How to Breathe Better
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
If you're feeling sluggish, try a few rounds of "bellows," a type of rapid belly breathing. Regular practice of bellows can also lead to a lowering of heart rate and blood pressure. In an Indian study, 50 beginners slowed their resting heart rates 13 beats per minute and lowered their systolic blood pressure four points within three months of doing just three rounds of bellows each day. This is nearly the same payoff you'd get from regular exercise or even from taking medication. (If your pressure is already high, however, don't practice bellows, cautions lead author Shashikala Veerabhadrappa, M.D.)
You can't always avoid stressful situations that trigger the fight-or-flight response — being stuck in traffic, for example. But you can use your breath to create the opposite effect — the so-called "rest-and-digest response" — to ease the impact stress can have on your heart. In a study at San Francisco State University, 20 participants tried two kinds of breathing — paced and alternate-nostril — at a slow and steady five breaths per minute. Both techniques worked: When tested after half an hour, the study subjects had lower heart rates and showed other signs their fight-or-flight response had been turned off (though the positive impact began to kick in at 10 minutes). If five breaths per minute seems too slow, a faster pace works well, too, says study head Matthew Lee, Ph.D. "But aim for 10 or fewer breaths per minute," he advises.
Beyond reducing the physical impact of stress, paced breathing can make you feel less jangled. In one session at the Mayo Clinic, a group of 17 women learned a routine of alternating a few minutes of paced breathing with several minutes of meditation. After they practiced the technique for a total of 15 minutes once or twice a day for four weeks, their stress scores dropped by about a third.
FIND RELIEF FROM MEDICAL TREATMENT
At the University of California, San Francisco, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy learned four breathing exercises, which they then practiced twice a day for 10 to 15 minutes. The simple techniques: observing your natural breath; deep inhales with extended exhales; gentle inhales followed by a brief pause and forceful exhales; and alternate-nostril breathing. During therapy, these patients were less anxious, slept better, and had fewer chemo symptoms than a control group. And the more time they spent focusing on breathing, the greater their relief. "A yoga teacher can help you learn the techniques and individualize them to your condition," says oncologist Anand Dhruva, M.D.
THE INS AND OUTS
Breath control, or pranayama, is a key part of many forms of yoga. "Most people can figure it out on their own from instructions or from watching a video," says the Cleveland Clinic's Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph.D. Here, a quick guide:
Sit up straight. With your mouth closed, rapidly inhale and exhale. After 10 breaths, inhale once as deeply as possible, hold for two seconds or longer, then exhale slowly. Rest for five normal breaths and begin again, doing a total of three rounds.
Inhale for six seconds, then exhale for six. If that's not comfortable, begin with shorter breaths and work up to six seconds. In the study, participants did paced breathing for 30 minutes, but again, you can start with a shorter period — five minutes — and build up to doing it longer.
Close your eyes and sit up straight. Hold your right nostril closed with one finger of your left hand, inhaling through your left nostril. Pause briefly and close your left nostril with the thumb of your left hand, releasing your first finger to exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through the right, then switch thumb and finger again to exhale through the left. Start with 5 minutes and build up.
BREATHING AS AN Rx
In recent studies, techniques taught by knowledgeable pros have helped improve specific medical problems. Three worth considering:
Training the diaphragm muscle with exercises used by singers reduced the amount of acid backing up into the esophagus — and paid off with a 75% drop in medicine use — an Austrian study found.
Exercises with slower, shallower breathing — to counter the hyperventilation that occurs with panic episodes — relieved the terrifying symptoms as effectively as cognitive therapy, recent research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas showed.
In a Greek study, patients had fewer symptoms and their lung functioning was improved after just 12 sessions of breath retraining.
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