Breathing is an activity of all living things. Some of us breathe through the nose, others through the mouth, and others even alternate the mouth and nose. Every living thing breathes differently. If we stopped to observe the way we breathe, we would realize that we do not have two identical breaths. In light of this, today we will analyze the effects of breathing on our brain.
Breathing is so important that it acts as a monitor of our body, alerting us to our physical and emotional state at a given moment. If we have rapid breathing, we are most likely in a situation that is a source of stress, fear, anger, joy, etc. Conversely, when our breathing is slow and deep, we are probably relaxed, calm and peaceful.
The movement of the diaphragm is one of the variables that allow us to identify the state (physical or emotional) in which we find ourselves. Taking this into account, let’s find out what the effects of breathing are on our brain.
Differences between conscious and unconscious breathing
Breathing is intrinsically linked to the vegetative nervous system, or autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for regulating the body’s autonomous functions (Canet, 2006).
Conscious breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is an action that not only accelerates and improves the respiratory process, but also has effects on our brain by creating moments of emotional calm and tranquility (Benson, 1975).
The first difference we find when performing conscious breathing (or controlled breathing) is the replacement of thoracic breathing with diaphragmatic breathing and its physiological repercussions (Lodes, 1990).
Diaphragmatic breathing increases the volume and pressure of oxygen entering the body, satisfying the entire lung capacity. Using all the pulmonary alveoli, more carbon dioxide is expelled and the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the states of relaxation and calm in our body is activated (Everly, 1989).
What are the effects of breathing on our brain?
The effects of breathing on our brains are different. Mindful breathing is able to satisfy the entire lung capacity allowing greater cellular and tissue oxygenation of the body. Furthermore, following a higher control on the pressure of the tissues, there is a greater synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which makes the life of the cells possible (Baigorri, Lorente, 2005).
This occurs due to the increase in cardiovascular pressure due to conscious breathing. This type of breathing also facilitates better cerebral circulation allowing, in turn, a better functioning of the various parts of the brain and the connections between neurons (Brassard, Ainslie and Secher, 2014).
Numerous studies have shown that when conscious breathing is used to facilitate meditation, neuroimaging tests reveal an increase in the actual size of the brain.
In particular, these effects of breathing on our brains refer to changes in the prefrontal cortex in areas associated with attention and processing of sensory information.
Mindful breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve. It also increases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (every time we inhale or exhale the air) and decreases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. This variation causes the oscillation of the levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that sends the appropriate signals for a synaptic mediation within the organism favoring a state of calm (Manoj et al., 2013).
Breathing helps us achieve homeostasis within our body. In this way, we can improve the functioning of the neuroendocrine, digestive, circulatory, neurochemical and various nervous systems. Among these we highlight the central, autonomic and peripheral nervous systems.