The Balance of Breathing

“Just take a deep breath” they say. Breathing oxygen is the essence of life, this goes without saying. Over the course of human history many have attempted to harness this essential activity to augment their physiological being. Many of us are familiar that deep breathing is a core component of such activities as yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, martial arts, and meditation. It is thought to contribute to emotional balance and social adaptation. But why and how? Here we try to help explain physiologically how breath can help restore balance. Balance that initially is physical, but has emotional effects.

Breathing practice is also known as “diaphragmatic breathing” or “deep breathing”. It is defined as an integrative body-mind exercise for dealing with stress and psychosomatic conditions (i.e depression and anxiety). This type of breathing is characterized by contraction of the diaphragm and expansion of the abdomen (your belly) to its maximum ability. This in turn deepens inhalation and exhalation to its full capacity. One takes a long deep inhalation for a few seconds, holds for a few seconds, and then exhales slowly through the mouth for a few seconds. This is done for 10-15 minutes a few times a day. By consequence our respiratory frequency decreases. This allows for maximum gas exchange, regulation of the autonomic nervous system, changes in the neuroendocrine system, regulation of the cardiopulmonary system, and changes in brain activity.

Clearly, breathing provides us with oxygen needed for survival. However, there is another important physiological consequence of breathing called ventilation. Ventilation is the regulation of carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is the end product of our tissues using water and oxygen. Changes in the rate we breath and the depth with which we breath, alters the clearance of this gas. In turn, this impacts the pH of our blood through a chemical called bicarbonate. Breathing fast (commonly known as hyperventilating) and your blood becomes too basic. One can feel jittery and light headed for example. Breath too slowly, and your blood can become more acidic which is tolerated by the body much better and with less consequence. Therefore, the rate and depth at which we breath is in homeostasis with our blood pH through chemical receptors in the brain.

Moreover, this has effects on the autonomic nervous system. This