Belly Breathing for Stress Reduction and Vibrant Health.

vibrant health with proper breathing

Re-establishing a normal breathing pattern, with proper diaphragm activity, is vital to your health for the following reasons:

  1. It provides proper oxygen delivery to your body.
  2. It allows you to use your lungs to their fullest extent.
  3. The wave-like motion imparted by the diaphragm massages and mobilizes your thoracic and abdominal organs, helping to optimize their function!
  4. It helps circulation to and from your heart.
  5. It assists circulation of lymph, a key component of your immune system.
  6. Bringing awareness to diaphragmatic breathing is a useful stress reduction tool, which can help reduce headaches, anxiety and chronic pain.

In my last article (Paying Attention to your Breathing), I wrote about pausing to pay attention to your breathing. The focus was simply on pausing to notice and gently slow your breathing.

In this article, I will describe a simple belly breathing exercise that will reintroduce your diaphragm to the normal breathing pattern. I want you to become aware of the quality of movement in natural, relaxed and effective breathing because the loss of the normal breathing pattern has many ill effects on our health.

Some of the ill effects of faulty breathing include: neck and shoulder tension, headaches, general chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, decreased ability to heal….etc…

Let’s start with a little understanding of the anatomy and mechanics of breathing.

The respiratory diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. When it contracts, it pulls air into your lungs. The oxygen from the air in your lungs is transferred to your blood. The heart pumps this blood throughout the body to deliver oxygen to all your cells. 

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, situated across the lower rib cage. It separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. 

 


diaphragm movement with breathing

On the left: diaphragm has contracted – breathing in, the lungs expand.

On the right: the diaphragm has relaxed – breathing out the lungs recoil. 

When you breathe in, with normal and proper function, you are contracting your diaphragm. When the diaphragm contracts, its center (the top of the dome) moves downward. Your lower rib cage expands and your belly moves forward to make room for your stomach, liver and intestines, as they are pushed down. When you breathe out the diaphragm is relaxing. The top of the dome moves upward and your belly moves back in, as your abdominal organs follow the diaphragm upwards. The resultant out and in movement of your belly is why diaphragmatic breathing is often called belly breathing. This pumping action of the diaphragm not only brings in vital oxygen for your body, it provides a massaging effect to your organs. Your heart, lungs, liver and digestive tract actually rely on the massaging wave of the diaphragm for optimal function.

Troubled breathing can be a pain in the neck.pain in the neck from shallow breathing

There is good evidence that shallow, rapid breathing is quite common. It is a natural response to stress. When you fall into the habit of shallow breathing you are requiring your neck, chest and shoulder muscles to help you breathe. Under normal circumstances, the average adult  breathes in about 22,000 times per day.  Imagine how much extra work (stress) that is for your neck, chest and shoulder muscles, if you are not letting your diaphragm do that work. The diaphragm is the only muscle configured to do the bulk of this work. Many people who suffer from chronic neck and/or shoulder pain and headaches, do so, at least in part, because they’re natural breathing pattern has been altered. When your breathing overuses secondary or accessory muscles, as in neck, shoulder and chest muscles, the diaphragm becomes weaker. Once weakened it is no simple task to regain its strength.

Belly breathing exercises are extremely valuable because they train you to primarily use your diaphragm to breathe. This helps regain strength and tone in your primary breathing muscle. It is important to note that the diaphragm has a key supportive function in regulating posture too. This is because it attaches to your spine as well as your rib cage. Therefore, by activating your diaphragm you reduce tension in your neck and shoulder muscles and you facilitate better posture.

Here is how you can start practicing full diaphragmatic breathing.

Important Notice: The following exercises are intended to introduce the awareness of diaphragmatic breath. It assumes the presence of certain normal physiologic functions. If you suffer from any chronic obstructive or restrictive diseases of respiration, or other ailments and find these exercises difficult or distressing, please discontinue and see a healthcare practitioner for guidance on what you can do to improve your breathing. If you find yourself struggling, tensing or feeling short of breath, even if you have no known disease, do not continue without consulting a healthcare practitioner, who is knowledgeable in breathing rehabilitation. The normal breathing pattern may have been lost due to compensation for chronic illness, stress, poor posture or injury. It can take weeks of breathing re-education combined with physical rehabilitation – and sometimes psychological counseling – to undo old habits and re-learn proper breathing patterns.

