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Lillian Wilson

Using Breathing Exercises to Manage Chronic Health Issues

Seven breathing exercises to alleviate asthma, heart health, scoliosis, sleep issues, chronic stress, bone density, and period cramps.

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The process of breathing is usually taken as something innate and fundamental so people rarely give it enough credit. While many people associate breathing exercises with meditation and stress reduction, the benefits of breathwork extend far beyond these applications. However, breathing exercises are much more capable than we think. Not only can it help to normalise sleep patterns and ease stress but also is scientifically proven and utilised in medical practice as a way of reducing symptoms of various chronic conditions.

Seven breathworks to alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions and improve life quality

Breathwork has really been proven to alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions, but it is important to note that everyone’s health is unique. Before beginning any breathing exercises, it is recommended that individuals consult with their healthcare provider to ensure that the exercises are safe and appropriate for their specific condition.

1Breathing exercise to ease asthma symptoms

About 300 million people in the world suffer from asthma, and a 50% increase in prevalence occurs every decade. The causes of asthma are still being debated, with the hygiene hypothesis and pollution being commonly cited factors. However, recent research has suggested that habitual over-breathing (hyperventilation) may also be a contributing factor, leading to symptoms like coughing and narrowed airways.

Normal breathing volume for a healthy adult is around 4 to 6 litres of air per minute, but adults with asthma have a resting breathing volume of 10 to 15 litres per minute, which worsens the condition over time. Reduced breathing exercises have been shown to significantly reduce asthma symptoms and the need for medication, indicating the importance of addressing poor breathing habits.

Patrick McKeown, a founder of breathing training the Oxygen Advantage, reported that asthma patients experience a reduction of 50% of their symptoms after practising breathwork only for two weeks. Patrick McKeown himself acknowledged that after decades of suffering from asthma, he managed to fully recover only by restoring nasal breathing and doing breath works. On contrary, his symptoms did not disappear after the operation.

Procedure

1. Using your nose, take a small, silent breath in and out.

2. Take 10 to 15 steps while holding your breath.

3. Stop walking and release your nose and start breathing gently again.

4. After 30-60 seconds, repeat the process.

5. You may hold your breath for longer than 10 or 15 seconds with mild asthma symptoms.

6. Take at least 10 minutes to complete this exercise.

2Breathing exercise to enhance heart health

The importance of heart health is invaluable. However, despite this heart conditions like hypertension, coronary artery disease and heart attacks are the leading causes of death. In the UK, every 3 minutes someone is hospitalised because of a heart attack.

Breathing exercises can improve heart health in several ways. Deep nasal breathing promotes nitric oxide emission, which helps reduce cholesterol, prevent blood clotting, and reverse plaque buildup. Breathing exercises can also eliminate sleep apnea symptoms, which can lead to hypertension and a higher risk of heart disease. Lowering blood pressure is another way breathing exercises can improve heart health, as controlling blood pressure is important in reducing the risk of heart disease. Finally, breathing techniques can enhance heart rate variability (HRV), which is associated with better heart health, by slowing the breath, activating the diaphragm, and stimulating the vagus nerve.

Procedure

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.

3Breathing exercise alleviate scoliosis

Bad posture is a very common problem in modern society. A sedentary lifestyle and huge screen time lead to impairments in our postural health. Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine. Around 4 out of 100 people have this condition. Depending on the severity, it can lead to discomfort, pain, and other problems. Late-stage scoliosis can affect a person’s breathing and heart function.

Interestingly, the health of our bones can be improved via breathing. Deep breathing can activate the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which lengthens the spine, improve posture, and reduce tension. As a result, the position of the rib cage affects the spine, head, and shoulder positions.

Katharina Schroth developed a breathing technique called ‘orthopaedic breathing’ to treat her own scoliosis. The method involves using specific breathing exercises to elongate and correct the spine, improve posture, and correct muscle imbalances.

Analysis showed that the Schroth method can increase biomechanical stability, reduce the risk of vertebral fractures, and be an effective non-surgical treatment for scoliosis patients.

Procedure

1. Take three cushions. Place one small long cushion under your head and another one under your ribs as you are laying on your right side. The third cushion is options, you may put it between your legs.

2. Focus on your breath and inhale slowly through your nose, feeling your rib cage expand.

3. As you inhale, try to expand the concave side of your back by lifting and pushing out your rib cage.

4. Hold your breath for a few seconds while keeping your back in this expanded position.

5. Exhale slowly through your mouth while simultaneously pulling in your stomach muscles and flattening your back.

6. Repeat this process for a few minutes, trying to expand your rib cage and improve your posture with each breath.

Note from Healthypedia

It is better to consult professionals in order to practise and treat scoliosis with Schroth’s method. There are med classes where coaches will teach and monitor you as you practise this physical therapy.

4Breathing exercise to ward off sleep issues

Disordered sleep is a very common health issue in modern society. Thus, 1 in 3 adults have insomnia symptoms, and about 10% of people meet the criteria for symptoms of insomnia. Long-term sleep disorders can lead to an elevated risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke. Breathing exercises can help calm the mind and body, leading to improved sleep quality.

