The Secret to Healthy Blood Pressure
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.”
— Sanskrit Proverb
Well, it’s not accurate to say that what I am sharing is a secret. In fact, most people are familiar with the expression, “Take a deep breath.” The problem is that very few of us have been taught how to take a deep breath in a way that really serves the purpose of bringing us back to balance.
Fortunately, if the skill of taking a deep breath to engage in its health benefits was a secret, it is less so now since it was recently broadcast on the national evening news. ABC World News aired a segment, Just Breathe? The Secret to Lowering Blood Pressure, in which a cardiologist, John Kennedy, described how using the breath can reduce blood pressure. Nothing is new about this information – for thousands of years, people have understood the power of the breath for health (see my blog entry: The Power of the Breath from August 2002) – this physician adds value by accompanying this claim with supporting data from his patients.
You can take advantage of this “secret” for yourself. First, you can learn how to breathe in a way that benefits your health. Secondly, you can understand how breathing this way works to balance your body. Finally, you can even measure the personal effects of this practice.
How to breathe in a way that benefits your health:
1. Emphasize your exhalation! Breathe in normally and as you exhale, make sure to push all of the breath out of your body completely, until there is nothing left to release. (If you can, exhale out of your mouth.)
2. Let the next breath enter your body naturally, there’s no need to force it. The breath will likely come in deeper and more fully than it had at first. (If you can, inhale through your nose.)
3. Repeat this at least three times in a row. If you feel light-headed at any point, allow your breath to normalize and that feeling will subside. As you become used to this way of breathing, you can add additional breaths to the sequence.
4. Practice this method of breathing deliberately three times each day, whether you need it or not. (This will help bring your body back to balance when you didn’t even notice that you were in stress arousal; In addition, it will help you ingrain a new habit so that this way of breathing will be more accessible to you when you need it.) Also try to practice this method of breathing when you feel stressed or triggered by a strong emotion.
How this method of breathing works to balance your body:
Survival is the strongest unconscious motivation for all beings on this planet, including us humans. To support your survival, your body is designed to protect you against any treats to your life. At the core of your survival mechanism are the most ancient parts of your brain, including the amygdala and hypothalamus. The role of the amygdala is to signal your body if a stimulus may indicate some kind of threat. If a threat is indicated your hypothalamus releases stress hormones (including adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone in men and prolactin in women) and the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system activates your “fight-or-flight” responses: adrenaline increases your heart rate to pump more blood as the arterial contraction gets blood your major muscles (a corresponding increase of blood pressure and pulse occurs); muscle contraction takes place in your major muscle groups, enabling you to flee or fight; and cortisol shuts down non-essential activity, including your reproductive system, digestion (metabolism is reduced), and your immune system (while adding an anti-inflammatory effect in case you are wounded). Cortisol also lowers serotonin levels in the brain. This is what is happening when you are in stress arousal and I’m sure you are very familiar with what this feels like.
However, when you emphasize the exhalation in your breath, as you force the breath out of your body, your diaphragm eventually contracts. As your diaphragm contracts, it stimulates the vagus nerve, which extends from your brain stem down to your stomach. The vagus nerve is involved with the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system. When stimulated in this way, the vagus nerve helps to bring your body back to homeostasis or balance: specifically, it activates the parasympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system to reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. Your muscles relax and your hypothalamus inhibits the release of stress hormones. Therefore, when you breathe by emphasizing the exhalation, you can counter the effects of stress arousal. See if you can feel the difference when you breathe in this manner.
Measure the effects of this method of breathing:
The simplest way to measure the effects of emphasizing the exhalation in your breath, beyond subjective measures, is to track your blood pressure. Take a base-line measure of your blood pressure when you are at rest. Then practice this method of breathing every day, several times each day. Take your blood pressure, on a weekly basis at the same time, under the same conditions each week. Notice if there are any positive changes in your blood pressure over time.
“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh