Breathe deep and benefit.
How Regular Deep Breathing Can Make Your Mind and Body Healthier
Deep breathing is magical.
Well, actually, it’s just incredibly good for us, but it’s so simple and so effective that it can seem like magic. Consistently letting yourself enjoy deep, slow breaths has huge benefits for your body and mind.
We’ll get to a full list in a second, but the basic idea is just this: deep breathing requires careful muscular control of your cardiovascular system. Doing it regularly is a gentle but effective workout for your lungs, heart, diaphragm, and chest muscles.
At the same time, the slow movement and settled sensations activate what scientists call the “relaxation response”, the physiological opposite of the fight-or-flight response we feel during stressful situations. That makes you happier, more focused, and calmer, and helps you find a positive attitude when you need one.
Right. We promised you a list. Here’s what deep breathing does for you.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Daily deep breathing is extremely good for our heart health. One recent study reported that just one month of daily breathing reduced blood pressure, breathing rate, and heart rate variability, all of which points to healthier hearts overall. What this means is that your body does a better job taking care of itself: there’s more oxygen in your blood, and your cardiac system is more sensitive to changes in blood pressure and breathing.
Improves lung function
Lung health can be measured in many ways, but the most direct is just to check how much air we’re moving when we breath: volume of a normal breath, volume of our biggest possible breath, volume per minute, speed of inhalation, speed of exhalation…you get the idea. Focused deep breathing for just two minutes is enough to increase all of those measures, most of them by significant margins. This is likely a clue to the longer-term cardiovascular changes: deep breathing just makes our lungs work better.
Inflammation is your body’s protective mechanisms against all kinds of diseases—it’s when your white blood cells are actively breaking down pathogens or other compounds in your blood. When it becomes chronic, though, inflammation is usually unhealthy, and is linked to heart attacks, stress, and a whole host of other unfortunate conditions. Deep breathing helps. Consistent deep breathing reduces levels of several inflammation-associated chemicals in our saliva, some right away and some after several minutes.
Helps us eat well
This one’s a two-parter. First, deep breathing helps with hunger. After a 24-hour fast, even just a couple minutes of deep breathing significantly reduces hunger pangs—plus the intestinal pressure and acidity that help produce them. At the same time, deep breathing before and after a meal helps control our bodies’ “glycemic response”—how much sugar (and then insulin) flood our system after we eat. Managing glycemic response is important for our weight, our heart health, and for conditions like diabetes.
Reduces oxidative stress in people with diabetes
Deep breathing has other benefits for people with diabetes, too. The glycemic response benefit is joined by the effects on inflammation (benefit #3), and together, over the long-term, that results in positive changes in body-mass index, blood glucose, and several other indicators of health. That makes deep breathing an extremely low-cost, high-reward health option.
Improves quality of life for those with chronic illness
Quality of life is complicated. It includes happiness, overall well-being, mobility, self-sufficiency, and a range of other factors. All of those tend to decline when we get very sick, and for some people quality of life can stay low for a long time. Again, deep breathing helps, especially when combined with other relaxing exercises like muscle relaxation.
Reduces physical stress and tension
Deep breaths combine hormonal and muscular mechanisms to help our bodies physically relax. One study looked at how tense people felt alongside how tense their muscles actually were, and found that simple deep breaths—or even just holding a standard breath—can relieve and reduce both kinds of tension. Another measured blood levels of a stress hormone (cortisol) and melatonin, a hormone linked to relaxation, in athletes who exercised themselves to exhaustion. If they practiced deep breathing afterwards, cortisol dropped and melatonin rose.
Psychological and Emotional Benefits
Stress and tension are a good segue into the next part of our list: benefits for our mental health. First up, and especially important for those of us who care about quitting smoking, is the fact that deep breathing…
Reduces cravings to smoke
This one’s interesting. The study we’re looking at made steady smokers wait for 12 hours before getting tested. In the lab, a simple deep breathing exercise reduced the strength and frequency of their cravings by about 20%. That’s with no other support, no distractions, and nothing to take their mind off of how badly they wanted a cigarette. This really helps.
Reduces emotional stress and anxiety
Right alongside physical stress, deep breathing also relives emotional stress and anxiety. There are a huge number of studies on this—it’s probably the most well-known effect of slow, calming breaths. So we’ll just highlight one study that shows how effective it is: even in pregnant women who were going into labor early, consistent practice with deep breathing techniques significantly reduced their worries, anxiety, and feelings of stress.
Improves mood and helps relieve depression
Part of reducing stress is an overall increase in people’s mood, and that boost in happiness—or, really, in general well-being—is a well-understood effect of consistent deep breathing. For people with serious mood disorders, such as major depression, deep breathing also helps. It does that mostly by using relaxation to help manage some of their physical symptoms, giving them more freedom and a chance to feel a little more like themselves.
This is a sort of hybrid benefit. Combining multiple physical and mental effects—stress relief, physical relaxation, reduced blood pressure, autonomic nervous system activity—produces an extra benefit: people experience less pain. In studies that look at acute, intense pain, such as following surgery, most subjects agree that deep, slow breathing helps the pain feel more manageable.
Improves focus and attention
This part is cool. Consistent, focused deep breathing makes us more alert, improves our hand-eye coordination, and makes us better at a huge range of tasks —the same kinds of effects you’d normally expect to see from caffeine, without any of the downsides (although, of course, the effects aren’t quite as intense).
Over the slightly longer term, regular deep breathing also helps us feel more energetic overall—more alive. Two key hormones that are part of age-related drops in our energy, human growth hormone (HGH) and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), were significantly reduced by a three-month course of almost daily deep breathing.
One of the most straightforward benefits of deep breathing is that it helps us remember new information. The study we have in mind looked at a simple task—learning to trace an unfamiliar maze—and found that people who did a 30-minute breath training session were much better at remembering it, both short-term and after a full day.
Relieves symptoms of other acute mental illnesses, including PTSD and OCD
The relaxing, stress-relieving effects of deep breathing are both short-term and long-term, as we’ve discussed. The relaxation is powerful enough that deep breathing can help people coping with other, more acute conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Consistent deep breathing (paired with other treatments, of course!) can reduce symptoms like irritability, frustration, trouble focusing, and more.
Terssing is Deep Breathing
This article is part of a larger series of posts laying out the context for terssing. The whole point of the terss, after all, is to replace one unhealthy form of deep breathing—smoking cigarettes or vapes—with another: clean, healthy breathing through your terss.
We hope that this article, and the wealth of links and studies it points toward, feel helpful, or inspire a little confidence. Now you know that turning your smoking habit into a terssing habit isn’t just cutting smoke or nicotine out of your life, it’s a huge, healthy, positive step toward physical and mental well-being, with all the happiness, energy, productivity, and relaxation that involves.