Science & research behind better breathing.
Breathing is simple, right? Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
It happens automatically. We take more than 23,000 breaths every day without even thinking about it.
But can we breathe better?
The science says yes
What this page is about:
- How to breathe better.
- Why does the slow exhale work?
- How to breathe better with the Shift.
- Neuroscience Breathing Basics
- Sympathetic nervous system vs. Parasympathetic nervous system
- How does the Vagus Nerve impact breathing?
- What does breathing better do to the brain?
- In English, please: Inhale is the gas pedal. Exhale is the brake.
- How to reset your nervous system naturally.
- How to practice breathing better daily.
- Why don’t they teach us how to breathe?
- How to breathe properly.
- 3 reasons we should inhale through the nose.
- Does deep breathing cure everything?
How to breathe better.
There’s one simple way to unlock the secret to breathing better: slow your exhale.
The next time you are feeling anxious or stressed, take a deep inhale through your nose, followed by a long, slow exhale. This simple action will literally flip the stress switch off, and the relax switch on.
The Shift makes it even easier.
Why does the slow exhale work?
There’s all sorts of science behind why this works (which we get into further down the page).
But if you just want the hack and want to start feeling better now, here’s why the slow exhale works:
- It tells your nervous system everything is ok
- By turning off the flight-or-fight response
- And switching on the rest and digest response,
- Which physiologically causes your body to chill out.
It’s that simple. Slow your exhale to breathe better, think better, and feel better.
Need some proof? Read: Deep Breathing Benefits from Harvard Health.
How to breathe better with the Shift.
There’s a ton of info here. You’ll likely forget more than you remember. And that’s ok. Don’t let the amount of content deter you from starting a breathing routine.
When we first started learning about the power of the breath, it felt a bit like drinking from a firehose.
But here’s the great thing about breathwork: it’s easy to start. Right now. And you’ll feel the impact almost instantly.
And the more you do it, the more consistent you are, the more it helps and the better you feel.
This is why the Shift works so well.
It can help you calm down in the moment, as you are experiencing anxiety or stress.
And it serves as a reminder. It helps you develop a consistent routine.
The Shift is always with you, and it can be used without attracting too much attention. You don’t need wifi, you don’t have to step outside, you can take a breath break anywhere, and experience the benefits of better breathing, anytime you need to, thanks to the Shift.
Neuroscience Breathing Basics
Don’t be nervous. Get it? Nevermind.
There won’t be a test. This info is here if you need it or want it.
The important thing to remember if you want to start experiencing the benefits of better breathing? Deepen and slow down your exhale.
Our nervous system has two main parts:
- Central nervous: made up of the brain and spinal cord.
- Peripheral nervous system: a network of nerves that branches out from the spinal cord and into all parts of the body.
The peripheral nervous system has two main parts:
- Somatic nervous system: responsible for conscious or voluntary activities and reflexes. It contains motor neurons and sensory neurons. Think walking, or smelling, or talking.
- Autonomic nervous system: responsible for involuntary activities such as regulating heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and loads more.
Are you feeling stressed just trying to navigate all of this?
What does this all mean? What it all boils down to is this: our nervous system is responsible for stuff we can control, and stuff we can’t.
The autonomic nervous system has three distinct parts:
- Sympathetic nervous system (SNS): responsible for fear and stress responses (you know that fight-or-flight feeling?).
- Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS): responsible for rest and digest responses. It conserves energy when the body is relaxed and maintains homeostasis.
- Enteric: controls digestive function, specifically the movement of water and electrolytes within the gut.
Stick with us: the anatomy lesson is almost over.
Sympathetic nervous system vs. Parasympathetic sympathetic nervous system.
|Sympathetic Nervous System||Parasympathetic Nervous System|
|Fight or flight response||Rest, digest, restore and relax responses|
|GOAL: prepare the body for stress or danger by shutting down systems not essential to survival||GOAL: return the body to a state of calm, its composed routine and regular operations|
|HOW: increase heart rate, tense up muscles, dilate pupils, open up airways, release adrenaline and glycogen, inhibit stomach activity, secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine||HOW: reduces heart rate, relaxes muscles, contracts pupils, increases saliva production to aid in digestion, constrict airways, stimulate stomach and intestines|
|Activated when you see a bear in the wild. Or when your boss calls you into her office.||Activated when you hug a loved one and they start scratching your back.|
|Activated when you are only taking shallow breaths.||Activated when you are intentional about deep, slow exhales.|
|Activated when you receive notifications from your phone.||Activated when you are calm and at peace in the moment.|
How does the vagus nerve impact breathing?
