Breath is essential to life. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we leave. In between that time, we take about half a billion breaths. What we may not realize is that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other. Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breath. Learning to breathe consciously and with awareness is the fourth limb of yoga and it can be a valuable tool in helping to restore balance in the mind and body.
But can simple breathing exercises lower blood pressure? According to researchers yes. The most common type of hypertension, which accounts for 95 percent of people with high blood pressure, might one day be prevented with using breathing techniques – if caught early enough.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne and Macquarie University have uncovered unusual activity between neurons controlling breathing and blood pressure during the development of essential hypertension. Essential hypertension, which is high blood pressure with no known cause, affects 30% of the global population. It is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease.
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Lead researcher Professor Andrew Allen says the research parallels what sportspeople and eastern philosophies have long understood about the link between breathing and heart rate. “Bi-athletes have to regulate their breathing to slow down their heart rate before rifle shooting, and eastern meditative practices such as yoga and pranayama have always emphasized the interaction between the two,” Professor Allen says.
Researchers have documented the benefits of a regular practice of simple, deep breathing which include:
Reduced anxiety and depression
Lower/stabilized blood pressure
Increased energy levels
Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
When you experience stressful thoughts, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make you feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when you feel anxious or frustrated. At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which increase your blood pressure and pulse rate and put you in a revved-up state of high alert.
With deep breathing, you can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of calm in your mind and body. When you breathe deeply and slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in your body. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system—the vagus nerve—slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and calming your body and mind.
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