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Stop Wasting Your Breath

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Stop Wasting Your Breath

By Shane Sauer

Every day you take about 20,000 breaths. And although you probably don’t give any thought to those inhales and exhales, breathing is a powerful opportunity.

Your breath is a tool to soothe stress and pain, ease digestion, improve posture, think clearer, and even lose weight. So if you’ve ever told someone to “take a deep breath” when they were stressing out, you were giving them solid advice.

Here’s a look at how breathing works some wonders throughout your body.

Alter Your Stress Response

Have you ever noticed that you start breathing rapidly when you’re stressed? That’s your body’s way of stimulating your brain and revving up your “fight or flight” system. (The technical term is the sympathetic nervous system or SNS.)

To counteract that amped-up state, take some deep, slow, controlled inhales and exhales. This signals your brain’s “rest and digest” system. (The technical term is the parasympathetic nervous system or PSNS.) This seemingly simple act of taking deliberate, slower breaths actually tells your body to relax and turns on a more peaceful state.

On the flip side, if you’re feeling tired or sluggish, some rapid breathing might get you to feel more motivated. That kind of breathing amps up your SNS so try it the next time you feel like you can’t get off the couch.

Posture

True deep breaths require good posture.  Your belly needs to press out and your chest needs to lift and expand. Fortunately, the part of your brain that controls your posture is stimulated by deep breathing (more on that another time). Deep breathing also prevents the poor posture that comes with stress. The flight portion of your "fight or flight" response instinctively makes  you fold in on yourself, protecting your most vulnerable parts (organs and brain). So, as breathe deeply to reduce stress (see above), you're also reversing caveman posture.

Digestion

When you inhale, your diaphragm—a dome-shaped muscle that’s inside your rib cage—draws downward and flattens out.  During that contraction, the diaphragm presses down on your digestive organs (aka your gut), moving and compressing them. This is great for those organs. In fact, when they aren’t moved and stimulated enough, your digestion can become sluggish. Taking deep, calming inhales and exhales can stimulate your gut and get things moving again.

Pain

Breathing can help with pain in a number of ways. Remember that pain lives in the brain, so when you reduce stress, there is a good chance you will lower pain levels as well. Your organs can create referred chronic pain called visceral pain. When your organs get “massaged” by deep breathing (as mentioned above), that can help reduce visceral pain. Finally, the same portion of the brain that controls posture also determines what pain signals get through to your conscious mind. So again, you're designed to handle many of your body's problems through good breathing. 

Focus and Concentration

Did you know that 25% of the calories used by your body is to run your brain and nervous system? That's a lot of fuel for something that is only about 3% of your body by mass. Oxygen is required for the chemical reactions that produce this energy. Oxygen is supplied to the life support systems of the brain first. The last part that receives oxygen is the part that allows you to think clearly. So, by breathing well, you’ll make sure you have enough oxygen to fuel your thinking mind.

Weight Loss

The health and fitness industry wants you to believe that weight loss is as simple as calories in and calories out.  Well, on the surface that is true, but counting those in and outs can be much more complex than you think. No matter what approach you take to weight loss, when the weight comes off it has to go somewhere. A recent study has shown that 80% of the weight you lose is excreted by your lungs as carbon dioxide. You better make sure they're up for the task!

In summary, as a human being, you’re lucky enough to have conscious control over your breathing. You have the power to affect your physiology through a very simple activity.  If you want to make the most of it, give this simple practice a try:

  1. Take a normal breath in.
  2. Exhale slowly and as fully as you can, squeezing your abs as you do.
  3. Let the air come back into your lungs without effort, noticing your belly move outward.
  4. Repeat!
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