The Effects of Deep Breathing on the Brain: Why You Need It

by | Aug 5, 2022

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Whether it’s listening to a meditation app or attending a yoga class, one thing’s for sure—deep breathing is always on the menu.

The simple act of inhaling deeply before letting the breath out in the same, slow, controlled manner benefits your brain in more ways than one. From improving your attention span to reducing your stress levels, we show you the science-backed effects of deep breathing on the brain.

 

What is deep breathing?

Deep breathing is known as diaphragmatic breathing. When done correctly, the stomach does all the work—expanding and rising with each inhale, then contracting and falling with each exhale—rather than the chest.

That’s why deep breathing is also called “belly breathing” or “abdominal breathing.”

During diaphragmatic breathing, every inhalation and exhalation takes roughly five seconds each. That’s about 5-6 deep breaths per minute if you’d like to keep count.

 

What are the effects of deep breathing on the brain?

According to science, there are quite a few ways deep breathing benefits your brain. So, sit back and take notes as we go through the main ones below.

 

Reduces stress and anxiety

Stress isn’t just part of the modern human’s vocabulary—for many of us, we live and breathe it. Unfortunately, chronic stress can lead to anxiety and worsen other aspects of your mental health.

Deep breathing is one way to stop chronic stress in its tracks. To understand how that works, we have to look at an important brain structure called the hypothalamus.

If you’re new to the term, think of the hypothalamus as the headquarters of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), which consists of:

  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), aka the “rest-and-digest” or “feed-and-breed” response, and,
  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), aka the “fight-or-flight” response

So, how does deep breathing affect the brain? Apparently, slow, deep breaths encourage the PNS to overtake the SNS via the vagus nerve. It’s the longest nerve connecting the brain to different parts of the body. Scientists refer to the vagus nerve’s activity as vagal tone.

A high vagal tone is recommended as it makes you more resilient to stress. One way to measure your vagal tone would be through heart rate variability (HRV). The higher the HRV, the higher your vagal tone. In fact, scientists think “HRV is a marker of healthy aging associated with stress management” in older adults.

You can increase your HRV simply by slowing down your breaths. Consciously shifting your focus to the frequency of your breathings sparks a series of changes inside your brain:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. This helps to soothe parts of the brain that trigger the “fight-or-flight” responses during times of stress.
  • Using EEGs to picture what goes on beneath the scalp, researchers found increased alpha power and decreased theta brain waves with belly breathing. In human-speak, that means less stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion.

 

Improves attention span

After a bad night of sleep, you may feel brain fog, mental lethargy, or whatever you call it. Many of us are then guilty of letting our minds wander off the next day when we should be focused on the task at hand. 

If that sounds like you, deep breathing may be one way to improve your attention span and boost your productivity.

In a 2017 study, participants that underwent 20 sessions of diaphragmatic breathing over eight weeks leveled up their attention and focus compared to those that didn’t. Bonus: The deep-breathing group also showed lower levels of another stress hormone, cortisol, and experienced less negative affect (feeling and expressing negative emotions like anger and fear).

Even if you only have 15-20 minutes per day for deep breathing in the form of meditation, science shows that’s enough to improve your attentiveness and self-regulation.

But how does deep breathing help you develop laser focus?

Scientists found the answer in experienced meditators that engaged in diaphragmatic breathing during their practice. Breathing deeply from the belly increased activity in the brain regions responsible for self-monitoring and cognitive control. So you can use belly breathing every time you feel you need to control your behavior. In other words, you’ve boosted your self-discipline to say no to doughnuts while dieting (#win).

At the same time, the brain areas that default to mind-wandering were deactivated. Better mental focus naturally means you’re more productive at work (and in other aspects of life), allowing you to achieve your goals more effortlessly.

 

Improves oxygen levels in the brain

Deep breathing patterns can also improve the oxygen levels in your brain.

A small-scale study analyzed how belly breathing changed the ventilation and oxygen saturation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (progressive lung diseases).

In the first four minutes, the participants breathed normally as they would outside of the experiment. Next, they practiced deep breathing for two minutes. They then finished off with another four minutes of natural breathing.

The results from this 10-minute breathing session were astounding. The study found that deep breathing:

  • Significantly broadened tidal volume—the amount of air moving in and out of the lungs during each breath
  • Enhanced ventilation efficiency, in which dead space (air that does not reach the air sacs) is reduced
  • Increased oxygen levels in the bloodstream

For these reasons, deep breathing is recommended for people with lung issues. More than that, healthy people can benefit equally, if not more, from this slow-breathing technique.

 

Enhances overall brain health

For a relatively small organ, the brain is a big user of oxygen—roughly 20% of your body’s total oxygen supply! The brain also thrives on sleep, as this is the time when it removes toxins through your body’s glymphatic system (a waste-clearing ecosystem).

Unfortunately, the commonly used chest-breathing method means your body and, in turn, your brain isn’t optimizing its oxygen supply. What’s more, much of society is chronically sleep-deprived. That means for many of us, our brains don’t take out the trash every night, so to speak. This leads to a toxin buildup in one of the most vital internal organs.

Deep breathing tackles these problems two-fold:

  • As mentioned earlier, belly breathing makes oxygen absorption more efficient for your body and brain so that the latter gets enough oxygen to be in top form.
  • Deep breathing, when combined with good sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques (like meditation), may help you fall asleep at your bedtime and fall back to sleep when you awake during the night, a 2018 study highlighted. This gives your brain ample time to rid itself of toxins and maintain optimal functioning.

 

Deep breathe your way to a healthier brain

From better attention span to higher oxygen levels, you can breathe your way to a healthier brain simply by deepening your very next breath.

To ensure you’re deep-breathing correctly—breathing from your belly and not the chest—use a tool like Somnox.

This snuggleable breath and sleep companion helps synchronize your breathing patterns to reap the full benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. It’s as simple as turning it on and letting the smart sensors adjust your breathing rhythm for deeper breaths. This will help you relax and reduce stress – and help you fall asleep easier.

Not sure if Somnox is right for you? Take our online sleep test to find out.

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