Breathing seems so straightforward. You’ve been doing it your whole life, so certainly you’ve gained enough mastery to keep yourself alive. But after years of honing the skill, it turns out that if you’re not practicing deep breathing (and most of us aren’t), you may not be reaping all the potential benefits. And those benefits of deep breathing are far-reaching.
Ian Del Conde, M.D., cardiologist and vascular medicine expert at Miami Cardiac and Vascular Institute in South Florida points to four overarching reasons to incorporate a deep breathing practice into your days: reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced physical performance, improved sleep, and lowered blood pressure. If that last one comes as a surprise, it’s because of the relaxing effects that deep breathing incurs. “Slow, deep breathing relaxes the blood vessels and reduces the workload on the heart, which can help lower blood pressure,” Del Conde explains.
If you’re looking for ways to take control of your blood pressure through natural, lifestyle changes and interventions, it may be worth adding a deep breathing practice to your schedule. Here’s how (and why) it works.
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How Breathing Can Lower Blood Pressure
It’s important to note that the effects of deep breathing on blood pressure have been well studied and validated. In fact, according to a scoping review published in January 2023 in Frontiers in Physiology, which looked at 20 different studies, 14 of the 20 studies found that participants with varying levels of hypertension (high blood pressure) and at varying ages (between 18 and 75), were positively affected by slow, deep breathing practices. To be specific, systolic blood pressure numbers declined between 4 and 54.22 mmHG, while diastolic numbers declined by 3 and17 mmHG.
Practically speaking, that means it’s possible (although results may vary widely by individual), for someone with medically diagnosed hypertension of over 140/90 mmHG (systolic/diastolic) to achieve a normal blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHG) with deep breathing alone. If it sounds like magic, well, the results may be magical, but the mechanism is scientific.
“The science behind breathing practices involves the interaction between the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and nervous system,” says Lowell Steen, M.D., interventional cardiologist with Loyola Medicine. “Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system.” And it’s the parasympathetic nervous system that counteracts the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system, which, when activated, can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure.
“Breathing exercises can help to regulate and balance these two systems, leading to decreased blood pressure in some cases. Additionally, these practices can help improve the body’s ability to manage stress, which can have a positive impact on blood pressure,” Steen explains.
The combo effect of vagus nerve stimulation (important for parasympathetic nervous system activation) that takes place in response to deep breathing and the improved stress management response means that the effects can be both acute and long-lasting. “Acute benefits include immediate relaxation and stress reduction, which can lead to a temporary reduction in blood pressure. Long-term, consistent practice can help train the body to better manage stress, potentially leading to more stable and lower blood pressure levels over time,” Steen says.
How to Gain the Benefits of Deep Breathing for Blood Pressure
As with most things in life, the key to reaping the benefits of a deep breathing practice are, well, practice and consistency. “Deep breathing and breathing exercises require practice,” says Del Conde. “The more you do them, the better you get.”
So if you want to enjoy the long-term, blood pressure-lowering effects of deep breathing, you need to make a commitment to performing them regularly. The good news is, you don’t need to set aside much time to make it happen, and there are a variety of different techniques you can choose between.
“Start with short sessions, around five to 10 minutes, and aim to practice daily, or at least several times per week” says Steen, who also suggests incorporating breathing exercises into a larger routine, such as yoga or meditation. There are numerous approaches that work, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to breathing practices, and different techniques may be more effective for different individuals,” says Steen. “It is essential to experiment with various methods to find what works best for you.”
The Best Breathing Exercises
Steen and Del Conde each mention the following breathing techniques that have been shown to garner results.
Coherent Breathing (4-7-8 Technique)
This rhythmic breathing method uses a count for each inhale and exhale. For example, the 4-7-8 technique involves breathing in through the nose for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, then breathing out through the mouth for a long, slow count of 8.
Slow, Deep Breathing
Breathe in deeply and slowly through the nose, then exhale slowly through the mouth. This is less structured than coherent breathing, but the idea of taking long, slow breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth is similar.
Involves breathing deeply while focusing on expanding and using the diaphragm, the muscle located below the lunges. You should feel your belly and rib cage expand and contract as you take an inhale and exhale, respectively.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing exercise involves inhaling deeply through one nostril, while using a finger to close the other nostril; after a full inhale and exhale through one nostril, you switch sides.
There are also tools and apps that you can use to help you start and follow a deep breathing practice. Sarina van der Zee, M.D., a board certified cardiac electrophysiologist and cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California points to a 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association that used a device called POWERbreathe, which you hold in your mouth, to help train the muscles used during breathing.
The trial required that participants take 30 deep breaths (about five minutes worth) per day for six weeks while using the device, with impressive results—an average lowered systolic blood pressure of about 9 mmHG. “This is similar to the effect seen with exercise and blood pressure medications,” van der Zee says.
She explains that this device helps engage the diaphragm muscle and the intercostal muscles of your rib cage, making it more difficult to inhale. This causes you to have to work harder, strengthening these muscles. “This can speed up the exercise benefits, as adding weight does in a strength workout,” she explains.
While devices aren’t excessively expensive, typically ranging from $50 to $75, depending on the model, you may want to start with a simple breathing practice unless otherwise advised by your doctor. Steen is quick to advise that you should always talk to your doctor before starting a new practice, and certainly before changing any medical treatments for hypertension. While it may be possible to reduce or eliminate hypertension medications over time, you want to do so under the care of your doctor.
Laura Williams, M.S., ACSM EP-C holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and is a certified exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. She also holds sports nutritionist, youth fitness, sports conditioning, and behavioral change specialist certifications through the American Council on Exercise. She has been writing on health, fitness, and wellness for 12 years, with bylines appearing online and in print for Men's Health, Healthline, Verywell Fit, The Healthy, Giddy, Thrillist, Men's Journal, Reader's Digest, and Runner's World. After losing her first husband to cancer in 2018, she moved to Costa Rica to use surfing, beach running, and horseback riding as part of her healing process. There, she met her current husband, had her son, and now splits time between Texas and Costa Rica.