Breathe, Yogic Path

Studies Reveal That Yoga Breathing Exercises (Pranayama) Have An Anti-Inflammatory Effect

Posted  April 3, 2020 • Read Time: 6 minutes

Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health. 

If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly. 

There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and well-being than breathwork. 

Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.

– Dr. Andrew Weil, Integrative medicine physician & author

Is it possible that by taking up a breathing practice for just a few minutes every day you can dramatically decrease stress levels, improve physical and mental health, and even help keep chronic inflammation in check? 

It may seem a little hard to believe that the simple act of breathing can offer such a wide range of health benefits. 

And yet, it’s very likely that many of our physical, mental, and emotional ailments may be worsened or prolonged by not breathing correctly. 

 

Thousands of years ago ancient Yogis and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners knew this to be true. 

Long before the invention of measuring instruments and medical studies, they knew that intentional, proper breathing techniques could help the body heal while also enabling one’s mind and spirit to access higher states of consciousness and awareness. 

In fact, Pranayama (yoga breathing) is one of the 8 major pillars of the Yogic Path. 

You cannot deepen your yoga practice if you do not learn to deepen your breath. #calmwithyoga Click To Tweet

 

Even in today’s modern health care system, deep breathing (aka diaphragmatic breathing) is gaining popularity as a natural intervention for conditions such as high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar.  

A regular breathwork practice can not only help to lower blood pressure and blood sugar, but it can also help strengthen your immune system by supporting a decreased inflammatory response… 

 

How Chronic Stress Contributes to a Weakened Immune System:

 

Did you know that chronic, unmanaged stress accounts for 60-80% of doctor visits? 

44% of U.S. adults reported a rise in stress levels over the past five years. (1) 

Chronic, unmanaged stress makes you age faster and is linked to chronic inflammation. 

This is what the medical world refers to as “inflammaging.” 

 

Harvard-trained medical doctor Sara Gottfried refers to inflammaging as:

“The unfortunate hybrid of increasing inflammation, stiffness, and accelerated aging.”

This condition has been linked to compromised immunity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. 

 

Although there are multiple factors that contribute to chronic inflammation, the overarching guilty culprit is an out-of-control fight or flight (stress) response. 

Most of us live extremely hectic and busy lives in an over-stimulated and under-nourished world. 

We become so accustomed to being “go-go-go” and “busy” that we forget what it feels like to pause and be present. 

We forget what it feels like to connect to our breath and feel into our bodies. 

 

Our bodies end up paying the cost of living life on the go. 

And so we end up burnt out, fatigued, cloudy-minded and internally inflamed. 

This is especially true of our guts. 

Low-grade chronic gut inflammation can contribute to leaky gut and this can contribute to other auto-immune and inflammatory conditions. 

Gut inflammation has also been linked to anxiety and depression. 

 

How Yoga Breathing Can Help Reduce Inflammation: 

Deep breathing activates your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that sits atop your digestive organs and below the lungs. 

The diaphragm rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation. 

This mechanism can help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of your nervous system that oversees the relaxation response. 

Deep breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve, which is the most important nerve fiber of your parasympathetic.

The Vagus Nerve runs from the base of the head, down the middle ear and throat, through the heart, all the way down to your digestive organs. 

 

If the stress response is the gas pedal of your body then the relaxation response is the brake pedal that helps you slow down. 

Being in chronic stress mode means your immune system is compromised. 

A telltale sign of a compromised immune system is chronic inflammation. 

 

Deep Breathing Increases Heart-Rate Variability: 

Your body reacts to nearly everything happening around you through your emotions, observations, thoughts, and activity. 

Your brain guides the body by regulating the heart and other organs through the autonomic nervous system (ANS). 

This physiological variation of heart rate, controlled by the autonomic nervous system, is called Heart Rate Variability (also commonly known as HRV). 

Measuring heart rate variation reveals a wide range of information about your body and health…

Information is conveyed in the patterns of the heart’s rhythms (HRV) that reflect current emotional states…

What makes HRV interesting is the fact that it can reflect changes in stress while other physiological parameters, like blood pressure, are still in normal or accepted ranges.

That’s why HRV is becoming an increasingly popular parameter in the fields of sports and sports science, corporate health, cardiology, ergonomics, diabetes care and relaxation training therapy.

– The Institute of Heartmath, Science of the Heart

Yoga breathing can help to increase heart-rate variability (HRV) – and that’s a very good thing. 

HRV measures the space between your heartbeats. 

The less space in between beats the higher your heart rate. 

A high heart rate is indicative of an activated stress response (and therefore compromised immunity). 

So the more space between your heartbeats, the better and the higher your HRV. 

Heart-rate variability (HRV) is a key biomarker (an indicator) of: (2)

 

  • autonomic nervous system function
  • How long you’re likely to live
  • Overall physical health and endurance
  • Psychological resilience
  • Behavioral flexibility
  • Capacity for self-regulation
  • Effective adaptation of social/environmental changes. 

 

High HRV = Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation (relaxation response / strengthened immunity)

Low HRV = Sympathetic Nervous System (degeneration /stress response /inflammation)

 

Two Studies That Demonstrate The Anti-Inflammatory Power of Yoga Breathing: 

A study published in the BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine found that just 20 minutes of yoga breathing resulted in a decrease in stress-related biomarkers of inflammation. (3) 

Researchers examined cytokine levels (inflammatory markers) in the subject’s saliva. 

In the study, participants breathed in patterns of 2 counts for inhaling, 8 counts for holding, and 4 counts for exhalations. 

Researchers measured saliva samples at five-minute increments for a total of 20 minutes and found that at the end of the 20 minute period three stress-related biomarkers had significantly reduced in the group who did the breathing exercises but not in the group that did not perform yoga breathing. 

 

Another study published by the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) found that holding your breath can not only change the genetic activity of white blood cells (immune cells, inflammatory markers), but it also appears to significantly increase 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 in 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.  

 

A Simple Yoga Breathing Practice To Boost Immunity & Cool Inflammation: 

 

 

Step 1 – Sit upright and get comfortable. 

Step 2 – Relax your body – release tension in your neck, shoulders, jaw, mouth, and eyes. 

Step 3 – Inhale for 5 (note: your lower belly should be expanding outwardly)

Step 4 – Hold for 10 (note: if this is uncomfortable try holding for 5 counts or whatever is comfortable for you and work your way up to 10.)

Step 5 – Exhale for 7 counts (note: if this is uncomfortable try exhaling for 5 counts or whatever is comfortable and work your way up to 7.)  

 

Do this for a few rounds each day and remember – it’s about being comfortable and not strained or in discomfort. 

If you’re experiencing any type of chronic health issue please consult with your doctor before starting a pranayama practice. 

 

 

References:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4286362/

(2) https://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/

(3) https://bmccomplementmedtherapies.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12906-016-1286-7

(4) https://blog.medisin.ntnu.no/what-the-immune-system-is-up-to-while-youre-holding-your-breath/

 

 

 

 

 

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