Heart disease remains the number one killer of people, with stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits serving as major contributing factors. With our modern way of life, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of unhealthy behaviours that can lead to heart problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and coronary artery disease. Annually, hypertension and coronary artery disease claim 8.9 and 10 million people.
Fortunately, there are ways to improve heart health that are both simple and free. Breathing exercises are one approach that can have a significant positive impact on heart health by reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation.
In this article, we’ll explore how breathing exercises can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Breathing and heart function connection
The process of breathing and the heart are closely related because the heart and lungs work together to ensure that the body receives the oxygen-rich blood it requires to function properly.
The right side of our heart takes low-oxygen blood from the body and pumps it into the lungs where it is re-oxygenated. The left side of the heart then pumps this oxygen-rich blood throughout the rest of the body.
The connection between the heart and lungs is so strong that any issue in either of these organs can result in both breathing and heart problems. Therefore, it is essential to monitor both breathing and heart functions to detect any potential issues early on. If something seems off, it is crucial to seek medical attention to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment.
Breathe your way to a healthier heart: seven benefits of practising breathing exercises
There are various ways to prevent and treat risk factors of heart conditions including medication, adopting a healthy diet, being physically active and having regular sleeping patterns. Breathing is rarely taken into consideration when it comes to heart health. However, practising breathwork definitely should not be overlooked as it provides effective and innate heart health improvements.
1Promotes nitric oxide emission
Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas that is produced by the sinuses of the nose during the breathing process. This gas plays a crucial role in protecting our body from bacteria and viruses that come from the air; it acts like a natural sanitiser.
A lot of people who suffer from heart conditions take nitroglycerin – a medicine that widens blood vessels so that the blood circulates more easily throughout the body. It causes this effect because the body converts nitroglycerin into NO, which is known to promote the dilation of blood vessels.
Nitric oxide also plays a crucial role in reducing cholesterol, reversing plaque buildup, and preventing blood clotting, all of which significantly increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Deep nasal breathing stimulates NO emission, thus practising breathing exercises are beneficial for heart health as it leads to better blood circulation and prevents various risk factors of heart diseases.
2Eliminates symptoms of sleep apnoea that may lead to heart failure
Casual snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnoea which is extremely detrimental to heart health.
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) can cause hypertension which is one of the prior risk factors for heart attacks and coronary artery disease. Around 50% of people who have OSA suffer from high blood pressure, and between 30% and 40% of hypertensive patients have OSA.
Sleep apnoea can cause a fatal loss of heart function that was recorded in 46% of OSA patients, compared with 21% of people without OSA.
Breathing exercises are proven to ameliorate sleep apnoea symptoms, thus improving heart health, by opening and strengthening airway muscles.
The review of 14 studies found that various breathing techniques, such as the Buteyko method and diaphragmatic breathing, can improve sleep apnoea. Participation in activities that require breath control, like singing or playing wind instruments, can also reduce the incidence of sleep apnoea.
3Lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart disease
Controlling blood pressure is an important step in reducing the risk of heart disease.
Hypertension is a risk factor for heart conditions because it places an extra strain on the heart and blood vessels. Over time, this extra pressure can damage blood vessels and cause them to become narrow and stiff, making it harder for blood to flow through them. This can lead to the development of plaque buildup in the arteries, which can ultimately result in a heart attack or stroke.
Breathing exercises have a full capacity of lowering blood pressure. One study examined the effect of breath work on hypertensive patients and showed that subjects experienced a drop of 7 mmHg and 13.5 mmHg in diastolic and systolic blood pressure, respectively.
10 mmHg reduction in blood pressure is linked to a 35% lower risk of stroke and a 25% lower risk of heart disease.
4Enhances Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variation in time between heartbeats. People who have lower HRV are at a higher risk of cardiovascular events and mortality. Whereas, higher HRV is associated with better heart health and leads to less stress and higher levels of life satisfaction.
Optimal heart rate variability (HRV) can be achieved through breathing techniques. Breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute has been shown to improve HRV and have positive long-term effects. Another way to improve HRV is to switch to full-time nasal breathing, which slows the breath, activates the diaphragm, and stimulates the vagus nerve.
5Alleviates hyperventilation that contributes to heart events
According to research, up to 10% of heart attack patients may have symptoms related to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation can reduce blood flow to the heart muscle and may partially or entirely lead to a heart attack in some people.
Breathing exercises can help to alleviate and lower the risks of heart disease caused by hyperventilation. A study examined the effect of breath work on the symptoms of dysfunctional breathing including hypertension. According to the results, the breathing exercise group experienced fewer and milder hyperventilation attacks than the control group.
