Most of us are feeling a lot of stress right now. At certain moments, that stress can feel overwhelming and sabotage our wellbeing, including our immune health.
There is no better time than now to learn how to harness the power of your built-in stress-regulating tool — the breath.
One of my favorite things to do to manage stress levels — at any time, but especially now — is to carve out time to take deep breaths. Breathing is a great tool you can “call upon at any time” you feel that stress is overtaking your peace of mind.. And from years of observing my patient’s breathing, I can tell you most people don’t know how to breathe properly — they are under-breathing.
Before I share how to incorporate deep breaths, let me explain to you what stress does physiologically to your body.
When you feel stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is highest in the morning and tapers gradually throughout the day. At least, that’s what should happen.
When cortisol stays too high for too long, your:
- Mood suffers
- Sleep suffers
- Energy suffers, AND…
You’re more likely to gain weight!
Your immune system suffers, so you’re more prone to infections. You’re also more likely to develop diseases like diabetes.1
And yes, if you haven’t guessed:
High cortisol levels can damage the delicate balance of your gut microbiome, reduce the integrity of your gut wall, and lead to leaky gut syndrome.2
Elevated cortisol levels create what we call a “fight or flight” response. When you feel a sense of danger — real or perceived — the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. This involuntary system regulates things like heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion.
The sympathetic nervous system helped your ancestors survive when a saber-tooth tiger chased them, and it can keep you alive today when someone swerves into your lane on the freeway. But the sympathetic nervous system should do its job and then simmer down. Too often, it can stay TURNED ON far too long when you no longer need it.
Fortunately, your autonomic nervous system also has a balancing arm — the parasympathetic nervous system, which does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system: it calms your body down. When you turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is your calm self, you slowly turn down the sympathetic nervous system.
You can activate the parasympathetic nervous system through yoga, meditation, and you guessed it — Taking DEEP Breaths.
The key is to find balance. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems should work together. Think of your sympathetic as your “start” button, whereas your parasympathetic is your “stop” or “slow down” button. You need them both to work effectively and harmoniously in order to respond to the varying challenges in life.
When they tilt out of balance — in other words, when your sympathetic nervous system runs the show — all kinds of problems can result, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.3
The good news is taking deep, controlled breaths is the one part of your autonomic nervous system that you can control to maintain balance between these two systems4 and manage cortisol levels.5 And let’s face it, we don’t need more sympathetic overdrive in our lives. What we do need is more parasympathetic “ahh” moments.
TAKING DEEP BREATHS
There are a few ways to practice this deep, mindful breathing. One of my favorites is called deep diaphragmatic breathing, which can help force out the air buildup in your lungs, improving oxygen levels and strengthening your diaphragm. Doing that can improve your breathing and support the immune system.6
Your diaphragm does most of the mechanical work to bring fresh air in and expel carbon dioxide and other gases out of your lungs. Babies know how to use their diaphragms effectively. Ask any mom with a crying baby — they’ve got pipes. But adults (in our “suck your tummy in to look good” society) forget how to do it.
If new to deep diaphragmatic breathing, here’s how to start:
DEEP DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING
1 – Lie flat with your knees bent and feet flat on a bed or yoga mat.
- Relax your shoulders
- Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach
2 – First, observe. Breathe as you normally would, and observe which hand moves more — the one on your chest or the one on your stomach?
- Here’s a hint: most people will breathe into the hand on their chest, while the other hand stays still or sinks as they suck their belly inwards
- This is the OPPOSITE of how to do deep diaphragmatic breathing, but very important to notice so you can see how difficult it is to take deep breaths this way. It takes much more work, and can tire you out quickly
3 – Breathe in through your nose for about two to four seconds.
- Feel the air moving through your nostrils into your abdomen, making your stomach expand, and the hand on your stomach move up
- Your stomach should move outward while your chest remains still — imagine you are filling your lungs with air from the bottom up, like pouring water into an expanding barrel
- Your chest will rise last, towards the end of your inhalation — remember, when you use your diaphragm, your abdomen pushes out as you inhale
4 – Press gently on your stomach and breathe out slowly for about six to eight seconds.7
- Pretend you’re about to drink from a straw and purse your lips
- Squeeze all the air out of your lungs using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles to squeeze your belly button towards your back
Another favorite of mine is box breathing, used by Navy Seals to stay calm in stressful situations. Also called square breathing, this involves slow, deep breaths. Box breathing can improve performance and concentration, support good sleep, boost your mood, and lower stress levels.8
When performing the following, use your diaphragm as you did for the deep, diaphragmatic breathing exercise above.
1 – Inhale for 4 seconds
2 – Hold for 4 seconds
3 – Exhale for 4 seconds
4 – Hold for 4 seconds
5 – Repeat
You can also work your way up, starting at 3 – 3 – 3 – 3. (follow steps 1-4 above for 3 seconds each)
You’ll find several variations of box breathing, including 3 – 3 – 6 – 3, modified with an extended exhalation. From here you can build up to a more advanced sequence noted below.
ADVANCED BOX BREATHING (with extended exhale)
1 – Inhale for 5 seconds
2 – Hold for 5 seconds
3 – Exhale for 10 seconds
4 – Hold for 5 seconds
5 – Repeat
Experiment and find what works for you —the key here is to breathe regularly and deeply.
Set a timer for five, 10, or 15 minutes. If you can, set a timer that isn’t on your phone so you won’t be interrupted. As explained in my previous blog post on using meditation to improve sleep, it’s best to commit to a time, then give 200% of yourself into it.
Now you can go back to my tips on sleep for better immunity and incorporate this:
EVENING MEDITATION BREATHING TECHNIQUE
1 – Sit comfortably in a lotus or cross-legged position with a cushion under the sits bones (aka your “buttocks bones” or part of the pelvis that bears weight in seated positions)
2 – Close your eyes, forget about time, and breathe
3 – Hold your breath to the counts until you hear your alarm go off
You will be shocked how fast the time passes when you practice these box-breathing techniques, counting your inhales, exhales, and holds.
Deep breathing can have a dramatic effect on calming your parasympathetic nervous system. Consistent practice of deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help you relax and lower how much cortisol your body releases.9
And here’s my quick tip for stressful moments —in lieu of reaching for something sweet, a bag of chips, or glass of wine — be present, stop, and take three deep, diaphragmatic breaths while standing, to give your diaphragm the most freedom to move.
Taking deep breaths will help you maintain a more relaxed state and not only make this difficult time more manageable, but will also give your immune system the ability to work at its best.
You can lower inflammation, keep your immune system in optimal condition, and overall create a stronger sense of happiness and wellbeing simply by tuning into your breath and bringing these techniques into an often overlooked natural process.10
With all that comes with having to shelter-in-place or the stress of a loved one who works in harms way daily, to socially distancing yourself from family and friends, remember to Take Deep Breaths to Build-Up Your Immunity.