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Complementary Corner

Improve Your Health, One Breath at a Time

Renee Lehman

(7/1) It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and you are out walking in the woods. Suddenly a bear walks out in front of you. You are in a potentially threatening situation! So, your body triggers the "Fight - or - Flight" response to this stressful situation. To get you out of this situation, your adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) secrete an increased amount of cortisol, the "stress hormone." Cortisol has the following effect: it increases your heart rate, tenses your muscles, makes your breathing rapid and shallow, and gives you a burst of energy… you run from the bear to safety, and then calm yourself down. This is definitely a positive effect of cortisol and may have just saved your life!

Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body's stress response is activated so often that the body does not always have a chance to return to normal. In fact, we are not aware that we often perceive our life as if it were an emergency. Therefore, we are in a chronic state of "Fight - or - Flight," meaning sustained high levels of cortisol being released by the adrenal glands. Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream have shown to have negative effects on our bodies. These can include: increased resting heart rate, higher blood pressure, higher blood sugar levels, suppressed thyroid functioning, lowered immunity, and increased abdominal fat (which is associated with a greater amount of health problems, such as heart attacks and strokes).

So how can you control this chronic stress response to keep you healthy? It is easier than you may think possible - by practicing DEEP BREATHING. Yes, this heightened state can be controlled, and the body can relax just by the way that you breathe! Just think about how your body naturally does this when you take a deep breath or sigh when a stress is relieved from your life.

Most of us breathe like rabbits, taking short, shallow breaths with our chest. This activates the "stress receptors" in the upper lobes of our lungs. You can see if you are a chest breather by placing your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your abdomen. Take a breath in and see which hand rises more. If your left hand rises more, you are a chest breather.

Along with activating the "stress receptors" in the lungs, chest breathing is also inefficient because the greatest amount of blood flow occurs in the lower lobes of the lungs, areas that have limited air expansion in chest breathers. This is important because this results in less oxygen transfer to the blood and subsequent poor delivery of nutrients to the tissues. Chest breathing also puts more of a strain on the neck and rib muscles (since they help to raise the chest up when you inhale).

If your right hand rose more with the breath that you took earlier, you are an abdominal/diaphragmatic breather. This deeper breathing is more natural than chest breathing and similar to the way babies breathe.

Abdominal breathing brings the air into the lower lobes of the lungs where the "calming receptors" are located. You will help to control your body's "stress drive" AND your body won't believe that your life is an emergency. This also brings the air to the lower lobes of the lungs where the valuable oxygen transfer occurs to the blood. Then when you exhale, you voluntarily contract the abdominal muscles and all of the residual air is squeezed out of the lungs.

Try this stress reducing breathing technique:

  1. Consciously keep your mouth closed.
  2. Take long, slow breaths in through your nose.
  3. Breathe this air deep into your lungs and fill up the lungs (like filling a glass full of water).
  4. Now exhale out through the nose, letting the air go out of the upper lungs first then lower lobes last.
  5. Forcefully contract your abdominal muscles to push the last bit of air out of your lower lobes of the lungs.
  6. 6Repeat.

In general, exhalation should be twice as long as inhalation. The use of your hands on the chest and abdomen will help to train your breathing. Once you feel confident breathing into the abdomen, they are no longer needed.

If you had difficulty breathing deeply, just keep practicing! It is possible that your back and intercostal (between your ribs) muscles are too tight. Stress, lack of exercise, too much exercise, or "bodily - held feelings" often cause the muscles around your torso to become tight and restrict movement of your ribcage. As stress and holding dissolves, the breathing parts of your body (belly, diaphragm, ribs, lungs, and back) can move in an easier way.

In the course of one day, we take approximately 28,000 breaths. With abdominal breathing, we can teach our bodies that life is a "rejuvenating and calm 28,000 breaths" a day.

As you practice this deep breathing, you decrease the level of your body's stress response and therefore create better health and well breathing. So breathe deep and easily, there is no bear to fear!

If you are interested in learning other breathing techniques or other ways to create a relaxation response, check out the following websites: (Benson - Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine), and (Dr. Andrew Weil's website).

Renee Lehman is a licensed acupuncturist and physical therapist with
over 20 years of health care experience. Her office is located
 at 249B York Street in Gettysburg, PA.

She can be reached at 717-752-5728.

Read other article on well being by Renee Lehman