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Don't Forget to Breathe!

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In a previous post, I promised you that I would discuss why the way we breathe is so important, so here it goes. I am a lover of what I'll call "fun facts." Since I work in medicine, it's a nice marriage because there are all kinds of random tidbits of information that pertain to health.

One of the fun facts that I find fascinating has to do with breathing. Yup, the thing you've done since birth and rarely ever thought about. I'll get back to why that is, in a moment. This past year, I realized that I am a bit of a hothead, and I have the tendency to respond quickly. Sometimes... a little too quickly. And, really, I don't want to live my life leaving a group of irked and offended people in my wake. So, I've had to develop a few techniques to keep from putting my foot in my mouth, and focused breathing is one of those techniques.

Each time you breathe in, you activate the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the "fight or flight" responses that we typically have; it can raise our pulse, increase our blood pressure, inhibit digestion and divert blood flow away from the intestines and toward the muscles in our legs. This is because, for all our advances, we are still physically very primitive, and so our bodies are built to give our legs an extra boost when we need it -- like for instance, when we encounter a lion or jungle cat and need to run away.

Conversely, when you breathe out, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for things like relaxation, rejuvenation and digestion. Obviously, we need to perform both functions, but the ways in which we go about it can make the difference between pumping ourselves up or calming ourselves down.

Breathing in a way that promotes stress reduction (by activating the parasympathetic nervous system) takes practice and attention, two things we often have in short supply. Ironically, we are often too busy to focus on breathing well. Ironic since, if we could slow down enough to focus on breathing, our stress levels would decrease and we might then be more effective in our daily tasks!

OK, back to the breathing.

Take a deep breath. Your belly (below the belly button) should fill with air and rise. Your chest may also expand, but not hugely, because the air should really be going into your belly. The easiest way to determine whether you are breathing into your belly is to lie down and put your hands below your belly button. When you breathe in, your hands should rise as you fill your belly with air. If you've ever watched babies while they sleep, this is the same breathing that they do; somewhere along the line we just forgot how to do it. After you breathe in, breathe out, preferably through your nose.

Now, here's the important part. For however long you breathe in for, the exhale should be longer. So, if you inhale for three seconds, the exhale should be four, five or more seconds. Think of it like calories. Your inhale is what you eat and your exhale is how many calories you burn. We all want to burn more calories than we take in so that we don't gain weight. It's the same idea with the breathing. The length of time doesn't matter, as long as the exhale is longer!

Already, I can hear the questions regarding why this is important. Well, most of us are busy, right? And "down" time is hard to come by, right? And we are all stressed for one reason or another! Focusing on breathing like this for just five minutes a day has the potential to quiet your stress responses, and increase your body's ability to rest, digest and rejuvenate.

There are countless ways to de-stress and calm down. The best things about using breath-work for stress reduction are that you can do it anywhere, it's virtually error-proof, you can't injure yourself doing it and, best of all, it's free! Give it a try -- your body will thank you!

For more by Wendie Trubow, click here.

For more on stress, click here.