Positioning yourself

•Lie on your back on the bed or floor with a comfortable mat.restful position for practicing belly breathing

•You may rest your head on a pillow for comfort.

•Place two pillows under your knees. – This is important to help remove any tension from your abdominal, back and leg muscles.

•Rest your hands on your belly or place a light book on your abdomen just above your navel (belly button).

•Bring your lips together gently and breathe through your nose.

•Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth, with its tip just behind the top teeth. – This is the position your tongue goes to when you swallow. It should be the natural resting place for your tongue when you breathe through your nose.

•Begin to notice your breathing as you relax for a few moments, without trying to do anything to control your breath. Just enjoy doing nothing but noticing your breath for one minute.

The exercise

As you settle in to a resting state, and relaxed breathing, notice if your belly rises when you are breathing in. The book ( or your hands) you placed on your abdomen is there to provide a little visual and perceptual feedback. Your exercise is to quietly pay attention to your breath and what the book and your belly are doing. Continue to just notice your breath for 1 to 2 minutes, without trying to change anything.  With a normal breathing pattern, at rest, you should see the book rise as you breathe in and come back down as you let your breath out. At rest, there should be expansion of your abdomen and lower rib cage as you breathe in and very little movement of your upper chest.

Are you using your diaphragm?

If your upper chest is rising more than your belly, you are not using your diaphragm correctly. To determine whether you are belly breathing, you may place one hand on your breast bone and one just above your belly button to compare which moves more.

To encourage your in-breath to lift the book ( or move your hand) on your belly, visualize a balloon just behind your belly button. When you breathe in, allow the air to go directly into that balloon, effectively lifting the book as the balloon fills. Do not try to take in a lot of air. Just breathe in comfortably, without effort.

Settling into diaphragm breathing can and should be deeply relaxing. Try practicing 5 minutes, twice daily. If you find this relaxing, by all means, enjoy it for 10 to 20 minutes! Otherwise, practice for short periods frequently. It should become easier with practice. Be patient.

Remember, if you feel any distress or discomfort when trying this exercise, discontinue the exercise, resume breathing naturally and contact me or your healthcare provider for guidance.

If you can do this easily in the supine position, you can and should practice this in sitting and standing too. You will need your hands over your belly for the feedback the book provided while you were on your back. Be forewarned that while it may be easy to do in lying on your back, it is different when sitting or standing. Future articles will address some progression ideas. 

If you have difficulty allowing your belly to rise as you breathe in, try this:

As you lie on your back, clasp your hands on top of your head. Resting the weight of your arms in this way takes tension away from tight upper chest muscles. Does this make it easier for the book to rise on the inhale? Tense upper chest, shoulder and neck muscles can interfere with the normal restful breathing pattern. You can practice diaphragmatic breathing with your arms in this position, at first. Eventually, you will want to be able to place your arms to your side. If you can’t let the tension out of your upper chest, neck or shoulders, consider getting some bodywork and/or coaching in relaxation and breathing re-education.

In conclusion

Shallow breathing and other breathing pattern changes, develop from the accumulation of stresses of daily living, following injury or illness, and also from poor posture. Many ailments are in some manner affected by your breathing. Sometimes your breathing contributes to some of your ailments. It definitely requires time and repeated practice to reestablish effective breathing patterns. So, play and explore with your breath. Let me know what your experiences are. If you experience discomfort or unease while exploring your breath, hands-on bodywork or physical therapy may be of valuable help. At times, some type of cognitive therapy or coaching is also needed to learn how to cope with your reactions to the world around you. 

This article is only a small piece of the intricate puzzle of breathing and its effects on your health. In my next article we will delve deeper into how breathing patterns affect your health. In the meanwhile, send me your feedback on how the suggested explorations feel for you or any questions that arise. 

Social Distancing Special Offer: free online one on one breath exploration. Contact me for more details.

