Want better health? Learn to breathe like a child again

By Tony Dearing | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on January 16, 2017 at 8:08 AM

"If I had to limit my advice in healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."—Dr. Andrew Weil

Breathing is one of the most natural things we do ‐‐ and one of the most important for our health.

That's why it troubles Dr. Belisa Vranich to look around and see so many of us breathing incorrectly. We use our shoulders and neck to sip in small amounts of oxygen, and then we give a weak exhale, like letting the last bit of air out of a limp balloon.

Vranich calls this "vertical" breathing, and she says it's wreaking havoc on our well‐being in ways we never imagined.

Insomnia. Anxiety. Digestive disorders. Chronic pain. Cognitive decline. Vranich says all can be made worse by a lack of proper oxygenation.

She says learning ‐‐ or rather, relearning ‐‐ how to breathe properly is a form of medicine that's free and easy to do.

"When you say oxygen and breathing are important, everyone nods, but they don't do anything about it," says Vranich, a clinical psychologist and former columnist for Shape. "They go on thinking about calories, thinking about supplements, about green juices and exercise, but all of those things, at the end of the day, are about being able to oxygenate your body better. So why not just start with oxygenating your body better?"

Vranich's message of better health through better breathing is getting plenty of attention these days. She's been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning American and in the Wall Street Journal and Cosmopolitan. In early December, she did a TEDx talk titled "How to Breathe" (see the video above) and at the end of the month, her book, "Breathe," was published by St. Martin's Press.

Her message is an age‐old one, made more timely than ever by the stress‐ridden lives we lead today.

"Ancient yogis said you come into life with a certain number of breaths, and you can take them quickly and have a short lifespan, or you can take them long and deep and have a long lifespan," Vranich says.

That wisdom has been confirmed by modern science. The Framingham Heart Study, a landmark research project that's followed the health of some 5,000 adults in Massachusetts since 1948, found that measuring our lung capacity is a reliable predictor of both current health and longevity. The more deeply you breathe, the healthier you're likely to be and the longer you live.

Vranich says if you want to understand how to breathe properly, observe the way a toddler breathes ‐‐ or a terrier, for that matter.

"Look at a child under the age of 5, or any pet you have they're not breathing with their shoulders," she says. "No animal on the planet except us is breathing with its shoulders, which were never meant to be breathing muscles."

The muscle we're supposed to breathe with is the diaphragm, located between your lungs and stomach. We start out naturally breathing this way, but Vranich says the habits and stresses of modern living lead us into dysfunctional, upper‐body breathing.

She says that process begins in childhood, when we enter school and begin to spend most of our time sitting. Technology has only exacerbated the problem. Nowadays, we not only sit around more than we should, but much of that time is spent staring at a screen.

"Screens, be they on your computer, your laptop, your hand‐held, they're doing a number on us," Vranich says. "There is no way to be looking at a screen and be taking deep breaths. You're automatically going to take a breath that's more shallow."

What bad breathing does to our brain

Vranich says shallow breathing limits our ability to properly oxygenate our body and brain, and a host of maladies problems can result, including cognitive loss. That's what got my attention. This column is devoted to brain health and successful aging. I'm always looking for ways we can reduce our risk of dementia through better health habits.

In her book "Breathe,'' Vranich says our brain uses 20 percent of the oxygen we consume, and better oxygenation of the brain can improve learning, memory, cognition and the regulation of emotions. In addition, she says "Dementia has many forms and causes but one of the most common unifying factors among all the varying forms is oxygen deprivation to the brain. Oxidative stress directly affects brain health in dementia patients."

Vranich became interested in the subject of breathing after she woke up with severe jaw pain one morning. "Being a compulsive Type A, I wasn't just grinding my teeth, I was pulverizing them," she says. She decided it was time to get a handle on her stress, so she signed up for a yoga class, which introduced her to breathing concepts and led her to deeper research.

She studied the breathing techniques utilized in birthing, free‐diving and martial arts. She studied opera singers.

"When I do my teacher training, I show video of Maria Callas, the opera singer, and we talk about how she sings," Vranich says. "Opera singers have real control over their breathing muscle."

Try these simple exercise to breathe better

And that control, Vranich says, is the key. We need to re‐engage and strengthen our breathing muscle ‐‐ the diaphragm ‐‐ so we can become a lower‐body breather again, the way we were in early childhood.

"The fact is, when we talk about breathing, everyone talks about lungs," she says. "Yes, lungs are what's filled with air and oxygen, but your breathing muscles are much more important. We're spending all this time worrying about triceps and bat wings and all these other silly things, but what about our breathing muscles?"

And here's the good news. Vranich says the diaphragm can be strengthened with simple, easy‐to‐do breathing exercises. 

In her book, she outlines a 14‐day plan to get you breathing properly again. But you can start right now, using a couple of basic breathing exercises she calls "rock and roll" and "tactical breath." She demonstrates them in her TEDx talk video above, beginning around the 8:18 mark.

The simplicity of the exercises appeals to Vranich, but so does the holistic nature of it. She says many of the patients she sees have become disenchanted with traditional medicine and are looking for ways to reduce the number of medications they're taking.

"They come in and say, 'If you could get me off my blood‐pressure medication, if you could help me get off my sleeping pills, my pain pills,'" she says. "That's all the things that breathing does. You can change your blood pressure in no time at all by changing your breathing."

Vranich says people who rediscover lower‐body breathing notice the difference almost immediately.

"Using your diaphragm to breathe feels so good," she says. "All of the sudden, you're calmer, you're better oxygenated. You used to breathe that way, and your body wants to breathe that way. It's actually one of the easiest changes in health behavior I've ever worked on."