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New Research Explains How Our Breathing Affects Our Brains

New research has shown how moderating our breathing can affect how our brains function. Consequently, knowing how our brains function can determine how we react to specific events and deal with stress, anxiety, and trauma.

The link between breathing and brain function

We have all heard the phrases, “breathe in, breathe out…” or alternatively, “just take a deep breath,” probably said to us in a moment of high anxiety, stress, or anger. However, as reported by Science Daily, new research explains how taking deep breaths can affect the innermost workings of our brains and how we act in certain situations.

The Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University in Denmark has carried out over a dozen studies using rodent, monkey, and human brain imaging and used the results to formulate a computer-based model that explains how our breathing can influence the brain’s expectations.

According to Professor Micah Allen from Aarhus University,

“We found that brain rhythms are closely tied to the rhythm of our breath across many different types of tasks and animals. We are more sensitive to the outside world when we are breathing in, whereas the brain tunes out more when we breathe out.

This also aligns with how some extreme sports use breathing, for example, professional marksmen are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation.”

The study’s findings suggest that breathing is more than just something we do to stay alive. The results obtained indicate that the brain and breathing are closely intertwined in a way that goes far beyond survival. Breathing can be a natural way of alleviating mental pressure. Conversely, the lack of breathing normally, such as when in a state of anxiety or tension, can lead to the brain misfiring and rational thinking and functionality breaking down.

The relationship between the brain and breathing can subsequently impact emotions, attention, and how we process the outside world. The model produced by the research suggests there is a common mechanism in the brain that links the rhythm of breathing to these events.

How does breathing affect mental health?

Understanding how breathing shapes our brain and, by extension, our mood, thoughts, and behaviors is an important goal in preventing and treating mental illness. According to Dr Allen,

“Difficulty breathing is associated with a very large increase in the risk for mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. We know that respiration, respiratory illness, and psychiatric disorders are closely linked.

Our study raises the possibility that the next treatments for these disorders might be found in the development of new ways to realign the rhythms of the brain and body, rather than treating either in isolation.”

Using breathing techniques to stabilize our minds through breathing is a well-known and well-used tactic in many countries and cultures. Indeed, traditional practices such as yoga and meditation heavily rely on breathing control, so participants benefit most from the activity.

This new research study sheds further light on how the control of breathing can alter brain functionality. The study suggests that three pathways in the brain control this interaction between breathing and brain activity.

It also suggests that our breathing pattern can make the brain more ‘excitable’ – this translates to the brain’s neurons being more likely to fire during certain times of breathing.

Further work to do in this field

The new study opens up a whole field of recent research possibilities for future studies. For example, for those people with respiratory or mood disorders, one area in which Aarhus University has already commenced further investigations.

Commenting on the University’s future studies, Dr Allen said,

“We have a variety of ongoing projects that are both building on and testing various parts of the model we have proposed. We are already conducting innovative brain imaging studies in humans to try and understand how different kinds of emotional and visual perception are influenced by breathing in the brain.”

Interestingly, the team is also collaborating with the Pulmonology research team at Aarhus University Hospital on a project to understand whether patients suffering from long-covid may have disruptions in the breath-brain alignment as a result of the respiratory issues they have developed as a result. This misalignment is thought to be leading to specific observed mental health issues.

Furthermore, the University is also hoping to study how lifestyle factors like stress, sleep, and even things like winter swimming influence breath-brain interaction. Accodting to Dr Allen, the team is excited to be able to continue their research into these areas of interest.

Take a breath

It is interesting to hear that research projects like the ones at Aarhus University are proposing to shed more light on the benefits of taking a deep breath.

Where once it was considered a simple way to take time out from the issue causing stress, science is working hard to explain why doing so can provide a sense of calmness on a scientific level. Regardless of age or gender, taking a breath can deliver the benefits we all need from time to time when things might just be getting too much.

What do you think of the research findings? Do you often tell yourself to take a breath when you feel stressed? Let us know in the comments below. 



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