Are you aware of your breath? I bet you are now that I made you think about it. That tiny action of noticing your breath can be a powerful tool for promoting optimal brain health. Keep reading to learn how your breath influences your brain.
You may not realize it, but your body is in the middle of a giant tug-of-war between the two branches of our autonomic nervous system. Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), otherwise known as the fight-or-flight system, is like a gas pedal, trying to ramp up the amount of energy your body is using. On the flip side, your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), otherwise known as the rest-and-digest system, is like a break, slowing down your body's energy expenditure. The SNS and PNS typically are in a dynamic balance, constantly calibrating how much oxygen and blood sugar is delivered to your body based on the activities it's engaging in. If you're running to catch a bus, you need a lot more energy than if you are sitting in a comfy chair reading a book. When your SNS kicks in, you start breathing more heavily to give your body that energy.
What happens when there is a mismatch between what your body needs and what it gets?
As discussed in a previous post, threats to our survival are relatively few and far between in modern society. However, our brains still operate as if sabre-tooth tigers lurk around every corner. When things in life (understandably) get us worked up, our SNS kicks in to prepare us for a fight that never comes and throws off its dynamic balance with the PNS.
Our lungs are one of the first organ systems to ramp up when it hears the battle cry of the SNS, which increases the speed of breathing in an attempt to pull more oxygen out of the air to fuel our body with every in-breath. On every out-breath, the lungs also release Carbon Dioxide into the air as the metabolic exhaust of our body. Normally, these two gases, Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide, are balanced in our body, but when our anxiety gets us worked up, the levels of Carbon Dioxide actually drop 1. This in turn causes our blood pressure to drop, leading to a ripple effect throughout our body, felt perhaps most deeply by our brains as blood flow changes 2. The networks in our brain responsible for reasoning, planning, impulse inhibition, and memory are all sensitive to sudden drops in blood flow 3, which means anxiety can literally lead you to make less smart decisions 4. This can be the start of a vicious cycle, as anxiety leads to impaired thinking, which leads to more anxiety, and so on.
Thankfully, Mother Nature gave us a simple way to break this cycle. When we consciously slow down our breath, we are doing a manual override and tricking our brain into a state of calmness. Remember that the start of this anxiety-driven predicament was breathing too fast, so by focusing on slowing down our breath we can actually fix this problem right at its root. Slowing down our breath restores that balance of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide in our blood, which our brain interprets as a sign that the threat has passed. After all, why would our breathing be back to normal if there was still a sabre-tooth tiger chasing us? Not only does focused slow breathing force our rest-and-digest system to turn on 5, it also fixes blood flow to our brain, letting us resume thinking and planning our way out of whatever situation caused the anxiety in the first place.
Ready for the twist? This simple act of focusing on your breath and helping restore balance in your body is one of the key ingredients of mindfulness meditation. As life gets scary and we have genuine worry about the future, a little mindfulness can go a long way to keep our mental health in check. In fact, there is a meditation for every occasion and I highly recommend checking out A Cup of Mindfulness 6 to learn some quick exercises to sprinkle some mindfulness throughout your life. Even just a couple minutes while your enjoying your morning coffee is all it can take to hack your brain back to letting you live your best life.
Dr. Lisa Bélanger's A Cup of Mindfulness was one of the key inspirations for this article. Dr. Bélanger holds a PhD in Behavioural Medicine, is a Certified Exercise Physiologist, author and CEO of ConsciousWorks. She is currently a researcher at the University of Calgary. Her goal is to show people how seemingly small habit changes can have a profound impact on one’s well-being, productivity, and happiness. Fueled by passion and coffee.
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1. Courtney, R. (2009). International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine The functions of breathing and its dysfunctions and their relationship to breathing therapy. International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, 12(3), 78–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijosm.2009.04.002
2. Giardino, N. D., Friedman, S. D., & Dager, S. R. (2007). Anxiety, respiration, and cerebral blood flow: implications for functional brain imaging, 48, 103–112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2006.11.001
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4. Van Diest, I., Stegen, K., Van de Woestijne, K. P., Schippers, N., & Van den Bergh, O. (2000). Hyperventilation and attention: effects of hypocapnia on performance in a Stroop task. Biological psychology, 53(2-3), 233-252.
5. Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353.