During this time of social distancing, I am available for virtual coaching on this crucial awareness of your breathing. Contact me, if you have questions or wish to experience coaching on this issue.

Disclaimer
Suggestions made in this publication are no substitute for medical advice. If you have any pain or difficulty performing the described exercise, seek advice from your appropriate health professional.

About the Author

Domenic Lopez B.Sc., Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Licensed Massage Therapist, is owner and operator of Healthy Moves, a private practice where massage therapy and movement and self-care education help you achieve better living.

 

Paying Attention to your Breathing


demonstrating position of paying attention to breathing

Why pay attention to your breathing?

 

 

1. It brings our attention inwards to ourselves.

We must be accepting and kind to ourselves in order to move forward in our lives in a healthy balance.

2. It allows for self discovery. 

Only by stopping to listen will we see, feel and hear how our bodies are asking for help.

3. It allows us to slow down and recalibrate.

This gives us an opportunity to reestablish balance and re-energize. ( There is much science supporting this statement. I am working on writing easy to understand explanations for the physiology behind balanced, effective breathing. Which will be posted in this blog soon.)

4. It provides a much needed distraction from the outside world.

visual image portraying mind body connection with breathing

“Yet breathing is par excellence the bridge
between mind and body.”  David Peters

 

Just paying attention to our breath is in itself meditative. With our conscious attention we cross the bridge, the mind-body connection, to our physiology. With attention and intention, we can; 1) reset, recalibrate , or balance our nervous system and 2) we can, change our biochemistry to positively affect our  acid-base balance, which is key to so much of our physiologic function. I will elaborate on this in future articles.

So how can you recalibrate?

The simplest way is to slow down. Stop, sit and exhale. Simply exhale slowly and lengthen that exhale a little. Then, allow the in breath to happen naturally. If you can, breathe in and out through your nose, with mouth closed and teeth gently in contact -no clenching. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth, with its tip gently contacting the front top teeth. This is where your tongue goes when you swallow. It should be the natural resting place for your tongue when you breathe through your nose. 

breathing inhale exhaleLetting your exhale be a little longer than your inhale, follow your breath this way for one to two minutes. Find a rate of breathing that works for you. Normal restful breathing rate is 8 to 14 breaths per minute. Don’t worry if you can’t slow down to this pace yet. Stay comfortable. Explore only in your comfort range, keeping the focus on a longer exhale than your inhale. You are trying to slow it down just little. Do this 4 to 6 times per day for two minutes. Take note how you feel before and after these breathing pauses. You can go longer if you find this easy to do. If you feel dizzy, light headed, unwell or increasingly anxious during these pauses, just resume your usual breathing pattern. See caution stated below.

 

Important Notice: The preceding exercise is intended to introduce a simple breath exploration.  It assumes the presence of certain normal physiologic functions. If you suffer from any chronic obstructive or restrictive diseases of respiration, cardio-vascular or other ailments and find this exercise difficult or distressing, please discontinue and see a healthcare practitioner for guidance on what you can do to improve your breathing. If you find yourself struggling, tensing or feeling short of breath, even if you have no known disease, do not continue without consulting a healthcare practitioner, who is knowledgeable in breathing rehabilitation. The normal breathing pattern may have been lost due to compensation for chronic illness, stress, poor posture or injury. It can take weeks of breathing re-education combined with physical rehabilitation – and sometimes psychological counseling – to undo old habits and relearn proper breathing patterns.

Lots of repetition is necessary to break old habits and replace them with new ones. Breathing retraining experts recommend giving yourself 6 to 8 weeks of steady practice to achieve improved breathing patterns.  Eventually you can learn different breathing exercises, with focus on different aspects. One example is Diaphragm or Belly Breathing (click here to read more about this). There are many ways to approach this mind-body practice for health. Contact me if you wish to explore your breath and learn more. We can explore together via online meeting such as FaceTime or Zoom, or even over the phone. During this time of social distancing, I am making myself available for online meetings to facilitate some breath exploration. There is no charge for this.

