By Dr. Mercola
One in 3 American adults have high blood pressure (hypertension).1 An equally large segment of the adult population has prehypertension, meaning your pressure is higher than normal but not high enough to qualify as hypertension. Nearly 1 in 4 American adults also reports feeling extremely stressed,2,3 and these two conditions — stress and hypertension — tend to go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, this connection still does not receive the emphasis it deserves.
Many breathing experts also agree that 9 out of 10 people breathe poorly, which negatively impacts both your stress level and your blood pressure. The good news is that correcting your breathing can help alleviate both of these conditions.
Dr. John Kennedy, cardiologist and author of “The 15-Minute Heart Cure: The Natural Way to Release Stress and Heal Your Heart in Just Minutes a Day,” featured on “The Doctors” in 2011 (above), developed a breathing and creative visualization technique that can be done anywhere, anytime to reduce stress, lower your blood pressure and protect your heart.
Tammy, the test subject on the show, lowered her cortisol by 20 percent simply by doing this technique. Indeed, by teaching your body to slow down and relax, which essentially short-circuits your physical stress reaction, you can protect your health, and your breathing can either trigger or hinder your relaxation response.
Your Breath and Blood Pressure Are Closely Related
Researchers at the University of Melbourne and Macquarie University believe essential hypertension (high blood pressure with no known cause), which is the most common form, may be prevented by implementing breathing exercises, provided you start doing it early enough.4 As reported by HealthCanal:5
“Lead researcher [p]rofessor Andrew Allen says the research parallels what sportspeople and eastern philosophies have long understood about the link between breathing and heart rate. ‘Biathletes have to regulate their breathing to slow down their heart rate before rifle shooting, and eastern meditative practices such as yoga and pranayama have always [emphasized] the interaction between the two’…”
The researchers discovered that by interrupting the activity between two types of neurons — ones controlling breathing and others regulating blood pressure — in young mice, they were able to dramatically reduce the development of hypertension in adulthood.6 Unfortunately, in adults, where the synaptic interactions have become more fixed, the blood pressure reduction was only temporary. As reported in the featured article:7
“Breathing and blood pressure are functionally linked through the sympathetic nervous system, which sends nerve signals to the heart and blood vessels.
The altered neural activity leads to increased fluctuations in blood pressure with every breath and are seen in both the animal model and young, healthy adults at risk of developing high blood pressure in middle age. This [emphasizes] the need to identify people at risk of developing high blood pressure early.”
Why Deep, Slow Breathing Is so Calming
Other recent research8 shows the reason controlled, purposeful breathing is so calming is because it doesn’t activate specific neurons in your brain that communicate with your arousal center. Put another way, the reason rapid, shallow breathing is so stress-inducing is because it activates neurons that trigger arousal, which typically translates into worry and anxiety.
In this animal study, researchers were attempting to identify different types of neurons and their role in breathing function. They were focused on the pre-Bötzinger complex, also known as the breathing pacemaker. As reported by The New York Times:9
“More than 25 years ago, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles first discovered a small bundle of about 3,000 interlinked neurons inside the brainstems of animals, including people, that seem to control most aspects of breathing. They dubbed these neurons the breathing pacemaker.”
The researchers honed in on 175 neurons in the breathing pacemaker, which they then "silenced" (eliminated) in the mice, with the expectation that this would alter their breathing patterns. However, that didn’t happen. There were no changes at all in their breathing patterns after the neurons were knocked out.
Instead, the researchers were surprised to find the mice became very relaxed, and remained relaxed even in situations where anxiety would normally be triggered. What they discovered is that these neurons positively regulate neurons in a brainstem structure called the locus coeruleus, which is linked to arousal. It is, in other words, the formerly hidden link between breathing rate and emotional state. Study coauthor Jack Feldman, distinguished professor of neurology at UCLA, told The Verge:10
"It's a tie between breathing itself and changes in emotional state and arousal that we had never looked at before. It has considerable potential for therapeutic use."
While the creation of drugs to target this brain region is likely part of the agenda, there are natural methods already known to do so. Controlled breathing, or pranayama as it's known in the practice of yoga, is a central part of many ancient traditions.
Breathing Exercises Lower Blood Pressure
Breathing exercises have been found to impact both your blood pressure and stress, which makes sense considering how closely tied those two conditions are.
A recent article in University Health News11 cites several studies showing breathing exercises help lower blood pressure. For example, one 2005 study12 found taking six deep breaths in 30 seconds (each inhale and exhale lasting five seconds) lowered systolic blood pressure anywhere from 3.4 to 3.9 units, compared to simply resting in a seated position.
As noted in the article, apps and devices are available that will guide your breathing to help you get down to 10 or fewer breaths per minute. Studies13,14 have found using such devices for five minutes, three to four times per week, can help lower blood pressure in patients with hypertension.
Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, creator of the Buteyko Breathing Method, discovered he could lower his blood pressure simply by bringing his breathing toward normal. In this way, he successfully "cured" his own hypertension. In 1957, he coined the term "disease of deep breathing," having researched the health effects of excessive breathing for over a decade.
The problem with shallow, rapid breathing is that it activates your sympathetic response, which is involved in releasing cortisol and other stress hormones. Controlled deep breathing, on the other hand, helps trigger your relaxation response as it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows down your heart rate and digestion while promoting a state of calm.
Controlled breathing exercises have also been found to modify stress-coping behaviors and initiate appropriate balance in cardiac autonomic tone, a term that describes your heart’s ability to respond to and recover from stressors.15
Sample Breathing Exercise to Control Anxiety and Reduce Stress
There are many different breathing techniques out there. As mentioned above, simply inhaling and exhaling to the count of six can go a long way toward regulating your breathing and lowering your blood pressure. Be sure to breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Another variation is the "HA" breath, which involves inhaling slowly through your nose, then exhaling quickly while saying "ha" out loud.
The following is a Buteyko breathing exercise that can help reduce stress, control anxiety and quell panic attacks. This sequence helps retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, leading to calmer breathing and reduced anxiety. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you enter a more relaxed state:
- Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
- Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds
- Repeat the sequence
Master the Light, Effortless Breath
In addition to being slow and deep, ideally you want your breathing to also be very calm and light — so light that the hairs in your nose barely move. This type of breathing, which is part of the Buteyko school of thought, helps you to enter and remain in a calm, meditative state while lowering your blood pressure. The following three steps will help your breath become lighter with practice.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly. Your belly should move slightly in and out with each breath, and your midsection should get wider, while your chest should remain unmoving
- Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. Focus your attention on the cold air coming into your nose and the slightly warmer air leaving it on the out breath
- Slowly decrease the volume of each breath, to the point it feels like you're almost not breathing at all (you'll notice your breath getting very quiet at this point). The crucial thing here is to develop a slight air hunger. This simply means there's a slight accumulation of carbon dioxide in your blood, which signals your brain to breathe
You may feel a slight air shortage at first, but this should be tolerable. If it becomes uncomfortable, take a 15-second break and then continue. After three or four minutes of air hunger, you'll start experiencing the beneficial effects of CO2 accumulation, such as an increase in body temperature and an increase in saliva. The former is a sign of improved blood circulation; the latter a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated, which is important for stress reduction.