Lillian Wilson

Proper Nasal Breathing = Better Brain Function

Breathing and brain function: seven ways how proper breathing can improve your mental health and cognition.

breathing nose brain function

Tap into the memory of when you were to give a presentation at work or pass a final exam you studied for the whole previous night. At such events, we tend to be overwhelmed with emotions of fear, stress and anxiety. We start breathing heavily, our hearts are beating rapidly somewhere in the stomach or throat. It seems like stress and fear dims our minds and we forget everything that learned or wanted to say.

In such situations, we pay attention to how other people will percept us as we worry and mumble but we rarely pay attention to the way we breathe. Interestingly, breathing and the brain function interchangeably and can control and regulate each other.

Thus, if you have experienced such situations in your life, you should pay attention to your breathing as it can help you to get rid of sweaty palms before a public speech or help ace an exam. Changing your breathing could actually actively influence brain activity associated with perception, cognition behaviour and emotion.

Brain and breathing connection

Each day, we take approximately 17,000 to 20,000 breaths, taking in oxygen to bring it to our cells and tissues, while exhaling carbon dioxide. We usually do not even notice the very process thanks to our autonomic nervous system. However, breathing is an incredibly reliable and flexible bodily function.

Without oxygen, an average person's brain can last for 4 min Source: MedlinePlus

We bet that everyone has heard the fact that without oxygen brain cells start to die. The brain of an average person can last for 4 minutes without oxygen and then death occurs. This is because the brain is an organ with one of the highest oxygen and glucose requirements. Therefore, any sort of disordered breathing can cause problems with brain cognition making it harder to focus and think or freezing us up before a presentation. This is why in stressful situations people are often told to slow down and take a deep breath.

So even though, breathing happens automatically without us, even having to think about it we can override that to control our breathing voluntarily. This means that we can control the quality of our breathing.

Changing the air pressure inside the lungs is one of the main ways we can alter breathing and increase oxygen levels. For example, slowing down the breath and taking deep breaths into your diaphragm increases oxygen pressure in the air sacs. This makes it easier for oxygen molecules to move into the blood and activates the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system creates a sense of mental calmness and counteracts the effects of stress.

Seven life improvements proper nose breathing can provide

Thus, by regulating our breathing and using our noses to perform this vital process we can optimise our brain function, and become less stressed and more focused. In contrast, studies show that mouth breathing can increase the risk of brain functional problems as a result of lower oxygen saturation.

Here are the benefits proper nasal breathing can bring to your brain function.

1Reduces stress and anxiety

As obvious as it seems, being less stressed makes it easier to think, and focusing on breathing exercises makes the brain less anxious. This happens because deep breathing affects the brain by promoting the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) over the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) through the vagus nerve. The vagal tone, measured by heart rate variability (HRV), is associated with higher stress tolerance and healthy ageing.

sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems

Through deep breathing, you calm the brain and reduce the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Studies have shown that deep breathing increases alpha power (power that stimulates creativity) leading to less stress, anxiety, depression, rage, and uncertainty.

2Diaphragmatic breathing improves attention span

Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths has been found to enhance the functioning of brain regions that are involved in self-monitoring and cognitive control. This means that practising this type of breathing can help you regulate your behaviour in situations where you need to be self-disciplined, for example, study persistently for 2 hours without being distracted by social media.

Further, using this technique helps you focus more on your goals while deactivating brain areas that wander aimlessly, sharpening your mental focus and increasing your productivity.

The correlation between breath and the brain has been explored through research on yogic breathing exercises. In a study on Nadi Shodhana, which is alternate nostril breathing, the electrical activity of the brain measurements was used to assess brain wave activity. The practice resulted in increased beta and alpha waves, which are associated with an engaged mind and relaxation, respectively. This suggests that breathing exercise helps increase mental activity while maintaining a calm and clear mind. Another study found that a combination of breathing and meditation improved memory and academic performance.

