What is Breathwork and Does it Work? A Doctor Explains the Science
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Health Concerns

What is Breathwork and Does it Work?

August 12, 2019

Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system.

While various breathing practice have been around for centuries, science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.

Here’s the scoop on breathwork and what the science has to say about this up and coming wellness practice.

What is breathwork?

Breathwork describes a group of exercises that teach you to manipulate your breathing rate and depth with the goal of bringing awareness to your breath and ultimately providing the same benefits you might get from a meditative practice. Most formal practices involve 20 minutes to an hour of sustained, rhythmic breathing techniques. People who practice breathwork describe feeling tingling sensations throughout their body, feelings of clarity, alertness, increased mind-body connection and even emotional purging.

Different types of breathwork.

There are many types of breathwork practices, some ranging from fairly basic and easy to do at home, to others requiring a practitioner to teach you the practice. Some breathwork practices are rooted in yogic traditions such as Pranayama or the breath and movement sequences of Kundalini yoga. Other breathwork practices are entirely secular and were developed to help people heal their minds or bodies or even to withstand extreme physical conditions.

Top health benefits of breathwork.

You’ve probably read about the benefits of deep breathing — even a few deep breaths can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels and increase parasympathetic tone, but breathwork is a little different. Formal breathwork practices exert some even more impressive positive effects on the body and work in a different and almost opposite way. Here’s the science behind the magic.

Alkalizes your blood PH.

The physiologic changes we see during sustained, rhythmic breathing are caused by a shift of the blood pH that follows hyperventilation – a state called “respiratory alkalosis.” Thanks to the field of anesthesiology we know a lot about what the body does during respiratory alkalosis.

You probably remember that we take in oxygen during the inhale breath and get rid of CO2 with every exhale. When we take faster breaths we get rid of more CO2. CO2 is an acidic molecule, so you can think of hyperventilating as getting rid of acid in the blood and shifting to a higher, or more alkaline pH (thus the term respiratory alkalosis).

Increases muscle tone.

When the blood becomes more alkaline a few things happen. First, calcium ions floating around in the blood go into hiding, binding onto large proteins in the blood called albumin. The body now experiences a short-term low-calcium state which causes increased firing in sensory and motor neurons. The artificially low blood calcium now manifests in the neurological system as tingling sensations, smooth muscle contractions and increased muscle tone. If you’ve ever not been able to move your mouth after a breathwork class you know this feeling too well.

Has an anti-inflammatory effect.

Neurons in the autonomic nervous system also fire more during hyperventilation, releasing epinephrine (what many people call “adrenaline”). A 2014 study out of Yale School of Medicine found that the epinephrine surge causes the innate immune system to increase its anti-inflammatory activity and dampen its proinflammatory activity. Subjects who were taught a breathwork routine had less severe inflammatory responses after exposure to IV bacterial toxins than those who didn’t. The paper was the first in scientific literature to describe voluntary activation of the innate immune system.

Elevates your mood.

The “high” feeling some people experience during breathwork can also be explained by hyperventilation and respiratory alkalosis. Increased blood pH decreases oxygen delivery to tissues (a phenomenon called the Bohr Effect). Within one minute of hyperventilation, the vessels in the brain constrict, reducing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain by 40%. The effect is probably responsible for the feelings of wellbeing that breathwork practitioners experience. That’s right — you are actually getting a little high in your Kundalini yoga class.

What you should know before starting breathwork.

Breathwork is generally safe, well-tolerated, enjoyable and definitely worth a try for most people. It might be particularly good for people with an autoimmune disease as there’s evidence that it can change the inflammatory response from our innate immune system. However, there are a few cases when it would not be advised to do breathwork; namely for anyone with a known cardiac arrhythmia (including very slow heart rate), a history of heart block, or people taking certain antipsychotic medications.

Additionally, some types of breathwork can induce hyperventilation, which can bring on dizziness, chest pain, and pounding heartbeat.

Final thoughts on breathwork.

  • Breathwork involves manipulating your breathing rate to change how you’re feeling.
  • There are several types of breathwork practices, some ranging from fairly basic and easy to do at home, to others requiring a practitioner to guide you.
  • The benefits of breathwork include reducing stress, to reducing inflammation, and alkalizing your blood PH levels.
  • Check with your doctor before you start a breathwork practice if you have a history of cardiovascular issues, including high blood pressure, or are currently taking antipsychotic medications.

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