Our everyday lives are filled with stressful events that disrupt our mental and physical wellbeing. We take for granted that anxiety and stress are out of our control. We may be all too used to the symptoms that ensue; sleep disruptions, irritability, frustration, sweaty palms, upset stomach, dry mouth, …
What if we had a button to control our mind and body connection and stay as cool as a cucumber? Well, the good news is that we have a chill-out lever, and it’s called the vagus nerve. And by using breathing techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve, we can improve our mental and physical state.
The vagus nerve: our antidote to stress
The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves in the body, second only to the spinal cord. It wanders through your body, and in the process connects our brain to several key organs in our body such as the heart, gut, and lungs.
The vagus nerve is essential to feeling a sense of calm. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin are released, minimizing depression and anxiety. In fact, in a study published in 2018, researchers noted that vagus nerve stimulation may be a useful adjunct for treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Vagus nerve stimulation also amplifies your vagal tone. Vagal tone is a measure of the variability of our heart rate, associated with inhalation and exhalation. A higher vagal tone is associated with good physical and psychological health, while a low vagal tone is associated with heart attacks, inflammation, loneliness, and negative moods.
When we experience situational or chronic stressful situations, the vagus nerve, main driver of the parasympathetic nervous system, tries to compensate the sympathetic system, also known as the “flight or fight” system. The sympathetic system releases hormones such as noradrenaline and adrenaline which lead to a chain of reactions. These include increased heart rate, and increased blood glucose levels, automated defense mechanisms to address threats.
However, the trouble is that the sympathetic nervous system can’t distinguish between a real threat (being attacked by a tiger) and a perceived threat (doing a presentation or taking a test). As a result, our sympathetic nervous system is frequently in overdrive – and this has far-reaching consequences for our health.
An overactive sympathetic nervous system can increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and chronic heart failure. It can also result in brain changes that lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Deep breathing benefits
Deep breathing is a great tool for vagus nerve stimulation. Deep breathing has been shown to decrease the “fight-or-flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system and can enhance the activity of the vagus nerve. Research shows that deep breathing also improves emotional processing, attention, and memory recall. This is because the rhythm of our breathing causes electrical activity in the brain, which enhances emotional processing and memory recall.
Additionally, deep breathing impacts how blood is pumped from our hearts, leading to better cardiovascular health. In a study published in 2021, adults with above-normal systolic blood pressure who took 30 deep breaths/day, 6 days a week saw a drop in their systolic blood pressure of 9 points after just 6 weeks. Meanwhile, the control group did not see any improvement.
Deep breathing has also been shown to lower blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes. In a 3-month study comparing the effect of deep breathing on blood pressure, anthropometry, and blood glucose levels, participants that received deep breathing in addition to standard care had a significant reduction in BMI, waist-hip ratio, and measures of glycemia such as hemoglobin A1C, and fasting and postprandial glucose compared to those who received standard care alone.
Deep breathing practices
When practicing deep breathing, ensure your breaths are deep, not shallow. To do this, simply visualize filling up the lower part of your lungs (i.e. in the region right above your belly button) like a balloon. Then exhale … slowly.
In terms of frequency, you can either make deep breathing part of your daily routine or practice it as the need arises. Here are some deep breathing practices you can try:
4-7-8 Breathing: To practice it, inhale for 4 counts through your nose, then hold for 7 counts, and finally exhale for 8 counts through your mouth.
You can use this technique not only when you’re facing high-stress or anxiety-provoking situations, but also if you’re finding it hard to fall asleep. Of note, this technique is contraindicated in those who have chronic lung disease.
Pursed-lip Breathing: To practice it, start by inhaling slowly through your nose, then exhaling slowly through your mouth through pursed lips. Make sure your exhale is 2 to 4 times longer than your inhale.
The type of breathing technique is more accessible since those with chronic lung diseases such as COPD can safely partake in this technique. As an added benefit, it is one of the easiest ways to control shortness of breath in people who suffer from chronic lung diseases such as COPD. Pursed-lip breathing can also improve exercise tolerance and increase arterial oxygen in people with COPD.
Box Breathing: To practice it, inhale through your nose for 4 counts, then hold for 4 counts, next exhale through your mouth for 4 counts, and finally hold for 4 counts.
This type of breathing technique is recommended for those who need to remain alert and focused while being calm at the same time. Hence, you can use this practice before speaking to a large crowd or taking a test. Of note, this breathing technique is popular with soldiers, police officers, and even the Navy Seals.
Ocean Breathing: To practice it, inhale through your nose for 5 counts, then hold for 3 counts, next exhale through your nose for 7 counts making the sound of “ha” when you’re exhaling.
There are no contraindications for ocean breathing. However, if you’re suffering from a sore throat or stuffy nose, you may find it uncomfortable.
Breathing Fitness Exercisers: An alternative way to practice deep breathing is to use a breathing exerciser. I use this one here, in combination with stretching. Expand-A-Lung provides the immediate benefit of opening up airways into your lungs that may be partially obstructed due to pollution, aging, poor physical condition, or smoking. It also provides the long-term benefit of developing your respiratory muscles so you can inhale more oxygen into your lungs and exhale more carbon dioxide.
Breath holding: The mother-of-all breathing practices, including freediving breath-hold and pranayama, a yoga practice to hold the breath. There is no need to hold the breath for many minutes, but just start with 30 seconds to one minute. This practice will help you become ‘smarter’ than your brain, activating the ‘mammalian dive reflex’ and building up the mastery of the prefrontal cortex, which helps us control our attention, emotions, and behavior.
Life has a way of throwing us punches that can lead to being in constant overdrive. But by mastering the art of stimulating your vagus nerve through deep breathing techniques, you’ll be better able to keep rolling with the punches.