we can’t heal.

We need the parasympathetic nervous system. The rest and digest system. It is supposed to be triggered whenever the immediate stressful event is over. This is when our bodies are supposed to heal. In fact, you cannot heal when you are in a sympathetic state!

So how do we activate it?  By deep breathing. It is so simple but so easy to forget. Deep abdominal breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure and increase circulation. Using meditation/prayer or guided imagery with breathing has been shown to increase cancer-fighting white blood cells.

So breathe with me. First let your jaw, lips, shoulders and forehead relax. Square up your shoulders in your chair. Let your feet be planted firmly and evenly on the floor. Relax your muscles from your toes to your eyebrows.

Inhale softly through your nose. Pause at the top of the breath. Exhale deeply but slowly through your mouth. Follow the exhale all the way out.  Pause at the bottom of the breath.

Repeat and feel relaxed.

(Want to do a cool party trick?  Take a mood ring or some type of surface thermometer and hold it in a loose fist. After 5-10 minutes of breathing like this you will raise the temperature of your hands significantly. Watch the mood ring change color. Pretty cool, huh?)

photo credit: Kat…B via photopin cc

This post was originally published on Mothers Organic Health by Dr. Erika.  Check ‘em out!

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