Yes, you read that right! There are, in fact, certain breathing exercises that can benefit your digestive system. It’s hard to believe that something as simple as taking a few deep breaths can transform your body, state of mind, and digestion, yet science shows that it does. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain that has a calming effect. Deep breathing in it of itself can lower your heart rate and breathing rate, decrease your blood pressure, reduce muscle tension and help you feel less stressed overall1. The best part is that these breathing exercises require no special equipment or supplies…they can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
The Power of Deep Breathing
As it turns out, there actually is a “wrong” way to exhale, and experts claim that bad habits in the respiratory department are more common than you’d think. “Breathing is something we do 15,000 times a day, so that what ends up happening is that it can become habitual in a positive or negative way,” said Patricia Ladis, a physiotherapist and certified behavioral breathing expert2. Many of our breathing patterns were picked up in childhood, she says – for instance, if you lived in a stressful home or had traumatic experiences at school, your adult self may be more prone to unconsciously hyperventilate or hold your breath when you’re in tense situations. Other people can develop disordered breathing in response to things like injury, pregnancy, or chronic pain.
When you start breathing correctly, there are a whole litany of benefits that you can expect to enjoy. One of the greatest benefits is that it can greatly reduce your anxiety. When you reach a breath rhythm of inhaling and exhaling for a count of five or more, it changes the nervous system, taking the body from the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the digest-and-rest mode3. The fight or flight response causes blood to move from the gut to the larger muscles, which interferes with digestion, weakens the immune system and increases inflammation. These changes don’t last long, and in the short term, they are not harmful and may even be helpful, but when they happen time and time again, they can hurt your health. The good news is that you can learn to “turn off” this automatic response through deep breathing. Taking slow, deep breathes creates a “relaxation response” that calms the mind and body. Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce muscle tension and stop the fight or flight response4.
Diaphragmatic breathing is especially helpful to those experiencing GI issues. Focusing one’s breath is an effective way to help the body to relax. When practicing this type of breathing, the stomach, rather than the chest, moves with each breath, expanding while inhaling, and contracting while exhaling. Some general benefits of diaphragmatic breathing are that it can lower the heart rate, increase blood oxygenation, bring warmth to the hands and feet, improve concentration, reduce stress hormones, and more. But for those suffering with GI issues specifically, diaphragmatic breathing offers specific benefits. Activating the diaphragm creates a gentle massaging action felt by internal organs like the intestines and stomach, which can reduce abdominal pain, urgency, bloating, and constipation5. This breathing can also help in these specific GI situations:
- Diarrhea and urgency: Diaphragmatic breathing can help calm the digestive tract and ease moments of panic (i.e. I MUST get to the bathroom right now).
- Constipation: Diaphragmatic breathing can be used while sitting on the toilet attempting to have a bowel movement, to calm and massage the system.
Quick Guide to Deep Breathing
Here is a quick step-by-step guide on how you can get the most from your deep breathing.
- Find a comfortable, quiet location and lie in a flat or reclined position
- Place one hand on your abdomen, and one hand on your chest
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into your abdomen to push your hand up. Only breathe in as deeply as is comfortable (your chest should remain still)
- Exhale through the mouth and gently blow out
- Your abdomen should rise as you breathe in and fall as you breathe out
- Repeat these steps until you count up to 10
Taking calm, deep breathes is easy, and you can start now. It can take weeks or even months, to fully realize the benefits of abdominal breathing. But take a deep breath and hang in there, because it’s worth it!