Revised January 14, 2010 to breath out through your nose rather than through your mouth, and also to add counting so you know how long to take a breath in, hold your breath, and breath out.
Many functions through your body are regulated by your autonomic nervous system, which controls important actions of the heart, glands and the muscles of organs, veins, arteries, etc., which are automatic responses, like keeping your heart beating.
There are two types of autonomic nerves in your body, and these are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The parasympathetic nervous system calms us down and helps us heal.
The sympathetic nervous system is activated when a person needs to get out of a dangerous situation or act quickly to respond to an emergency or threats. For example, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in when you must stop your child from running out in front of a car. That is why it is called the fight/flight nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for up- and down-regulating of many body functions, like an increase in heart rate which are needed to respond quickly.
The sympathetic nervous system also operates when we are under emotional or physical stress. Being sick and going through the healing processes are very stressful for you and your body. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated it puts your body and mind in an alert mode which changes many bodily functions as follows:
- your mouth becomes dry because saliva production is decreased
- your breathing becomes more shallow yet you are breathing faster
- your lungs and bronchial tubes are expanded to provide more oxygen
- your stomach produces much less stomach acid (HCl)
- the movement of your bowels is slowed down
- it is more difficult to urinate, since the valve to your bladder is kept closed
- your heart rate increases, as well as the force of heart contractions (it feels like pounding in your chest)
- the pupils in your eyes get larger (open up)
- your adrenals glands increase production of adrenaline and other hormones
- blood is sent to the brain while skin and internal organs get less oxygen
- muscle tension is increased
See "The Sympathetic Nervous System" for a diagram so you can visualize better how it operates.
It is very important for healing that you know when your body is operating on its sympathetic nervous system, which is when the above changes occur. Whenever you becomes aware of it you can switch your body from operating on its sympathetic nervous system to operating on its parasympathetic nervous system by doing deep breathing exercises through your nose.
Did you know that breathing through the nose creates an avenue of air that is moisturized and even somewhat filtered? When we breathe through our nose, the air passes through the nasal airway and contacts the turbinates — shelf-like bony structures — which slows it down. This allows the proper mixing of air with an amazing gas produced in the nasal sinuses called nitric oxide (NO).
Nitric oxide is secreted into the nasal passages and is inhaled through the nose. It is a powerful vasodilator (meaning it opens up or expands the blood vessels), and in the lungs it helps the uptake of oxygen. Nitric oxide is also produced in the walls of blood vessels and is critical to all organs in the body, particularly the heart – see Breathing Through Your Nose is Essential.
Here’s how to do deep breathing exercises:
- Take slow, deep breaths through your nose as you count to 8.
- Hold your breath for a count of 4.
- Slowly let the air out of your lungs through your nose as you count to 8 or higher (if you can).
When you first start to do this exercise you may only be able to fill your lungs partway, so you cannot get up to the count of 8, but that is okay. As you keep doing them you’ll find it becomes easier to take slower and deeper breaths.
For most people it will take about 5 deep breaths in a row to switch their body over to its relaxed healing mode. Even after 3 deep breaths you may feel saliva pouring into your mouth and the tension you felt in your stomach easing up.
Our breath is a link to the most profound medicine that we carry within us. Within this nearly unconscious gesture, a breath, that we enact 1,261,440,000 (1 and 1/4 billion) times in our life span there is a simple yet profound healing capability.