We can live almost a month without food. We can live a couple of days with water. But how long can you live without breathing? Not very long! And yet proper breathing is taken for granted and we have become far too accepting of sub-optimal breathing.
For obvious reasons, breathing is important…. it gives us life! But breathing, and especially diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial and helpful in eliminating some of our most common aches and pains.
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle with attachments to the first few vertebrae of our lumbar spine. When we inhale, these attachments contract to pull the diaphragm down. When we exhale, those muscular attachments relax and the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its neutral position.
Due to its attachment to the lumbar spine, the diaphragm has a significant role in providing stability of the low back and pelvic areas. In fact, when we talk about working the ‘core’, we are in fact talking about working the inner core muscles, the diaphragm being one of them.
If you are not breathing properly, you are not actually engaging your core muscles. Subsequently, you are most likely increasing intra-abdominal pressure which can have an adverse effect on the discs of the low back.
The pelvic floor is actually comprised of three sets of paired muscles. They form the bottom part of the inner core complex. The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles work together. During inhalation, the diaphragm descends and flattens out. At the same time, the pelvic floor should also be descending. Then in exhalation, the diaphragm elevates and the pelvic floor elevates.
When breathing is altered, the movement and tone of the pelvic floor muscles are affected. Consequentially, this could lead to such issues as stress incontinence and even prolapse.
Patients who come in for pelvic floor work must always first have their diaphragm evaluated and treated. Otherwise, all other exercises would be inefficient to correcting the problems they come in with.
The diaphragm serves as a physical separation between the organs of the chest, heart and lungs, and the abdominal organs which are all the organs involved with digestion.
It’s quite amazing really….. when the diaphragm moves up and down with inhalation/exhalation, it actually acts like a pump to the structures below it. Underneath the diaphragm directly is the stomach and the ducts of the digestive system. When working properly, the diaphragm helps to move food along for proper digestion. As well, proper pressures in the abdominal area will help the optimal release of digestive juices and movement of the food along the intestines.
If you suffer from heart burn, indigestion, bloating, and even problems like constipation, consider working on your breathing and diaphragm as part of your program to improve digestive function.
Major vessels pierce through the diaphragm to go from the chest area to the abdominal area and vice versa. Included are the aorta which pumps blood from the heart to the rest of the body, and the main veins which bring the de-oxygenated blood back to the heart.
Consider a garden hose. If there are any obstructions to a hose, there needs to be more pressure to push the fluid inside the hose through. So if the diaphragm is tight or not moving properly, then there would be more of a ‘squeeze’ of these vessels. As a result, the heart would have to work a lot harder to pump things through. When the heart works harder, there needs to be increased blood pressure.
Prolonged stress is definitely a major cause of high blood pressure. When the body perceives stress in any form, physical or emotional, there are consequential and immediate physical reactions. These include: The heart beats faster, breathing is more rapid and you feel a knot in your stomach. The body is getting ready to fight back or run away before the mind even has time to process what is happening. This is referred to as the “fight or flight” response which is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system.
The function of this response is to redirect the body’s resources to keep the important functions working and the less important functions at a bare minimal. Prolonged stress may result in problems with digestion, a weakened immune system, chronic inflammation, chronic pain and may eventually lead to more permanent medical conditions such as heart disease, strokes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
The good news is, you can learn to turn off this automatic response through deep breathing. Specifically, learning to have deeper exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which has an overall affect of dampening the fight or flight response and helps with other functions including digestion.
Diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce muscle tension and stop the fight-or-flight response.
The most important step in learning how to breathe with your diaphragm is to NOT try too hard! The harder you are trying, the more your nervous system will kick in and the harder it is to relax enough for the diaphragm to be used.
I always instruct my patients to lie on their back with a weighted book on their belly (I use a sandbag, for all those yogis out there). As you inhale, the book (or sandbag) should rise. As you exhale, allow everything to relax.
After a few inhales and exhales, slowly tell your brain to lengthen the breath. You may start off breathing 3 counts on inhale, and then 3 counts on exhale. If you find you are straining or doing too much, then back off and just focus on the rise and fall of your belly, without the stress of counting.
Eventually, you are aiming for 8 counts breathing in and 8 counts breathing out. As a side note, it has taken me many years to be able to breathe with that ratio without activating too many other muscles or setting off a stress response. So be patient with yourself. Every time you work at this, you are re-programming your brain and the way you breathe.