last updated September 29, 2021

The Benefits of Breathing Deeply and How to Do It

by Rob Arthur

Have you ever wondered about the benefits of breathing deeply or how to do it? 

If so, you’ll definitely want to read this article all about deep breathing.

If you’ve got additional questions at the end, let me know in the comments 🙂

What is the nervous system?

Before getting into the ins and outs (pun absolutely intended) of deep breathing, let’s talk about the autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system is a network of nerve cells that allows us to sense, process, and respond to our external and internal environments (1).

At the highest level of organization are the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord – and the peripheral nervous system – the rest of the body.

The peripheral nervous system, in turn, includes the somatic nervous system – everything under voluntary control – and the autonomic nervous system – everything involuntary.

The somatic nervous system, for example, controls movement of your arms and legs.

On the other hand, the autonomic nervous system controls digestion and heart rate.

What is the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic system itself comprises three branches – the sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic nervous system, and enteric nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system typically prepares us for action, the parasympathetic nervous system typically prepares us for rest, and the enteric nervous system mainly controls bowel motility and digestion.

It’s not uncommon, though, to only see a distinction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, with no third enteric branch (2).

The sympathetic branch is associated with “fight or flight” responses, while the parasympathetic branch is associated with “rest and digest” responses.

For example, sympathetic activation increases heart rate, blood flow, sweat, and glucose and fatty acid mobilization.

It also suppresses the immune system and inhibits digestion.

Parasympathetic activation, on the other hand, decreases heart rate, blood flow, and sweat, and encourages storage of glucose and glycogen.

It activates the immune system and encourages digestion.

These systemic effects are apparent in the role of the autonomic nervous system in disease.

How does the autonomic nervous system affect our health?

Improper sympathetic and parasympathetic action might play a role all sorts of chronic disease.

For example, autonomic dysfunction is linked to Type 2 diabetes (3), heart failure (4), depression (5), cancer (6), and inflammatory bowel disease (7).

Fortunately, we can use simple breathing techniques to help regulate our autonomic nervous systems.

This is possible because of how our breathing affects a specific nerve called the “vagus nerve,” a central player in our autonomic nervous system (8).

Let’s get into the details of exactly how breathing might affect the nervous system.

How does breathing deeply affect the nervous system?

In a 2016 experiment, researchers sought out to compare the effects of breathing rate on heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system balance (9). 

First, participants breathed normally to establish baseline measurements.

Next, participants breathed deeply and slowly at a rate of 5-6 cycles per minute (10 to 12 seconds per cycle).

Following the guided breath exercise, HRV measurements reflected a shift of the autonomic nervous system toward parasympathetic dominance.

In a similar set of 2018 experiments, researchers again explored the effect of breath on HRV, this time with differing inhalation and exhalation rates (10).

Both experiments began with recording baseline measurements for 10 minutes while participants breathed normally.

For the first experiment, participants then breathed at a “prolonged expiratory” rate of 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out.

In the second experiment, participants then breathed at a “rapid breathing” rate of 1 second in, 1 second out .

The results suggested that prolonged expiration led to HRV changes reflecting parasympathetic dominance.

Rapid breathing, on the other hand, led to HRV changes reflecting sympathetic dominance.

You’ve probably had enough of all this nerdy nervous system stuff, though.

Let’s get into what all this means in terms of real-world outcomes.

What are the benefits of breathing deeply?

In a 2009 experiment, participants were directed to inhale slowly for up to 4 seconds and then exhale slowly for up to 6 seconds at a rate of 6 breaths per minute through the nose (11).

After only five minutes, participants’ blood pressure decreased significantly and their heart rates dropped slightly.

In a 2011 experiment, participants were instructed to perform 40 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing after a meal (12).

Compared to a control group who breathed normally, those who performed diaphragmatic breathing demonstrated increased insulin, reduced blood sugar, and reduced reactive oxygen species.

In another 2011 experiment, researchers found that one hour of diaphragmatic breathing after a training session increased melatonin and decreased cortisol, suggesting protection against oxidative stress (13).

In a 2014 experiment, researchers tested the effects of breathing rate and length of inhalation and exhalation on participants’ emotional states (14).

After five minutes of a lower inhalation to exhalation ratio, participants reported increased relaxation, stress reduction, mindfulness and positive energy.

After five minutes of a lower breathing rate, participants reported increased positive energy.

In a 2016 experiment, participants practicing deep breathing for 90 minutes once per week for 10 weeks had decreased heart rate and salivary cortisol levels, while improving mood and perceived stress (15).

In a 2017 experiment, participants who practiced 20 15-minute sessions of diaphragmatic breathing over eight weeks reported improved attention, mood, and cortisol levels (16).

A 2018 review paper explains how the natural melatonin release from slow, deep breathing might even help you fall asleep without the drowsiness, headache, and dizziness of supplemental melatonin (17).

Next, we’ll talk about strategies you might use to start practicing deep breathing and seeing these benefits for yourself.

How to breathe deeply

The studies above describe a variety of ways you can use breath to improve your health.

  • Breathing slowly
  • Prolonged exhalation
  • Diaphragmatic breathing
  • Breathing through the nose

Of course, you can mix and match more than one of these strategies at the same time.

As demonstrated in the studies we discussed, you don’t need to do this for a long time.

After only five minutes, you could start to see changes in how you feel.

To get started, set aside time each day to sit and focus on your breath.

Schedule this at a time that you can do it consistently.

First thing in the morning, before anything else can come up, is a popular time.

Consider journaling about how you feel before and after breathing deeply.

Pay attention to your mood, do a body scan, and tune in to your present experience.

If you like objective data, you might record your pulse or blood pressure.

This could be a great time also to practice mindfulness.

Understand, too, that you don’t have to set aside a dedicated time to breathe slowly.

While that might help you get started, you can practice anytime.

Don’t overcomplicate things or stress out about this.

It only takes a single breath to get started.

Start where you are and do what you can.

Find what works best for you.

You’ve got this.


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