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The Overlooked Importance of Breathing

Under: General Health

Breathing is quite literally the essence of life. Every few seconds, our bodies perform this vital function automatically without any conscious effort on our part. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide in a continuous cycle that sustains our very existence. Yet despite being so fundamental to our survival, breathing is something most of us rarely think about and often take for granted.

With each breath, oxygen enters our lungs and diffuses into the bloodstream to be circulated throughout the body and utilized by our cells. At the same time, metabolic waste in the form of carbon dioxide travels back to the lungs to be expelled.

As we age, the effortless act of breathing can become compromised, leading to respiratory complications and breathing difficulties. This inability to breathe freely and maintain optimal blood oxygen levels can trigger a cascade of adverse effects. From heightened anxiety and emotional turmoil to diminished energy reserves and a weakened immune system, the consequences of impaired breathing can be far-reaching and detrimental to overall well-being.

It is crucial to recognize the profound impact of breathing on our health and take proactive measures to preserve and enhance this fundamental bodily function.

Why Deep Breathing Helps

You may be wondering why “just” breathing can be so powerful. Slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, also called the “rest and digest” system. Its job is to conserve energy to be used for bodily processes such as digestion and urination. Deep breathing also activates the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system, controlling things like mood, digestion, and heart rate. It will also send more oxygen to your brain and other organs.

What is Diaphragmatic Breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is a technique that engages the diaphragm, the primary muscle used for breathing. It involves inhaling deeply through the nose, allowing the belly to expand, and exhaling slowly through pursed lips. This type of breathing has several benefits backed by research studies:

Diaphragmatic breathing can help reduce stress and anxiety by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation.1, 2 A review found that diaphragmatic breathing may decrease stress as measured by physiological biomarkers and self-reported psychological tools.2

For individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diaphragmatic breathing can improve breathing efficiency, increase oxygen saturation levels, and make physical activities less strenuous.1, 4 One study showed improvements in respiratory rate and salivary cortisol levels after a diaphragmatic breathing interventio.2

In asthma patients, diaphragmatic breathing may help alleviate symptoms like shortness of breath and improve quality of life when used as an add-on therapy.4, 5 A review of three trials found moderate evidence of short and long-term improvements in quality-of-life scores after practicing diaphragmatic breathing exercises.5

Other potential benefits include lowering blood pressure, improving core muscle stability, and enhancing tolerance for exercise.1, 3 A study demonstrated improvements in systolic and diastolic blood pressure following a diaphragmatic breathing intervention.2

While diaphragmatic breathing is not a standalone treatment for conditions like anxiety, COPD, or asthma, the evidence suggests it can be a useful complementary technique to manage symptoms and reduce stress when combined with standard medical treatments.

Here are the key steps to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

1. Get into a comfortable position, either lying down or sitting upright. Relax your shoulders.

2. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your rib cage.

3. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to expand outward against your hand. Your chest should remain relatively still.

4. Exhale slowly through pursed lips, feeling your belly gently contract inward.

5. Focus on keeping your breathing slow, controlled, and using your diaphragm to draw air into your belly rather than your chest rising.

6. Aim for 4-5 consecutive deep belly breaths. Take breaks as needed if you feel shortness of breath initially.

7. With practice, you can increase the duration up to 5-10 minutes per session, 3-4 times per day.

8. You can try variations like rib-stretch breathing by placing your hands on your lower ribs to feel them expanding outward on the inhale.

The key is using your diaphragm to fill your lungs from the bottom up, keeping your chest still. Go slowly and don’t force it. With regular practice, diaphragmatic breathing will become more natural.


Being mindful about breathing will help you reap its benefits. The next time you inhale and exhale without thinking, take a moment to appreciate this incredible, automatic function. Breathing may be something we all do every day without realizing it, but it’s also what allows us to live each day. It’s the fundamental life force that should never be taken for granted.