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A Cost-Free Way to Calm Stress and Enhance Your Health

Let’s cut to the chase—I’m referring to slow, conscious, diaphragmatic breathing. Simply shifting your awareness internally with each inhalation and exhalation as you deeply expand and contract your belly, extending the exhale for slightly longer than the inhale. For example, a round of ten breaths employing a 4-second inhalation followed by an 8-second exhalation takes only two minutes. Practice this a few times daily for as little as one minute per session. That’s it! You are free to incorporate this interlude into your day practically anytime or anywhere, as often as you’d like, and then sit back and see what a difference it can make.

 

Be sure to move your diaphragm by filling the lower part of your lungs like balloons. This is key to initiating a relaxation response. The technique works by stimulating your vagus nerve, which down-regulates your nervous system’s stress response—essentially turning off the fight-or-flight reflex. While you will feel general calming effects immediately, it can take a few weeks of training to condition the body’s nervous system response to deepen and grow more resilient—a bit like working out at the gym. With regular practice, you will be toning your vagus nerve, which means you will enhance your reflexive response to stress and be able to relax faster.

 

Enhanced relaxation is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vagal nerve tone. The vagus nerve has a meandering pathway that connects to the throat, vocal cords, lungs, heart, diaphragm and intestines—basically supplying a brain connection to the organs of the chest and thorax. It is the longest of the body’s twelve major nerves that connect directly to the brain, and is involved in functions such as breathing, controlling heart rate and mood, emptying the stomach, sweating, and lowering blood pressure. The vagus nerve is constantly listening, monitoring and regulating body functions. It’s the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which predominates in the “rest and digest” mode that helps us relax and de-stress.

 

If that is not enough, one of the best reasons to increase vagal nerve tone is to calm systemic inflammation in the body. This is due to its role as part of the “gut-brain axis,” which allows the vagus nerve to carry information between the brain, the digestive system and the plethora of microbes that help us break down and assimilate nutrients. Our microbiome plays a significant role in maintaining healthy mood and cognitive function, as well as the robustness of the immune system. So enhancing vagal nerve tone can pay dividends for our mental health as well as physical.

 

Exercising your vagus nerve through breath work can be key to opening a mind-body connection and restoring the body’s natural balance, helping you feel soft and grounded, and allowing healing to happen. You are welcome to build on the breathing method suggested here. Your practice can certainly be longer, it may be spiritual, it can be folded into a meditation practice, or incorporate movement such as qigong, taiji or yoga. Regardless, you can still achieve profound health benefits by following a simple breath awareness practice for as little as three minutes a day.


 

References

Andersson, U., & Tracey, K. J. (2012). Neural reflexes in inflammation and immunity. Journal of Experimental Medicine, 209(6): 1057–1068. https://doi.org/10.1084/jem.20120571

Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044

Lehrer, P. M., & Gevirtz, R. (2014). Heart rate variability biofeedback: how and why does it work? Frontiers in Psychology, 21 July 2014.  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00756

Rogers, G. B., Keating, D. J., Young, R. L., Wong, M. L., Licinio, J., & Wesselingh, S. (2016). From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Molecular psychiatry, 21(6), 738–748. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2016.50

 

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