In a recent study conducted in 21 countries, 118,706 participants without any prior heart disease were examined. The results showed that individuals who experienced high levels of stress had a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, and death. What’s more, emotions of anger and aggressiveness can exacerbate the risks of coronary artery disease.
Breathing techniques like pranayama, deep breathing, and meditation can be useful in minimizing stress and anxiety, resulting in reduced levels of cortisol and other stress hormones in the body. This can lead to a decrease in inflammation and blood pressure, which are essential factors in maintaining heart health.
A study was conducted to see if a relaxation technique called deep breathing can help reduce stress levels and improve mood in university students. The participants were randomly divided into two groups, with one group practising deep breathing for 10 sessions and the other group not practising any treatment. The results showed that deep breathing can help improve mood and reduce stress levels.
7Breathing exercises are used as a rehabilitation method after a heart attack
Breathing exercises can be used not only as a preventative method for heart conditions but they are also utilised as a rehabilitation method in medicine.
A 2004 study published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation focused on examining the effects of breathing exercises on heart attack patients. The study revealed that patients who suffered a heart attack tend to breathe far in excess of what is required, with a breathing volume of 18.5 to 9.8 litres per minute, significantly higher than the normal range of 4 to 6 litres per minute. However, after following a program of breathing exercises, the patient’s breathing volume per minute decreased by approximately 50%, resulting in a much closer-to-normal breathing volume.
Additionally, patients who practised these breathing exercises showed an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in their arterial blood, reaching the highest point of the normal range. This is an essential indicator of the efficiency of the lungs and their ability to supply the body with oxygen.
Three breathing exercises for your ultimate heart health
Now, as you are acquainted with all the benefits breathwork can provide for your heart, it is time to put it into practice. Here are the three breathing exercises that are recommended by Patrick McKeown who is a founder of the world-leading breathwork training program – the Oxygen Advantage.
Breathwork to improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
This exercise aims to make you breathe at a rate of six breaths per minute, which is extremely beneficial for improving heart rate variability and gives long-lasting results.
1. Gently breathe in counting from one to five.
2. Slowly breathe out counting from one to five.
3. As you breathe in the lower ribs are gently moving out and as we breathe out the lower ribs are gently moving in.
4. Practise for about two minutes.
Kapalabhati means ‘skull illumination’ in Sanskrit. It is a type of pranayama that can increase lung capacity, improve digestion, boost energy and vitality, enhance mental clarity, and reduce stress and anxiety. It can be beneficial for overall physical and mental health.
Practice on an empty stomach after a meal.
Sit comfortably with your spine erect, eyes closed, and breathe through your nose.
Take a couple of full yogic breaths.
1. Exhale forcefully through the nostrils while pulling the navel inward toward the spine.
2. Release the abdomen to allow passive inhalation.
3. Repeat this process rapidly, one exhalation per second or faster.
4. Start with 20 repetitions and gradually increase to 50-100 repetitions at a time.
5. You can also do 2-3 rounds of 50-100 breaths each.
6. On the final exhalation, completely empty the lungs and allow the breath to return to normal.
Closing the practice
Observe thoughts, sensations, and state of mind.
Open your eyes and stand mindfully.
Alternate nostrils breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is one of the yogic breathworks that helps to cleanse the airways and strengthen your nose’s breathing capacity. It also boosts breathing awareness and control and is scientifically proven to lower stress levels.
1. Ensure that you are in a comfortable position. Breathe in through your left nostril while blocking your right nostril with your thumb.
2. With your ring finger, cover your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril.
3. Breathe in through your right nostril, pinch and breathe out through your right nostril.
One cycle of this exercise equals two in-breath and two out-breath. It’s a good idea to practice it four times whenever you need to slow down or relax.
Taking care of our heart health is crucial as heart disease is a leading global killer. Thankfully, breathing exercises are simple and free ways to improve heart health. Incorporating these breathing exercises into our daily routine will boost our heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease. Remember, your heart deserves the best care you can give it!
Not enough? Here is more
If you’re interested in exploring the power of breath and how it can improve your physical and mental well-being, we highly recommend The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown. In this book, McKeown explains how breathing exercises can increase respiratory muscle strength, boost immunity, and enhance athletic performance, among other benefits. He also provides practical tips and exercises that can help you improve your breathing habits and achieve optimal health. Whether you’re an athlete looking to improve your performance or someone looking to improve your overall quality of life, The Oxygen Advantage is a must-read.
In this video, Patrick McKeown explains how to perform breathwork that aims to improve Heart Rate Variability. 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.
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