A guide to breathing and the brain

The mental and emotional benefits of conscious breathing are being scientifically proven, improving the way we breathe can have a positive effect on the state of our overall brain health and our emotions.

Centuries of wisdom has advised us to pay closer attention to our breathing.  And now, the most basic of autonomic activities is being hailed as the foundation of brain health – making us feel calmer, improving concentration and memory, and even slowing down the ageing process.   Recent research on the effects of breathing on brain health indicates that there is alot more going on with each breath than we realise.

BRAINWAVES AND BREATHING RHYTHMS

Delta Waves

Delta brainwaves are low frequency and generated in states of deep meditation and dreamless sleep. Delta waves turn your awareness inwards, stimulate healing and regeneration and are also the source of empathy.

Theta Waves

Theta waves are generated during deep meditation or sleep, and stimulate a dreamlike state, where imagery is vivid, enabling you to tap into areas of self which are beyond your conscious awareness. Theta brainwaves are the gateway to learning, memory, intuition and also carry your fears.

Alpha Waves

The brain is in an Alpha brainwave state when you are in the present moment. These perfectly attuned waves promote calmness, alertness and a completely balanced mind-body connection.

Beta Waves

Beta brainwaves are choppy and dominate your normal waking state of consciousness, when attention is directed towards the outside world. Beta activity is present when you are alert, attentive, engaged in problem solving, decision making, or any other focused mental activity.

Gamma Waves

Gamma brainwaves are the most mystic waves of the brain and only achievable when the mind is very quiet.  This state is highly active when in states of universal love, altruism, and connection to a higher source. Above the frequency of neuronal firing, how Gamma brainwaves are generated remains a mystery.

Imagine your brainwaves being like the waves of the ocean – some are big and crashing, others calm and still, some have a gentle rhythm and pace, others are fast and choppy. Now visualise your breath as the changing currents of the ocean – if you slow and calm these currents or the rhythm of your breath, you can directly change the motion of the ocean and your brainwaves will also start to enter a more relaxed state.

According to a Harvard University study, humans spend 46.9 per cent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. When you are distracted from the present moment, your thoughts can often cultivate feelings of stress and anxiety. By bringing your awareness to your breath, you can enter a more Alpha wave state and bring your full awareness to the present moment.

STRESS AND THE BRAIN

When the brain perceives a threat, it instantly shifts into survival mode and your heartbeat increases, senses become heightened, and the stress hormone adrenaline is released. Cortisol is sent into the blood stream to restore the energy lost in your body’s response to the threat.  When the stressful event passes cortisol levels decrease and the body returns to a balanced state.  While stress hormones are essential to deal with real threats, they are also released when a threat is perceived.  Over time, the body demands more adrenaline and cortisol to cope with any so-called stressful situations and this build-up of cortisol can inhibit your brain’s function, killing brain cells and causing your brain to shrink!

When under stress your breathing pattern changes, the breath becomes shallow and fast, exacerbating feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worsen. Practicing breath awareness and using effective breathing techniques can help calm your brain’s reactivity and recover your brain’s strength. This in turn can help lower levels of anxiety and induce feelings of calm and relaxation, bringing you back into a balanced state.

THE LIMBIC SYSTEM

The limbic system is responsible for basic human emotions such as anger and fear, as well as basic human instincts such hunger and sex drive. Three major areas of the brain are affected by the way you breathe and they are all part of this system.

  • Hippocampus – responsible for memory and regulating emotions
  • Amygdala – responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory
  • Piriform Cortex – controls our olfactory system (our sense of smell)

A regular breathing practice using nasal breathing techniques can help regulate emotions. Focusing on inhalations with a breath count is linked to greater activity in the hippocampus and has proven positive effects on the limbic system. A 2016 study discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem which plays a key role in the breath-brain control connection. Called the brain’s breathing pacemaker, this circuit can be adjusted by altering your breathing rhythm.  Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit, while fast, erratic breathing increases activity.

Another study showed that controlling breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain,” specifically in brain regions related to emotion. Participants were asked to count how many breaths they took over a two-minute period, when they counted correctly brain activity in regions related to emotion, memory and awareness showed a more organized pattern compared to activity during a resting state.

The rhythm of your breathing also generates electrical activity in the brain which positively influences memory.  The biggest improvements in memory recall are linked to inhalation and nose breathing – researchers think that nasal inhalation triggers greater electrical activity in the amygdala, which enhances recall of fearful stimuli. Inhaling also seems linked to greater activity in the hippocampus which is the seat of memory.

BREATH AND BRAIN HEALTH

Ancient yogis ­­claimed that breathing exercises help the brain focus and keep it young, however, until recently no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition had been found. However, new research shows for the first time that breathing directly affects the chemistry of your brains in a way that can enhance your attention and improve your brain health.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin proved that breathing has a direct effect on the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline, which effects heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate – when we breathe in, there’s an increase in this chemical and a decrease when we breathe out. When you’re stressed you produce too much noradrenaline, making it difficult to focus, and when you’re feeling lethargic you produce too little of it, which also makes it hard to focus.

In the study, those who focused well on a demanding task had better synchronization between their breathing patterns and attention, as opposed to those who had poor focus and inconsistent breathing patterns. The researchers concluded “It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”

The researchers suggest further research be done to help us better understand how breathwork can serve as an alternative to medication to slow down or prevent cognitive decline as we age. “Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long-term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia, and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks.” Michael Melnychuk

Where Should I Begin?

The breath and brain activities are inextricably linked and it is evident that we can fine-tune our breathing to achieve calmer brain activity and a more peaceful state of mind. Wherever you are, the breath will always be with you and you can use it to calm, energise, revitalise and ultimately transform all aspects of your life. If you start with a simple daily practice, you will soon be reaping all the benefits a breath practice brings.

At Breath Evolution, our courses incorporate the teaching of breathing techniques based in pranayama, to achieve specific health and wellness goals.

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