Breathing exercise to boost focus and improve alertness

The use of breathing exercises will enable you to achieve a state of flow in which your mind is relaxed but alert at the same time. Using it can help you enter a flow state, maintain focus, and stay present in front of an audience. Exercise like this can be applied before exams, public speeches and sports events. A good night’s sleep is also essential for exercise to work more efficiently. Sleep plays an important role in your ability to focus your mind under pressure.

Do the following steps 30 minutes before the event:

1. Relax your mind

  • Put your hands on either side of your lower rib cage as you sit down.

  • Consider closing your eyes and focusing your attention inward.

  • Practice the exercise Breathe Light, Slow, and Deep.

Breathe Light, Slow, and Deep

  • You can sit cross-legged on the floor or straight in a chair. Hands should be placed on both sides of your abdomen, on your lower two ribs.

  • Breathe in and out through your nose at a slower speed. You should breathe lightly, quietly, and still.

  • Feel your body relax at the top of each inhale, and let your breath out slowly, softly, and relaxed. You should exhale slowly and effortlessly.

  • Soften your breath so that you feel like you would like to take a deeper breath.

  • During each inhalation, take deep breaths. When you breathe in, you will feel your ribs expanding outward. Feel your ribs move inward as you breathe out.

  • You should gradually slow your breathing rhythm: breath in for four seconds and out for six seconds.

  • Breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, and breathe out, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

  • Breathe light, slow, and deep.

  • Approximately four minutes should be spent on this exercise.

In the video below, Patrick McKeown explains how to perform the ‘Breathe Light, Slow, and Deep’ breathing exercise. Patrick McKeown is a well-known expert on the Buteyko Breathing Method, which is a breathing technique designed to improve breathing patterns and help with various health conditions, such as asthma, anxiety, and sleep apnea. He has written several books on the subject and is the founder of the Oxygen Advantage program, which teaches breathing techniques to improve athletic performance and overall health.

2. Increase alertness

  • Breathe out through your nose.

  • To generate a moderate to strong air hunger, pinch your nose and walk for 20 to 100 steps holding your breath.

  • Stop walking.

  • Inhale through your nose and rest for 30 seconds while standing still.

  • Repeat five times.

3Lowers the risk of ADHD

According to a Japanese study conducted in 2013, breathing through the mouth can disturb the supply of oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with ADHD. On the other hand, nasal breathing has no such negative effects.

In children, if they breathe through their mouth while sleeping due to a stuffy nose, they may feel tired and have difficulty focusing in school, leading to a possible diagnosis of ADD or ADHD. Additionally, children with ADHD are more likely to have nasal congestion and sleep disorders, such as snoring or sleep apnea, which may contribute to a learning disability. If a child snores at the age of eight and doesn’t receive treatment, they have an 80% chance of experiencing a permanent 20% reduction in mental capacity.

4Deep breathing boosts overall brain health and removes toxins

The brain requires a significant amount of oxygen, accounting for approximately 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. The glymphatic system, responsible for removing toxins from the brain, functions during sleep. However, chest breathing is not efficient in supplying oxygen to the brain.

Many people are also sleep-deprived, leading to toxin buildup in the brain. Deep breathing improves oxygen absorption, optimizing brain function. Moreover, deep breathing combined with relaxation techniques may help improve sleep quality, allowing the brain to remove toxins and function optimally.

5Helps the brain regulate emotions, mood, motivation and stress responses

A lot of content creators on YouTube or Instagram who promote mindfulness, productivity and emotional intelligence advertise yoga breathing apps. And this is done not arbitrarily.

The act of breathing actively promotes synchronization, leading to better gas exchange and brain function related to goal-directed behaviour. Nasal breathing specifically affects the limbic brain, which regulates cognitive functions like emotion, motivation, learning, and memory. Studies show that breathing impacts a person’s ability to recognize emotions in others and remember visual objects. Breathing through the nose, even passively, can improve reaction time to frightening stimuli.

