This Simple Practice Can Have a Huge Impact on your Health
When was the last time you were actually aware of your breath?
Deep breathing is an overlooked practice that affects every single aspect of your health. Today, we’re going to discuss your breath and its powerful role in taking you from “fight-or-flight” to “rest and digest”. We’ll discuss how deep breathing can be a powerful tool for managing stress, reducing anxiety, improving digestion, and finding your inner happy mommy. (among many other benefits).
The autonomic nervous system is super important in maintaining balance in your body and your hormones. But it functions without conscious, voluntary control. There are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system in the body: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Each of these systems are dominant under certain conditions.
We are all in constant fight or flight mode.
The sympathetic division forms the “fight-or-flight” response to an emergency or stressful situation. The overall effect of the sympathetic system under these conditions is to prepare the body for hard physical activity (HIIT, Crossfit, running from a tiger). More specifically, sympathetic nervous activity will increase the flow of blood that is well-oxygenated and rich in nutrients to the tissues that need it- like your muscles.
The parasympathetic division forms the body’s “rest and digest” response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. The parasympathetic works to undo the work of the sympathetic division after a stressful situation. Among other functions, the parasympathetic division works to decrease respiration and heart rate, increase digestion, and to let you poop normally.
The amount of stress we’re under and how we control that stress will determine which branch is firing most often.
With a pandemic, homeschooling, working from home, financial struggles, social media, air pollution, water pollution, plastics everywhere, and a food-system that pushes processed fake foods which leads to some crazy micronutrient deficiencies, the majority of us are in a constant state of “fight-or-flight”. This sympathetic dominance creates an overall imbalance in our bodies, affecting all non-emergency processes, such as digestion, detoxification, and sleep.
So when you are stressed, you won’t be able to sleep, poop normally, or get junk out of your body.
Why breathing properly helps
Here is where voluntary and conscious behavior comes into play. Mindful, slow breathing can be a potent and pivotal practice to switch your nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic. This deep breathing will bring your body into balance, permitting digestion, detoxification, repair, and relaxation.
Deep breathing makes you focus on your breath. It encourages the shift from short, shallow chest breathing to deep belly breathing with a slow inhale and extended exhale. There are many different mindful breathing techniques and strategies, and I encourage you to explore the type of slow breath that works best for you. I like to recommend Long-Exhale Breathing. It’s not weird or new-agey: it’s a normal and forgotten part of being human. It’s a problem that most of us are continually in fight or flight. I see this every day with my clients who are so physically stressed that their digestion, sleep, hormones, and immune system start to shut down.
How to start
We like to do this while sitting in the pickup line, before eating, and when our emotions are feeling raw. It’s a simple but powerful practice.
Holding your breath for a short pause and exhaling for longer than you inhale pushes all of the carbon dioxide out of your lungs, which will not only stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, but will also help your body expel waste and normalize digestion.
This last year, I was kind of obsessed with breathing. I became HeartMath certified and Elite HRV certified. We’ll do an HRV post soon, too! I read the excellent book Breath by James Nestor. I got crap from people on Facebook and Instagram for suggesting that people tape their mouth shut while sleeping. I still do it anyways. Breath is life.
Actually paying attention to your breathing- and practicing proper breathing- will encourage your body to find balance and function optimally. Our breath is a potent tool to support the parasympathetic nervous system and many vital functions within the body. Be sure to find time each day to come back to your breath.
Here’s a short video that’s part of the HRV module in my Better Periods Program. Try it out and see what you think!