The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system:
- The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body.
- It is the main highway between our digestive systems and organs (such as the gut, liver, heart, and lungs) and the brain (1).
- The vagus nerve is responsible for organ functions such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and reflexes such as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and vomiting (1).
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.
But there’s one problem
- There’s a 4-lane highway running from the body to the brain
- And only a 2-lane highway running from the brain to the body
This means initial stressor signals sent to the brain can trigger a stress response when there is nothing to worry about. Then when the all-clear signal tries to get back to the body, traffic jam.
Now we experience stress and anxiety unnecessarily.
But, when we slow our exhale, we stimulate our vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces anxiety, and calms the mind.
Pop quiz!!! Take out your notebooks and a #2 pencil.
We get it, this is a lot.
If you remember one thing, let it be this: slow exhale equals good.
If you remember two: shallow breathing is bad. Deepen your inhale. Slow your exhale.
In English, please: Inhale is the gas pedal. Exhale is the brake.
When we inhale, we activate our sympathetic nervous system. With each inhale, the SNS facilitates a brief acceleration of heart rate (4).
When we exhale, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system. With each exhale, the vagus nerve secretes a transmitted substance, which causes deceleration via the PNS (4).
When we are stressed out or anxious, our body is perceiving danger and the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. This is similar to when your car is running in the red. You can’t last long in this zone. When you spend too much time in the red, (read: anxious or stressed out), the wheels start falling off.
When we are in a dangerous situation, the body hits the gas pedal (the SNS) to get us to safety. Once the danger is gone, the PNS steps in to return our bodies and minds to their normal, routine operations. We are back to cruising the boulevard with the top down.
But sometimes, we get stuck. Our inhales and exhales get out of balance and the stress response continues to flood our system.
That’s where better breathing can help us think better and feel better.
How to reset your nervous system naturally.
A long, slow exhale is really all you need.
Why do we sigh? Or yawn?
This is our body’s way of resetting itself. We have built in systems to help us reset. A sigh or a yawn are our body’s way of saying, “hey, it’s high time you start breathing better.”
The problem is, we aren’t listening.
The best way to reset your nervous system is to make a routine of those automatic resets, but to perform them with intention.
How to practice better breathing daily.
Set a timer for 60 minutes.
Every time the timer goes off, take 2-5 minutes to breathe.
A slow, deep inhale, followed by a slow, long exhale.
Do this all day long and see how it affects your level of anxiety and stress.
Why don’t they teach us how to breathe?
Raise your hand if you learned how to breathe in school.
We learn about the basics of math and grammar, biology and anatomy. Some of us even get to take a foods course and learn the basics of cooking.
But what about the basics of survival? We believe breathing should be at the top of that list.
So here’s our crash course in breathing properly.
How to breathe properly.
With a few simple tweaks to the timing and mechanics of your breath, you can start breathing properly (and experiencing the benefits) right now.
To feel the full effect of breathing properly, repeat this cycle for 5 minutes.
How to inhale:
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Inhale slowly through the nose.
- Breathe into your belly.
- The hand on your belly should move. Not the one on your chest.
- Fill your belly up with air and pause when full.
How to exhale:
- Play around with exhaling through the nose and the mouth.
- Start slowly. As slowly as you can.
- Exhale all of your air out.
- Feel the hand on your belly move again.
- Pause for a second before the next inhale.
The Shift is designed to help you slow your exhale. Learn more.
3 reasons we should inhale through the nose.
Did you know: 61% of American adults self-identify as mouth breathers (13)?
Or that mouth breathing impacts quality of sleep nearly as much as stress?
Or that blocked nasal passages (which then force mouth breathing) can impact functional brain connectivity (14)?
There are three main reasons we should inhale through the nose instead of the mouth.
- Filter out dust and other allergens to keep them out of your lungs.
- Warm and humidify the air you breathe in to make it easier for your lungs to use.
- Nasal breathing releases nitric oxide, which improves oxygen circulation.
Bonus: inhaling through the nose allows us to take deeper breaths because it engages the lower lungs. If you aren’t feeling your belly move when you breathe, you are chest breathing and not engaging your lower lungs.
