When it comes to improving our health, many of us focus on areas we can easily quantify and track, such as how many carbs or calories we consume or how many times we exercise each week. Although it may be harder to measure, reducing and managing stress is a key component of staying healthy. Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, according to Mayo Clinic.
Managing that stress is easier said than done, but there is evidence to suggest that deep breathing can be an effective intervention to help improve many chronic health conditions, says Yufang Lin, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio.
It’s important to note that breathing exercises are a complementary therapy, says Dr. Lin. “Deep breathing should not replace any of the other medicines or interventions that your doctor recommends,” she says. Put differently, deep breathing is not an alternative therapy.
There’s a lot to recommend deep breathing as a complementary therapy, says Baxter Bell, MD, a former family doctor who now teaches yoga and practices medical acupuncture. “There really aren’t any side effects, and breath exercises can be accessed any time of the day. It’s very empowering to be able to use breathing to help reduce stress and improve focus,” he says.
How Stress Can Impact Disease
Stress affects most health conditions, says Philip Barr, MD, a board-certified integrative health doctor and physician at Conscious Health Consultants, who is based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. “Basically, our nervous system flows to every tissue in the body. If the stress side of our nervous system is overactive, it literally affects every tissue in our body; any kind of disorder that is already going on in that organ system can be made worse by stress,” he says.
Deep Breathing Can Signal Your Body to Relax
“When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, which is associated with stress-related symptoms such as faster breathing, heart-rate elevation, irritability, elevated blood pressure, anxiety, and body tension,” says Lin. That’s part of what is known as the fight-or-flight response, she says. Slowing down and engaging in deep breathing basically counters the sympathetic nervous system, she says.
“When you engage in deep breathing, your abdomen is soft as you engage your diaphragm and take a deep breath in with the intention of really filling up the whole lung with air,” Lin adds. “You’re slowing down the heart rate, reducing your blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles.”
When you take that deep breath in, it’s triggering the vagus nervous system in the body, says Lin. The vagus nerve runs from the brainstem to the abdomen and is a main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities, notes StatPearls.right up arrow “Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better, and your ability to think rationally returns,” she says.
As with exercise or meditation, deep breathing will be most beneficial if you treat it as a daily practice, says Lin. “It can help in the moment — I’ve had patients who were anxious lower [their] blood pressure and heart rate significantly with just a minute of deep breathing. However, you will have the most benefit if you practice regularly,” she says. This will help your body recognize what you are doing and be more responsive,” she adds.
1. Lower Blood Pressure
People experiencing anxiety can lower their blood pressure by 30 points or more by doing some deep breathing, says Lin. “But if you talk with them about something anxiety-provoking, their blood pressure is going right back up again,” she says.
To get lasting health benefits, including those for blood pressure, consistency and regular practice are key, says Lin.
A review published in 2019 analyzed 17 studies and found that slow breathing exercises led to small reductions in blood pressure. The authors concluded that breathing exercises may be a reasonable first treatment for people with prehypertension or low-risk high blood pressure, especially those who were reluctant to take medication.
2. Improve Quality of Life in People With Asthma and COPD
In people with mild to moderate asthma, breathing exercises can help with hyperventilation symptoms, lung function, and quality of life, according to a review published in 2020.right up arrow There currently isn’t much evidence that breathing exercises improve asthma symptoms.
Diaphragmatic breathing — slower, deeper breathing that engages the diaphragm — is often taught in COPD pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help make lungs more efficient and improve oxygen levels, notes the American Lung Association.right up arrow Breathing and quality of life can be improved in people with COPD who practice diaphragmic breathing, especially when used in conjunction with other interventions, such as pursed lip breathing and exercise, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2019.
Although the practice of breathing more deeply and intentionally seems simple enough, the American Lung Association cautions that the exercises may take time to perfect. Start slowly, and don’t first try deep breathing when you are feeling breathless, the group suggests.
3. Help Manage Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety
Chronic stress is a common problem that has become even more prevalent since the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dr. Bell. That stress can lead to a disruption of normal breathing rhythm, and in turn, contribute to anxiety and other mental health conditions, he says.
By doing mindful breathing exercises, they can start to rebalance their breath system, which can lead to improvements in the way a person feels and thinks, he says. “The more stressed we become, the harder it can be for us to think clearly,” he says.
In one small study published in 2017, participants attended 20 sessions teaching belly breath (another term for diaphragmatic breathing) over eight weeks, which resulted in significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and significantly higher sustained attention rates than the control group.right up arrow Overexposure to cortisol (and other stress hormones) is linked to an increased risk of a variety of health issues, including depression and anxiety, notes Mayo Clinic.
4. Reduce Tension to Help With Headaches
Calming the sympathetic response via deep breathing can also help you relax and reduce muscle tension, says Lin. “This may help with a condition such as headache in a few ways. It will reduce the tension in your neck and shoulders, which could improve headache pain. If you’re more relaxed, you’ll be able to rest better, which will also help you feel better,” she says.
Although deep breathing probably won’t help in the middle of a headache, practicing regularly or the moment you feel a headache coming on may be useful, especially when combined with preventative and acute medication.
5. Relieve Some Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
There can be digestive benefits of deep breathing, says Megan Elizabeth Riehl, PsyD, clinical assistant professor and health psychologist at the University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor. “The physiological movements of the diaphragm can help relieve tension in the digestive tract and can help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, constipation, diarrhea, and urgency,” she says.
A small study of adults with IBS published in 2020 found that training in progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing led to improvements in IBS symptoms, depression, and quality of life.
6. Reduce the Number and Severity of Hot Flashes
High levels of cortisol, one of the fight-or-flight stress-related hormones, have been linked to hot flashes, a menopause symptom, according to a study from 2017.right up arrow There is some evidence that paced breathing — deep, slow breathing at a rate of six to eight breaths per minute — may help reduce hot flashes.
Hot flashes can also occur as a side effect of some cancer treatments. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends deep breathing exercises as a nonhormonal way to help reduce the severity or number of hot flashes.