Breathing Your Way to Health

Diaphragm Breathing Can Regulate your Nervous System to Treat and Prevent Chronic Illness

An interesting article below on the role of the vagus nerve in regulating the autonomic nervous system – or the automatic functions in our body (functions that work whether we aware of it or not).  Following are some extracts that give some background and that point to the importance of understanding mind body interactions when exploring prevention and treatment of illness and optimal living.

“Vagus’ is Latin for ‘wandering’ and indeed this bundle of nerve fibres roves through the body, networking the brain with the stomach and digestive tract, the lungs, heart, spleen, intestines, liver and kidneys, not to mention a range of other nerves that are involved in speech, eye contact, facial expressions and even your ability to tune in to other people’s voices. It is made of thousands and thousands of fibres and 80 per cent of them are sensory, meaning that the vagus nerve reports back to your brain what is going on in your organs.

Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed ‘fight-or-flight’ adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress.

The strength of your vagus response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone.

Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive.

“One nerve connects your vital organs, sensing and shaping your health. If we learn to control it, the future of medicine will be electric.”

The article outlines the importance of the vagus nerve in regulating many of the vital bodily functions, as well as the immune response and inflammation in our bodies. Given that 90% of deaths in the Western world are a result of chronic inflammatory illnesses, this is a very worthy investigation.

It discusses the use of an electrical implant (in the neck) that can help increase vagal tone. This is a great discovery that could have far reaching impacts on medical treatments and reduction in our reliance on medicines that unfortunately come with unwanted side effects.

However, we’ve always had the ability to regulate our autonomic nervous system via the vagus nerve without ever having to artificially manipulate it.

The Role of Diaphragm Breathing in Increasing Vagal Tone and Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System

Of all of the functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system, breathing is the only function we can easily and conscious control.

And the primary muscle that drives breathing, the diaphragm, is supplied and regulated via the vagus nerve.

Meaning that if you can control your diaphragmatic contraction and recoil you can manipulate it to increase vagul tone to optimise many of the automatic functions in our body and reduce inflammation.

The problem is that most of us do not breathe even close to ideally or functionally.

According to medical diagnostic norms, we should breathe primarily using our diaphragms and exhalation should be 50% longer than inhalation.

The exhalation is enervated by the arm of the nervous system that enhances digestion and rests and relaxes us – the parasympathetic nervous system.

(Whereas inhalation is stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system which is stimulates what is known loosely as the ‘fight or flight’ response and promotes inflammation).

Accordingly, the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system should predominate over the sympathetic (fight or flight) in our systems. Ideally they work together, just with the parasympathetic slightly predominant.

Unfortunately, most if us breathe mostly with chest and shoulders, which are considered the secondary muscles of inhalation used in cases of emergency (exercise or when someone startles us and we gasp).

Inhaling mostly using chest and shoulders it gives us no way to control the recoil of the chest and diaphragm on exhalation as the secondary exhalation muscles include muscles in the abdomen.

The result is that our inhalation ends up longer than exhalation, our diaphragm gets weak and atonic, our vagal tone becomes very low, and ‘fight or flight’ nervous system responsiveness predominates.

Not a good picture for long term health.

Yet it is easy to retrain functional breathing via the diaphragm.

I have researched this with colleagues who are experts in stabilisation and diaphragm control, and trained clients in clinic for many years now using biofeedback technology and the results have been profound with many chronic ailments – including asthma and allergies, IBS and gut conditions, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, headaches and migraines and snoring and apnoea. As well as in enhancing performance for athletes, artists and for work performance.

The linked article even refers to a study that found that people who meditate display increased vagal tone and parasympathetic nervous system dominance.

The diaphragm breathing techniques that I teach offer create the same response, are very simple to learn, and offer an excellent lead in to meditation practice or learning how to meditate.

You don’t need to artificially manipulate anything (be it via drugs or electrical implants) to regulate your nervous system and open your body to optimal health. Our bodies have always had the potential for levels of health that most of us never see. We just need to learn how to open these levels up by understanding how the body works more intimately.

There are no secrets. No secret potion or machine that will ever solve our physical and mental health woes.

It is the constant under-performance of the aspects of living that influence our health (breathing, nutrition, movement and stabilisation, how we process emotions and stress etc) that lead us to ill-health and chronic illness in the first place. This is brought about by the mismatch between the world we have now created and the body’s we have inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Technology has simply moved too quickly for evolution.

Returning to optimal health and performance does not mean turning our back on technology and going back to our hunter-gatherer ways. The planet would not sustain this anyway with such a population that we now have.

The solution lies in understanding how to perform these aspects of  living ideally or as we are built to, and incorporating that into our modern culture. Into our current living circumstances – be it how you breathe, eat, drink etc. etc.

Essentially, we need to refrain from interfering with our body’s natural capacity for health.

Optimise the aspects of living that influence your health and you will allow your body to thrive. It is simple, but it does involve practice, perseverance and changing some habits.

The end state is that you will be healthy and happy.

I offer breathing retraining in my clinics in Geelong or Torquay or remotely via Skype or phone.