“Take a deep breath” — it’s advice you’ve probably both given and received. Slowing down and focusing on your breathing allows you to center yourself and reassess things; it helps you think more clearly and feel better mentally. But did you know that breathing exercises — or breathing in a way that requires certain steps — can help you feel better physically as well? See how breathing, the thing you’re doing all the time anyway, can be used as a tool for better health, according to science.
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How can breathing exercises help me?
You already know breathing is important. We take about 17,000 breaths a day, yet never give it a second thought. For something we do so often, it’s important to know that how you breathe can make a difference on your body, too. For example: According to an animal study published in Science, breathing through your nose increases blood flow to your brain, triggering feelings of tranquility on a neurological level. Breath is the key to good health, and mastering certain breathing exercises can help in a wide variety of ways, from erasing stress to taming a heartburn flare.
For Dry Eyes: Try ‘Belly Breathing’
For the 61 percent of women over 50 with dry eye, help is here. Three minutes of “belly breathing” may boost women’s tear production significantly, as shown in a randomized controlled trial published in The Ocular Surface. The reason? Belly breathing calms the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates tear-producing lacrimal glands. To do: Inhale through your nose for four seconds as your belly rises, then exhale through your nose for six seconds as your belly falls. Repeat for three minutes.
For Heartburn: Try the 4-7-8 Trick
You’re not just imagining it — you really may be getting heartburn more often when you’re stressed out. A study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found stress nearly doubles your odds of heartburn, since it slows digestion. When food stays in your stomach, it stretches the “plug” that blocks acid. The fix: Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven, then exhale for eight. Repeat for three minutes. Research from The American Journal of Gastroenterology suggests deep breathing like this may even cut the need for heartburn meds.
For Brain Fog: Practice Deep Breathing
Deep breathing may clear mental cobwebs, reveals research from Frontiers in Psychology. What’s more, a study published in PLoS One found that some soldiers practiced something called “tactical breathing” — during which they breathed deeply — were more focused, even when under pressure. (Note: More research is necessary, because not all soldiers experienced beneficial effects from tactical breathing.)
To do: Imagine a square in front of you. As you trace each side of the box in your mind, inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, then keep your lungs empty for four to complete the box. Repeat four times.
For Anxiety: Try ‘Cyclical Sighing’
A Cell Reports Medicine study found “cyclical sighing” (exhaling as if giving a sigh of relief) may calm worries in five minutes. Why? It may signal the brain that an urgent event is over and it’s time to relax. To do: Inhale through your nose until your lungs are mostly full. Pause, then inhale again. Pause, then exhale slowly through your nose. Repeat for five minutes.
For Pain: Try a Pillow Squeeze
If pain flares, gently squeeze a pillow and breathe deeply. A study published in PLoS One shows that it may engage the diaphragm and slow your breathing rate to 10 breaths a minute — a pace proven to calm the nervous system. Research in The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain says 20 minutes of this type of breathing may block pain signals.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.