The study found that mindful breathing combined with sleep-inducing exercises significantly improved the long-term effectiveness of insomnia treatment. The treatment group exhibited significant improvements in sleep quality, daytime functioning, negative emotions, anxiety level, and insomnia severity at 1 and 3 months post-intervention compared to the control group.

Procedure

1. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.

2. Create a light air hunger by slowing down your breathing.

3. Take 15 minutes to practice this before going to bed.

5Breathing exercise to ease chronic stress

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The detrimental effect of stress on our health should never be overlooked. Stress is a risk factor for 75-90% of human diseases. Chronic stress increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, hypertension, insomnia, obesity and memory and attention span impairment.

The phrase ‘Take a deep breath’ or ‘Just breathe’ is actually practical when dealing with permanent fight-or-flight mode.  Breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to reduced stress and anxiety.

The evidence suggests that diaphragmatic breathing can be a low-cost and non-pharmacological way to decrease stress. Three studies were reviewed and all showed that diaphragmatic breathing was effective in reducing stress levels, with improvements seen in physiological biomarkers such as respiratory rate and cortisol levels.

Procedure

1. Inhale through your nose.

2. Then take a short, deep sip of air.

3. Then slowly breathe out through the mouth.

The cyclic sigh is a breathing exercise that equals to the way we breathe during deep sleep and is also used subconsciously by people when sobbing. Studies have shown that just one or two of these signs can effectively reduce stress levels.

6Breathing exercise to improve bone density

Maintaining bone density is crucial as we grow older since bones with lower density are prone to fractures, even from minor accidents such as tripping and falling off a curb. The risk of dying after experiencing a fracture depends vastly on the type of fracture and the age of the patient. For instance, the mortality risk from a clinical fracture is 2.15 times higher compared to the risk of dying in a population without a fracture.

Two ancient Eastern practices, namely qigong and yoga, incorporate a technique called ‘bone breathing’ or ‘bone marrow breathing,’ which involves deep nasal breathing while focusing on different parts of the skeleton.

Research on women practising qigong revealed improved bone density despite the low-intensity nature of the exercise, which does not provide any load on bones. Similarly, yoga, which provides some bone loading, also yields positive outcomes.

Procedure

1. Sit up straight.

2. Place your hands on both sides of your lower ribs.

3. Inhale quietly, allowing the air to penetrate your lungs deeply. When you inhale, your ribs will expand and move outward, and when you exhale, they will move inward.

4. Take fuller breaths but less frequently. You will feel your ribs expand and move outward when you inhale, and inward when you exhale.

5. You don’t need to hear yourself breathe during this exercise.

6. Practice the exercise for approximately four minutes.

7Breathing exercise to relieve period cramps

Approximately 80% of women suffer from period pain. These cramps cause discomfort and pain in the abdominal muscles that can radiate to the back and thighs, with spasmodic or constant dull sensations.

The slow deep breathing technique is a non-pharmacological method that can help alleviate menstrual pain by promoting the release of endorphins and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation in the body and reducing the severity of pain.

Procedure

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.

Let’s summarise

The power of breath is undeniable. Breathing exercises can significantly improve chronic health conditions and overall quality of life. By taking a few minutes each day to focus on our breath, we can reduce symptoms of asthma, improve heart health, alleviate scoliosis and period cramps, improve sleep quality, reduce stress and anxiety, and even increase bone density. The benefits of breathwork extend far beyond stress reduction and relaxation, and we should give it the credit it deserves. So, take a deep breath, focus on your breath, and make breathwork a part of your daily routine. Your body and mind will thank you for 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.

Oxygen Advantage Book Cover Patrick McKeown


Healthypedia FAQ

Breathing exercises can help clear stale air from the lungs, boost oxygen levels, and restore the diaphragm's ability to support healthy breathing. By practising these exercises regularly, people with chronic respiratory, heart conditions and even scoliosis can improve their lung function, promote nitric oxide emission to help reduce cholesterol, prevent blood clotting and reverse plaque buildup. Breathing exercises can also eliminate sleep apnea symptoms, improve posture, reduce tension, and promote the release of endorphins to reduce the severity of pain.

Breathing exercises can promote nitric oxide emission, which helps reduce cholesterol, prevent blood clotting, and reverse plaque buildup. Breathing exercises can also enhance heart rate variability (HRV), which is associated with better heart health, by slowing the breath, activating the diaphragm, and stimulating the vagus nerve. Deep nasal breathing and gently breathing in and out with the lower ribs moving can be beneficial.

Slow deep breathing can help alleviate menstrual pain by promoting the release of endorphins and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing relaxation in the body and reducing the severity of pain. The alternate nostril breathing technique is recommended.

Breathing exercises can improve bone density by activating the diaphragm and intercostal muscles, which lengthen the spine, improve posture, and reduce tension. Qigong and yoga incorporate a technique referred to as ‘bone breathing’ or ‘bone marrow breathing,’ which involves deep nasal breathing while concentrating on different parts of the skeleton, leading to improved bone density.

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