3 reasons we should exhale slowly.
When we slow our exhale, we stimulate our vagus nerve, which has a host of benefits.
The three most important reasons we should focus on slower exhales:
- Switch off our body’s stress and anxiety response.
- Relax muscles, lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increase feelings of calm and overall resilience.
Remembering to slow your exhale during an anxious moment can be very hard.
Remembering to slow your exhale throughout the day can be very hard.
Making a routine of better breathing and slower exhales can be very hard.
The Shift can help.
Does deep breathing cure everything?
While it may not be the cure for a broken arm or a busted transmission or the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch, breathing better has a ton of positive effects that impact the entire body. If we focus more energy and awareness on our quality of breath and our daily breathing routine, we can…
Improve Brain Function Naturally
By making a habit of better breathing, you naturally align your heart rate with your breath, which tells your brain to release endorphins important to proper brain function and a healthy stress response.
If you are only shallow breathing, the release of endorphins doesn’t happen (6).
Calm The Mind, Relax The Body, Manage Stress
A 2016 study discovered a neural circuit in the brain that influences the breathing-brain control connection (8). While we still aren’t exactly sure how this center accomplishes this task, we do know it is part of the brain’s “breathing pacemaker,” which influences emotional states by altering the breathing rhythm.
From the University of Michigan Health Department: “Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body… because it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body (9).”
Strengthen The Brain, Sharpen The Mind & Boost Attention Span
A study conducted by Trinity College of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute found controlled breathing, and focusing on your breathing rhythm, can affect levels of noradrenaline (10).
Noradrenaline is released into your body when you are challenged, curious, exercised, focused, or emotionally aroused. At the right levels, it also enhances attention to detail and improves overall brain health by encouraging the brain to grow new neural connections, sort of like brain fertilizer (11).
Why does this work? When we’re stressed, too much noradrenaline is released into your body making it hard to focus. With too little noradrenaline, you feel lethargic (10). Again, it’s difficult to focus. So by regulating your breathing patterns and rhythm, you can balance and control the levels of noradrenaline that is released into your body.
Keep Your Brain Healthy & Young
As we age, our brains typically lose mass. But in the brains of long-term meditators, the brains lose less mass and appear more youthful (11). Again, the research shows this could be due to breathing ability to balance the release of noradrenaline into the body.
Influence Emotion, Attention, Body Awareness
A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that paced, intentional breathing activates brain structures responsible for thinking, feeling, and moment-to-moment awareness (7).
Contemplative Activities & Breathing Impacts Overall Health
Contemplative activities (ContActs) have been found to have beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance (12).
Here’s a list of the benefits concerning the positive effects of ContActs (12).
- Decrease cardiometabolic risk factors
- Improvement in immunological function
- Functional anti-inflammatory effects
- Improvement in general physical function, notably bone density, balance, strength, and flexibility
- Decrease stress and negative affect
- Increase in well-being and self-efficacy
- Reduce symptoms in affective psychopathology
- Enhance executive functioning and working memory
- Act as a buffer against age-related decline of cognitive function
- Enhance attentional functioning (also in people diagnosed with ADHD)
- Enhance creativity, especially increased verbal creativity
Disclaimer: while the evidence seems to support the following findings gathered from a handful of studies, as the site points out, more research is needed.
Is there a downside to breathing better? It’s sort of like climate change: sure, the science isn’t always in agreement and it can’t predict the future, but what’s the harm? We all know we shouldn’t dump a bucket of paint in the ocean, and we all understand resources on the planet are finite, and trees are a good thing.
Same thing with breath. We don’t need a ton of research to tell us we feel better when we are breathing properly.
When we don’t focus some attention on our breath, we tend to feel anxious, stress tends to increase. So why not work to change our breathing routine and breathe better. At the very least, we can feel better today. Like, right now, today.
Is breathwork scientifically proven?
You tell us. After reading through the content here, and perusing the resources below, do you believe breathwork is scientifically proven?
Our hope with this page is to help you understand why we are so excited about, and invested in helping you breathe better.
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NOTES FOR FUTURE ADDITIONS
What is the science behind mindful breathing?
How do you breathe slower?
Why is breathwork so powerful?
Physiological benefits of deep breathing
What happens in your body when you take a deep breath
What are the physical benefits of deep breathing
How does breathwork affect the body
Benefits of breathing exercises