Social Distancing Special offer: free online one on one breath exploration. Contact me for more details.

Below are a couple resources you can look up for further reading. These are written for the lay person and offer lots of information and exercises for healthy breathing and stress relief.

“Breathe, Stretch and Move: Get Rid of Workplace Stress”. by Dinah Bradley and Tania Clifton-Smith an e-book you can download.

“Breathing Matters: a New Zealand guide”. Jim Bartley and Tania Clifton Smith, Random House New Zealand 2013

Disclaimer
Suggestions made in this publication are no substitute for medical advice. If you have any pain or difficulty performing the described exploration, seek advice from your appropriate health professional.

About the Author
Domenic Lopez B.Sc., Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Licensed Massage Therapist, is owner and operator of Healthy Moves, a private practice where massage therapy and movement education help you achieve better living.



 

Increasing your “Happy” Hormone Naturally

image of serotonin and a smiing brain

The Happy Hormone

Serotonin is a molecule that acts as a hormone and a neurotransmitter, which is essential in mental and physical health. It is a key component of good immune function (1). Serotonin is associated with positive mood. It is our ‘feel good‘ or ‘happy‘ hormone.

I write this article to inform you that there are proactive ways to positively modify your serotonin levels. 

Research shows that adequate blood levels of serotonin are associated with positive moods and people with low levels tend to be prone to anxiety and depression.

“…negative emotions were associated with increased disability due to mental and physical disorders, increased incidence of depression, increased suicide and increased mortality up to 2 decades later. Positive emotions protected against these outcomes.” (2)

In 2007, Dr Simon Young, PhD, editor in chief of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience wrote an editorial “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs” (2).

Here is a brief summary.

Four ways to increase your serotonin levels:

  1. Create your own happier, positive moods -self inducing positive moods is proven possible.
  2. Exposure to bright light – like outdoor daylight 
  3. Exercise – or physical activity of your choice
  4. Nutritional intake of tryptophan may help too

1. Creating your positive emotions

Research shows that serotonin levels can be influenced by self-induced changes in mood. Now, more than ever, is the time to learn how to foster inner peace and happiness. Meditation and mindfulness practices, as well as building and maintaining a social support structure, are meaningful ways to improve positive emotions. (For an introduction to a simple mindfulness practice, click here.) You can also boost your feel good hormones by simply practicing feeling gratitude. If needed, behavioral therapy should be considered.

I find Taiji-Qigong practice to be an excellent way of combining exercise and mindfulness. Yoga can serve the same purpose. I will say more about exercise below.

2.  Shining a Bright Light

Exposure to bright light enhances serotonin production in the body. Even on a cloudy day outdoor light can reach a level of 1000 Lux. This level of light is not normally achieved indoors.arms wide facing bright light sunshine

You should get outdoors when the weather permits, whether it’s to play, exercise, do yard chores or simply do some of your reading.

You can also acquire “happy lights”. These are available in stores or online. They have been used to treat seasonal affective disorder. You don’t need to be diagnosed with this disorder to make use of them. I am writing this article on a rainy Saturday afternoon, sitting next to my Verilux HappyLight Energy Lamp.

3.  Exercise for your mood

In his editorial, Dr Young reports that exercise increases serotonin function in the human brain (2). This is well supported by research. The mechanism may have to do with improved metabolism of the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. Exercise and physical activity do indeed improve mood. Whatever the mechanism, finding ways to indulge in aerobic physical activity….and even better in the bright light of the outdoors, is highly likely to boost your serotonin levels.

4.  Eating right can help

The fourth way to improve your serotonin levels may be to increase dietary intake of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin in our bodies.
foods to boost serotoninStudies have shown that tryptophan supplementation can have positive effects on anxiety and depression (2,3,4). While I won’t give specific dietary or supplementation advice here, it may be worth consuming foods high in tryptophan, because tryptophan deficiency will lead to low serotonin levels.

Foods high in tryptophan are: nuts and seeds (pumpkin and squash) , salmon and other fish, soy food, beans and lentils, eggs or egg protein, cheese, turkey and chicken, oats and oat bran.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that simply eating foods with higher tryptophan content will automatically increase your serotonin levels. That is to say, I am suggesting it is important to have adequate amounts of this precursor so that this essential building block is available when you create the right circumstances. 

