As you begin to heal the inner you, you alter your immune system.
– Dr. Wayne Dyer, author & philosopher
Your immune system is like this silent fighter that does so much behind the scenes and doesn’t get enough credit.
Everyday unbeknownst to you it is fighting various battles from outside threats and intruders in order to help keep you safe, functioning, and strong.
While the inner workings of our immune function remain a mystery to most of us, research keeps coming up with new insights that empower us to become more familiar with this part of ourselves that is wired for defense and protection.
We need our immune system to be firing on all cylinders and to support us as we strive to perform our best.
We need our immune system to help us effectively cope with our day-to-day demands and challenges.
If we’re constantly stressed out or experiencing chronic mood imbalances such as anxiety and depression, our immune system suffers. (1)
One of the best ways to boost your immunity in as little as 3 minutes (without side-effects and zero cost) is to regulate your breath.
You’re probably wondering – can something as simple as your breath impact your body’s ability to defend against disease, illness, and foreign invaders?
Is it possible to begin boosting your immunity just by shifting the way you breathe?
Both modern science and ancient yogic wisdom agree you can.
But you have to do it in an intentional and specific way.
If you’re like me and have dealt with (or are currently dealing with) chronic inflammation and an overactive immune system, what I’m about to share with you can really help you manage your experience.
If you’ve been feeling run down or like you’re constantly coming down with a cold, bug, or allergies, this goes for you too…
How Belly Breathing Improves Immune Function:
When we breathe deeply and intentionally from our bellies (not our chests), we activate our diaphragm (the muscle underneath the heart and lungs that separates these from the abdominal cavity.)
That’s why belly breathing is often also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.
We know we’re belly breathing when our lower belly expands outwardly when we inhale, and contracts inwardly when we exhale.
Engaging the diaphragm by breathing in this way causes it to massage the internal organs and glands, which in turn helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations. (2)
Controlled and timed deep belly breathing may also strengthen the body’s defenses by altering the expression of genes related to the immune system, as one yogic breathwork-based study in the Public Library of Science concluded. (3)
Yes, Please Do Hold Your Breath!
According to one study by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) breath holding can also change genetic expression, greatly increasing your white blood cells to help fight illness. (4)
NTNU drew blood samples from world-class free-divers at an international competition before and after the athletes completed a series of dives.
“The analysis results were striking: the activity of more than 5,000 genes changed in response to the simple effort of breath-holding.
This is almost ¼ of all genes found in human cells…
The most striking finding was a marked increase of the white blood cell type neutrophil granulocytes. These blood cells are programmed for rapid response when the body perceives attacks from intruders; the neutrophils are capable of killing invading cells simply by eating them,” explains Ingrid Eftedal, NTNU research scientist.
Given all of this, it appears that the best immune-boosting breathing combo is deep belly breathing paired with timed breath retention.
The Immunity-Building Power of Pranayama (Yogic Breathwork):
Yogis have long known that the practice of voluntary breath control (consisting of intentional inhalations, retention, and exhalations) helps strengthen and purify the body so we can feel better and more energized.
In his book, The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, Swami Satchidananda explains it like this:
“During pranayama, you are literally drinking in gallons and gallons of vitality and immunity.
You supercharge the blood with extra oxygen.
When you retain the breath, you literally inject more oxygen into the bloodstream.
Oxygen is life, so that means you are enriching your blood with a lot of life.
And not only do you take in more oxygen but along with the air you take in more prana.
Every cell of your body vibrates with new life.”
As mentioned, one of the side effects of chronic stress and overwhelm is that optimal immune function becomes inhibited and suppressed.
Yogic breathing inhibits the stress-response, which has been shown to enhance the function of the immune system. (5)
One study carried out on 60 first-year medical school students found that regular yoga practice helps create an immunity buffer when stress heightens. Group A received yogic training for 35 minutes daily while Group B did not receive any stress management training at all. (6)
Both groups showed weakened immunity due to examination stress, but Group B (the control group) displayed significantly lower immunity levels than Group A (the yoga group).
A Science-Based Yogic Breath Exercise:
Given the effects of deep belly breathing paired with breath retention, here’s a proven and easy exercise you can practice to boost your defenses anytime.
Though you’ll definitely want to practice this exercise in the winter or when you start feeling run down, it’s even more effective if you practice just a few minutes regularly and consistently.
This is especially true if you’re dealing with a chronic immune response and/or inflammation.
Bonus points for doing it daily!
- Sit comfortably either on a chair or on the floor.
- Straighten your back and neck so you are completely upright.
- Relax your face, jaw, and tongue.
- Inhale for 5 counts (belly extends outwardly, keep your chest and upper body still.)
- Hold your breath for 10 counts.
- Exhale for 7 counts (belly contracts inwardly, keep your chest and upper body still.)
- Hold for 5.
- Repeat this inhale – hold – exhale – hold pattern for 7 rounds. (Just a little over 3 minutes.)
Note: Practice at a rate that is comfortable for you. You should not be straining or pushing in any way. If any part of this exercise feels too much for you, lower the counts and adjust accordingly. Consult with your doctor or health care practitioner before starting a pranayama practice from scratch, especially if you’re experiencing chronic health issues.