Counting breath exercise to boost your mood

Perform this exercise when you feel down. Breathing exercises that include inhaling and exhaling while counting calm down the heart rate and lower blood pressure. This makes us uplifted and makes us feel generally better. You should sit up straight and count your breaths as you inhale and exhale. Counting aloud while breathing is hard, so use your fingers.

  • Breathe in for 5, breathe out for 5

  • Breathe in for 4, breathe out for 8

  • Breathe in for 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4

  • Repeat as long as you feel comfortable.

6Stimulates memory

Neural activity in the brain is directly affected by nasal breathing. According to research, stimulation of the vagus nerve can improve memory and decision-making abilities.

A Belgian study found that vagus nerve stimulation in rats enhanced their decision-making skills in a gambling task. Another Belgian lab found that vagal breathing (deep, slow belly breathing) could be an intervention against stress and its negative effects on decision-making in humans.

Studies have also shown a connection between the vagus nerve and enhanced working memory. Inhalant anaesthetics increase vagal tone, which improves cognitive function as patients regain consciousness.

In addition, diaphragmatic breathing can lower cortisol levels and improve cognitive function by reducing physiological responses to stress.

7Offsets age-related cognitive decline

Maintaining good brain function and health is important not only for self-improvement and a successful career path. It is also vital for healthy ageing and warding off diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Interestingly, improving breathing patterns can also help with healthy brain ageing.

According to scientists, regular yoga practices may improve cognitive functions by shifting the autonomic balance towards the peripheral nervous system. The results of examining the electrical activity of the brain have shown that long-term meditation practice may improve grey matter loss, attention, and working memory. These techniques may also offset age-related cognitive decline linked to the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

Let’s summarise

Breathing is an essential bodily function that we often take for granted. Our brains require a significant amount of oxygen, and any breathing disorder can cause cognitive problems, making it hard to focus and think. It’s crucial to control the quality of our breathing, and we can achieve this by practising various nasal breathing exercises. Proper nasal breathing optimizes brain function, reduces stress and anxiety, improves attention span, and boosts overall brain health. So take control of your breathing, and breathe deeply to optimize your brain function and become more focused, creative and goal-oriented.

Not enough? Here is more

Dr. Yewande Pearce, a neuroscience researcher, discusses the relationship between breathing, the brain, and the body in this informative video from The Wake Up.

Healthypedia FAQ

Deep breathing can activate the rest and digest branch of the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting mental calmness and counteracting the effects of stress. It also increases the alpha power in the brain, leading to less stress, anxiety, depression, rage, and uncertainty. Additionally, it enhances the functioning of brain regions involved in self-monitoring and cognitive control, improving attention span and regulating behaviour.

Nasal breathing promotes synchronization, leading to better gas exchange and brain function related to goal-directed behaviour. It also affects the limbic brain, regulating cognitive functions like emotion, motivation, learning, and memory. Moreover, nasal breathing lowers the risk of ADHD by preventing oxygen deprivation to the prefrontal cortex, while mouth breathing can increase the risk of brain functional problems.

Breathing exercises such as deep diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and meditation can increase mental activity while maintaining a calm and clear mind, leading to enhanced attention, working memory, and decision-making abilities. They also reduce stress and anxiety, improve mood, motivation, and stress responses, and stimulate memory. Furthermore, they can offset age-related cognitive decline linked to the development of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and dementia.

Research has shown that the correlation between breath and the brain is explored through the electrical activity of the brain measured by EEG. Breathing exercises such as alternate nostril breathing resulted in increased beta and alpha waves, associated with an engaged mind and relaxation, respectively.

Yes, deep breathing can improve oxygen absorption, optimizing brain function. Moreover, deep breathing combined with relaxation techniques such as meditation may help improve sleep quality, allowing the brain to remove toxins and function optimally. Preparing for sleep with breathing exercises such as breathing light and nasal breathing only during sleep can enhance the quality of sleep and ultimately improve brain function.

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