Will Decrease Stress And
Boost Your Immune System
Given that pretty much every single blog post I’ve ever written has included some mention of stress and it’s incredibly negative effects on our physiology (chronic stress, that is) - I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to write about breathwork.
The reason I’m extra keen to delve into breathwork today is because of the very real, very scary threat from covid-19. Avid readers of this blog will note that I’ve mentioned a few times that stress downregulates the immune system.
More stress = worse viral protection.
So, let’s sort it out.
What is breathwork?
As it sounds - breathing. Now before the naysayers out there say that they already know how to breathe because they do it 24/7, going to a breathwork class or even just implementing some simple techniques at home is incredibly different from the breathing we do all day long (and night, hopefully). Why? Because it’s conscious, not unconscious, breathing. And by noticing and changing breathing patterns we can impact and change our physiology.
First things first, let’s clear up a few facts:
- We breathe in not because we’re out of oxygen, but because we’ve built up too much carbon dioxide.
- There is no ‘correct’ way to breathe but nasal breathing is preferable because our nose filters and humidifies the air and also controls how much oxygen we take in and how much carbon dioxide we breathe out.
- The muscle we use to breathe is called the diaphragm, and it has a hugely positive effect on the body in more ways than just helping us to suck in air. It also helps the lymph circulate around our lymphatic system and, if you don’t know this already because you didn’t read last week’s blog, a lymphatic system that’s in top working order will support and improve the function of your immune system too.
- Most of us don’t actually breathe with our diaphragm on a regular basis!
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Why is breathwork important for reducing stress?
Breathing helps us to impact our Autonomic Nervous System. The main reason that Wim Hof, (who I’m sure you will all have heard of by now because of the Goop Lab series) has become so famous is that he’s found a way to influence the ANS via the breath, and, here’s the cool part, the ANS isn’t something that we typically have control over - hence ‘autonomic.’
The nervous system has 2 main ‘sides,’ which are important for us to understand today. There’s the Parasympathetic and the Sympathetic Nervous system (PNS and SNS respectively). The SNS is responsible for our stress response, our fight or flight activation of cortisol and adrenaline.
The reason it’s so crucial to avoid chronic stress at a time like this is because stress will impact how well your body responds to a virus by downregulating your immune system.
Nasal Breathing (i.e. in and out through the nose only), has been shown to send signals to the brain to activate the PNS - the rest, digest and repair side of the nervous system. This is exactly where we want to be in the Covid-19 outbreak, calm and able to mount an immune response against a virus.
Moreover, lengthening the exhale in comparison to the inhale has even more positive effects of rest and relaxation and I urge all of you to find 3 points throughout the day where you can take 5 minutes to just sit and breath in for 4, hold for 4, and out for 8 - all via the nose.
What about hyperventilation / strenuous breathing?
If you’ve done any of the online breath classes that are flying about on Instagram at the moment, or any Wim Hof breathing, then you’ll notice that often the breath can go from a relaxing nasal breath to a stimulating hyperventilation breath in and out through the mouth. Contrary to this being exactly the opposite of what I’ve just said, it acts as a hormetic stressor on the body.
A hormetic stressor is something that stresses the body for a brief period of time, but ultimately makes us more resilient in the long term - and building resilience is key for long term health. Other examples of hormetic stressors are cold therapy and fasting.
It’s vital that we de-stress and ground ourselves in order to support our health. Breathwork is an easy, cheap and incredibly effective way to do this. Some of my favourite breathwork coaches are running free Instagram sessions at the moment, so go check out:
and get breathing!