We breathe in and out all day long, it’s so easy to overlook its importance. Not only is breathing necessary to sustain life, but the quality of your breath also impacts your health and wellbeing. Its significance has been acknowledged for centuries before us – for both physiological and mental benefits. In this blog, we discuss the intricate relationship between breath and the parasympathetic nervous system to better understand these benefits.
The parasympathetic vs sympathetic nervous systems
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) are two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – a branch of the nervous system that helps the body maintain homeostasis or balance via various mechanisms. The PSNS is responsible for resting and digesting whereas the SNS is responsible for flight or fight reactions to stress-inducing stimuli. While both the PSNS and the SNS can impact breathing, we will focus on the PSNS as this system is activated with deep breathing to promote a state of restfulness and internal calm.
An important player: the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that carries information from the brain to the body’s organs and is heavily involved in parasympathetic activity to return the body to a state of rest and calm after stress responses. The vagus nerve helps regulate heart rate by stimulating a reduction in resting heart rate. Anatomically, the vagus nerve travels through the diaphragm, which is a dome-shaped muscle that facilitates breathing by contracting and relaxing. Vagal tone is described as the activity of the vagus nerve, which is also one of the main components of the PSNS. Exhibiting a stronger vagal tone, or greater vagus nerve activity, indicates that your body can return to a resting state faster and more efficiently than those who have a lower vagal tone.
The relationship between breathing and the vagus nerve
Deep and slow breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, stimulates the vagus nerve and the PSNS, resulting in reduced heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and even the production of stress hormones like cortisol. Additionally, the activation of the PSNS stimulates the release of certain hormones and endorphins that have relaxing and even mood boosting effects due to their interaction with other body systems.
Benefits of deep breathing
Deep breathing fosters both physical and mental benefits. Physiologically, deep breathing helps promote cardiovascular health by decreasing stress on the body caused when the SNS dominates over the PSNS. When the SNS is activated, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and stress responses kick in. When your PSNS dominates, the body is in a more relaxed state and it does not produce excess stress hormones that can negatively impact your body’s immune response, glucose levels, and other important bodily functions. Deep breathing in itself also allows you to use your entire lung capacity in a way that promotes better oxygenation and more effective breaths.
Mentally, taking deep breaths has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and even depression. The mind and the body are connected, so when your brain detects a potential threat, whether it is internal or external, this can impact your mood, emotional state, and even how you feel physically. You can use deep breathing routinely as well as during moments where you notice stress creeping in to help activate your PSNS so it can do its job of facilitating rest and calm.
How to perform deep, diaphragmatic breathing
For detailed instructions on how to perform deep breathing from a licensed physical therapist, check out our YouTube video below.
Did you know a physical therapist can help teach you how to incorporate deep breathing into your daily routine? Download the OneStep app today to be connected to one of our expert licensed physical therapists who believe in treating the whole person and utilize techniques such as deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing in their treatment plans.