Balanced diet is always key to good health. Please consult with a registered dietitian to help determine your specific needs.

In conclusion, I encourage you to find strategies that work for you to maintain a positive and proactive approach to maintaining a healthy immune system. I hope to have given you food for thought in finding a combination of exercise, meditation/mindfulness practices, positive thinking and proper diet. These are just a few thoughts to keep you focused on positive things, because, more than ever, we need to occupy ourselves with good things to detract from all the negative stuff going around.

In the upcoming days, I will endeavor to continue to build on these ideas, and more, to help you find what works for you.

You can contact me via email or phone to discuss any concerns or questions  you may have.

Domenic@HealthyMoves-pa.com  or 610-725-0995

References: 
  1. Herr et al. Effects of Serotonin on Immune cells. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. July 2017 doi: 10.3389/fcvm.2017.00048
  1. Young, SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci 2007;32(6):394-9.
  1. Friedman, M. Analysis, Nutrition, and Health Benefits of Tryptophan. International Journal of Tryptophan Research. 2018; Volume 11: 1–12
  1. Lindseth et al. Effects of Dietary Tryptophan on Affective Disorders. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2015 April ; 29(2): 102–107. doi:10.1016/j.apnu.2014.11.008.20

About the Author
Domenic Lopez B.Sc., Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Licensed Massage Therapist, is owner and operator of Healthy Moves, a private practice where massage therapy and movement education help you achieve better living.



 

How to Stretch the Pectoral Muscles

Why Stretch the Pectoral muscles?

Two good reasons to stretch your pectoral muscles are; 1) to decrease shoulder, neck and arm pain, and 2) to improve your posture. Do you remember being told to sit up or stand up straight? Can you relate to slouching? Tension in the front shoulder, and chest (pectoral ) muscles (aka pecs), is largely responsible for the common forward shoulder posture, which accompanies the slouching posture. The following stretches will help you straighten your posture and free up your shoulder function.

How to Stretch

  • Begin by facing a wall.
  • Stretch out your right arm – it should be a little below horizontal.
  • Place your right palm against the wall.
  • Rotate your trunk slowly to the left – just far enough to to begin to feel a stretch in the front of the right shoulder and/or upper arm.
  • Your feet should align parallel to the wall.
  • Place your left hand on the wall in front of your chest.
  • Keep your right shoulder blade down – i.e. don’t let the shoulder shrug upward.
  • Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times with each side read more…

Surviving Snow Shoveling

Surviving Snow Shoveling           snow shoveling

With snow shoveling, specially the wet heavy stuff, comes the increased incidences of heart attacks and back injuries.

Why the Heart Attacks?

The reason for the heart attacks, while shoveling, is over stressing the heart with exertion.

The two main reasons for this are: 1- lack of physical conditioning and 2- trying to get the job done too quickly.

You need to know your limits and you need to pace yourself. However, when the snow falls, and you need to get to work, the scramble is on to move as much snow as quickly as possible. Hence, the heart attack or injured back.

Why the back injuries? 

Again, the need to know your limits and pacing yourself are paramount. There is also the need to use proper body mechanics in order to minimize strain on the back . As in every physical activity, you need to develop a balance between strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. read more…

Learn how to Rake Leaves Without Back Pain.

drawing of man in squatting position while raking leaves

 

Image depicting back pain

 

Why does raking leaves cause back pain? Most of the time this is because you are unwittingly straining the back muscles and joints of the spine..

It doesn’t have to be that way. Using proper body mechanics when raking, as well as performing other chores around the house, can greatly reduce back pain, strain and other injuries.

The safe way to rake leaves is to let your arms and legs do the work. Do not twist your body, or sweep to the side. Sweeping to the side requires twisting of the body. This creates torsion forces on the muscles, joints and other tissues protecting the spine. These torsion forces are unnecessarily strenuous, and damaging to your spine. Keep your movements in the forward and backward direction only. read more…