Breath Work & Its Benefits

Take a Deep Breath
Breath work offers a multitude of benefits
by Robert Zukowski

One of my biggest thrills is finding new ways to take care of myself. Perhaps that makes me a complementary and alternative medicine nerd. If that is the case, so be it.

Certainly, there are times when I see another professional to take care of me. I never give myself a ninety-minute massage, nor would I perform self-acupuncture or chiropractic work, even if I was trained and licensed to do so. Yes, I am constantly amazed by what a licensed practitioner in the holistic heath field can do for me, but I am equally amazed at what I can learn to do for myself. I am in awe of what our bodies can do for themselves. Several months ago I started to see someone who practiced conscious breath work, also called conscious breathing. There are a lot of different types of breath work with a variety of names, but whatever you call it, it is generally a universal term for different conventional medical and holistic therapeutic methods to improve the breathing function and thus enhance different aspects of your wellness.

As I said, this particular modality is practiced in many different ways and goes by many different names and those who teach it, teach it differently. I myself practice diaphragmatic with my massage therapy clients for many reasons, ranging from stress and anxiety relief to relaxation to improvement in function of respiratory muscles to breaking harmful, repetitive motion muscle patterns in the upper body and torso. In past columns, we have talked about yoga, meditation, tai chi and other complementary and alternative medicine options that include a focus on breath. Perhaps the key to improved health is right under our noses, so to speak. How many times have we said to ourselves, or others, in times of stress or anxiety, to take a deep breath? Why stop at one? Let’s talk about some of the benefits of conscious breath work and assorted breathing techniques and the potential health benefits for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Let me sell you on cells. Our bodies are made up of millions and millions of cells and we want to keep them healthy. In 1931, the Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to a man by the name of Otto Warburg. Warburg discovered that cancer cells cannot thrive in a highly oxygenated environment. What might help keep cells oxygenated and potentially healthy? Deeper breaths. Digestion is another thing to consider. When we properly digest, our bodies absorb the nutrients we need and dispose of the things that we do not. We have talked before about the autonomic nervous system and how digestion and elimination halts when we are overly stressed. Yet, when our bodies are relaxed, through proper breathing, the digestive system functions properly and we can absorb what we need and eliminate what do not, including toxins.

Proper breathing is also know to elevate mood. This is a concept, as mentioned earlier, used in meditation, yoga, tai chi and many other low-impact modalities. It is why, when practicing such modalities, we are told to focus on our breath. Focus itself is yet another consideration. Slow, deliberate, conscious breathing can help to oxygenate the brain cells in the brain. Try it. The next time you are anxious and feeling stressed and find it hard to concentrate, slow down and take several deep breaths. You may just notice an improvement in clarity of mind.

Again, I bring up the ill effects of stress and anxiety. When we are In a state of stress, stress hormones are released into the body. Most notable, in my opinion, is cortisol, a stress hormone which acts as an immunosuppressant. Alleviating that stress, and the release of cortisol into our bloodstream can help the immune system to function better.

Oxidative stress another thing to consider. Oxidative stress is essentially an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to counteract or detoxify their harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants. A small study was done at a university in Italy and it was revealed that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to a several diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia. This is because in states of oxidative stress, free radicals can damage the body’s internal tissues. This study showed that those who partook in diaphragmatic breathing also had higher antioxidant levels.

Finally, I present the idea of sleep. We often say, “All I need is a good night’s sleep.” Sleep is imperative for physical and mental health. Deep breathing, and assorted other breathing techniques and exercises are said to activate the pineal gland, which produces melatonin, which is a natural sleep aid.

There are many different types of practitioners who can work with you on proper breathing and a world of information online to practice and explore before you seek out a practitioner. Take a deep breath and explore your options.

After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.