This is What Happens to Your Body When You Take a Deep Breath

More and more research shows that breathing deeply can boost the immune system, alleviate anxiety and depression, affect brain hormones, stop damage to your genetic material and even slow the aging process.

Most people breathe shallowly. We may not mean to, but our highly stressful, fast-paced life causes us to hold our breath, usually unknowingly. But, just by making a conscious effort to breathe deeper, we can transform our health. It’s free, it’s fast and it’s easy. What could be better?

It is believed that breathing deeply sends messages to your brain to slow heart rate, improve digestion and increase feelings of calmness and wellbeing, and therefore slowing the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Disorders like anxiety and depression are well-known to be aggravated and possibly even initiated by stress, so reducing stress hormones like cortisol is critical to success in healing these conditions. Fortunately, doing so may simply be a breath away…literally.

In a small study at Boston University, researcher and associate professor of psychiatry and neurology, Dr. Chris Streeter, explored the effects of deep breathing on people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. After 12 weeks of daily yoga and deep breathing practice, she found that study participants had significantly decreased symptoms of depression. She also found that their levels of a brain hormone known as GABA significantly increased. GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a natural hormone that has calming and anti-anxiety effects. While the study was small, Dr. Streeter believes that the results are as significant as the effects of antidepressants, which showcases the need for further research into using behavioral modifications like deep breathing to heal depression.

Other research in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that regular deep breathing practice, such as that involved in meditation, had significant mental health, cognition and telomerase health. Telomeres are the buffers at the end of our genetic material that help to protect and organize the DNA. Because they form a type of cap at the end of our chromosomes, they help to slow aging by protecting our genes from damage that occurs with aging. But, stress, free radicals and other factors, can deplete the ends of the DNA strands (the telomeres) which prevents DNA from doing their necessary job of replicating, and that causes premature aging. But, this new research shows that regular deep breathing can help to offset the effects of aging and help keep our telomeres long and healthy.

Another study published in the medical journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that deep breathing had a profound impact on three chemical compounds in the body known as cytokines. These cytokines are linked with pain and inflammation, but deep breathing reduced the levels of these compounds, which suggests healing and anti-pain potential for those suffering from pain disorders.

There are many different types of deep breathing exercises, including counting while inhaling and exhaling, and working up to a count of six on inhalation and exhalation with a brief pause between. Start by breathing in to a count of three, pausing, then breathing out to a count of three and repeating. While it is helpful to conduct this practice for a set period of time each day, ranging from 10 minutes to an hour, it is also helpful to breathe deeply throughout the day as well.

I suggest having set moments that remind you to breathe deeply, such as when you’re stopped at a red light (keep your eyes open) or stuck in traffic, while sitting on a bus, during television commercials, etc. This acts as a regular reminder to deepen your breathing throughout the day, everyday, which also encourages the many healing benefits of deep breathing.