The science of breathing stands on quite ancient foundations. Centuries of wisdom instructs us to pay closer attention to our breathing, the most basic of things we do each day. The first functional movement you perform when you come out of your mother's womb… breath. And yet, maybe because breathing is so basic, it’s also easy to ignore. A growing number of studies have revealed that diaphragmatic breathing may trigger body relaxation responses and benefit both physical and mental health. 

Breathing exercises, or the focus on slow regular and sometimes deep breathing, are helpful to manage stress and improve health.  In this blog, we are going to talk about the 4-7-8 breathing method (also known as the Relaxing Breath) and why it is a great way to end a training session.  The principles of 4-7-8 breathing come from ancient yogic breathing techniques known as Pranayama. Yoga breathing has been scientifically shown to decrease stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure [5], improve immunity, and help us sleep.

“Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.” Andrew Weil, M.D.

The 4-7-8 Breathing Method:

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr Andrew Weil. It’s based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, which helps practitioners gain control over their breathing. The numbers should be an easy give away -- 4-7-8 -- refer to the counts when breathing in, holding your breath and exhaling. 

  1. Start by sitting up straight in a comfortable position.

  2. Place the tip of your tongue on the ridge of your gums, just behind your upper front teeth.

  3. Expand your diaphragm and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4.

  4. Hold your breath for another count of 7.

  5. Open your mouth slightly, keeping your tongue in place, and exhale for 8 counts.

  6. Repeat this cycle 4 times.

This exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.

It’s promised to be powerful if used regularly over time. The idea behind these scheduled breathing sessions, however, is to retrain your entire way of breathing. With enough practice, you should begin breathing more deeply without thinking about it. 

Benefits of 4-7-8 Breathing Method: 

  • This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilliser for the nervous system

  • Switches autonomous nervous system (ANS) states from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest). Post-exercise this can help increase recovery

  • Lowering cortisol (stress hormone). Post-training this can also help switch the body into a state of recovery

  • Increases the antioxidant defence status in athletes after exhaustive exercise 

  • Lower stress-related markers of inflammation

  • Helps to fall asleep, perform this exercise when you jump into bed to help unwind

  • Controlling your breath calms you monkey brain

  • Breathing regulates blood pressure and heart rate

  • The rhythm of your breath affect memory

Some of the research behind breathing:

A 2016 study [4] accidentally stumbled upon the neural circuit in the brainstem that seems to play the key role in the breathing-brain control connection.  The circuit is part of what's been called the brain’s “breathing pacemaker” because it can be adjusted by altering breathing rhythm (slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit; fast, erratic breathing increases activity), which in turn influences emotional states. Exactly how this happens is still being researched, but knowing the pathway exists is a big step forward. 

A separate 2016 study [2] published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yoga breathing for just 20 minutes was able to lower stress-related markers of inflammation measured in the saliva. Researchers examined levels of biomolecules in the body called cytokines in the saliva of twenty participants. Half of the group read a book for 20 minutes while the other half did specific yoga breathing exercises. Rhythmic breathing is a simple breathing exercise that regulates the breath based on specific counts.  Researchers measured samples from the beginning of the exercise in five-minute intervals up to 20 minutes and found that, at the end of 20 minutes, three stress-related biomarkers significantly decreased in those who did the yoga breathing exercise but not in people who were just reading.

A study published in the January 2014 Journal of Diagnostic Research linked both fast and slow types of pranayama to reduced stress and improved cognition, including attention, retention as well as speed in tasks that merge vision and physical action, such as playing sports.

A 2011 study [1] looked at the impacts of diaphragmatic breathing to see if it reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Sixteen athletes were monitored in the study during an exhaustive training session. After the exercise, athletes were divided into two equivalent groups. Subjects of the studied group spent one hour relaxing performing diaphragmatic breathing and concentrating on their breath in a quiet place. The other eight subjects, representing the control group, spent the same time sitting in an equivalent quite place.  Results demonstrate that relaxation induced by diaphragmatic breathing increases the antioxidant defence status in athletes after exhaustive exercise. These effects correlate with the concomitant decrease in cortisol and the increase in melatonin. "Diaphragmatic breathing is relaxing and therapeutic, reduces stress, and is a fundamental procedure of Pranayama Yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other meditation practices. Analysis of oxidative stress levels in people who meditate indicated that meditation correlates with lower oxidative stress levels, lower cortisol levels and higher melatonin levels. It is known that cortisol inhibits enzymes responsible for the antioxidant activity of cells and that melatonin is a strong antioxidant.” 

If you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed, one of the best things you can do is take control of your breath. It sends a signal to the brain that you're not in danger, and you'll start to feel physically calmer almost immediately. Results demonstrate that relaxation induced by diaphragmatic breathing increases the antioxidant defence status in athletes after exhaustive exercise. These effects correlate with the concomitant decrease in cortisol and the increase in melatonin. The consequence is a lower level of oxidative stress, which suggests that an appropriate diaphragmatic breathing could protect athletes from long-term adverse effects of free radicals. 

A 2003 study [3] looked at the effect of the short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. Sixty male undergraduate medical students were randomly divided into two groups: slow breathing group (that practised slow breathing exercise) and the fast breathing group (that practised fast breathing exercise). The breathing exercises were practised for a period of three months. Autonomic function tests were performed before and after the practice of breathing exercises. The slow breathing group increased parasympathetic nervous system (PSN) (rest and digest) activity and decreased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (fight and flight) activity, whereas no significant change in autonomic functions was observed in the fast breathing group.

Why is it important for athletes post training?

“If I strengthen the contractile function of the diaphragm, do I become superhuman”

After your workout/competition, you need to be able to switch from sympathetic (energy expenditure) to the parasympathetic (energy production) to improve training adaptation and recovery.   Coaches and trainers often look at resting heart rate (RHR), heart rate variability (HRV), and other physiological measures, as recovery from a systemic perspective includes all systems of the body.  Recovery of the muscular, nervous, and immune systems, in particular, are critical components in helping athletes reach their goals. Athletes who are injured, overtrained, or have a compromised immune system will not be able to function or perform at an optimal level.

A 2018 study [6] compared deep diaphragmatic breathing (DB) versus paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) on indices of physiological stress reactivity in 76 varsity athletes. Athletes were trained in paced breathing, and then randomized to either DB or PMR, and underwent a cognitive stressor task.

DB resulted in significantly higher tidal volume (representing the normal volume of air displaced between normal inhalation and exhalation when extra effort is not applied). DB resulted in significantly higher heart rate variability (HRV) than PMR. Both groups reported feeling significantly more relaxed after the intervention than after paced breathing. The DB group reported a trend toward greater relaxation than the PMR group. Slow DB is an easy to teach tool that may give athletes an edge on successfully managing stress reactivity, whether they are preparing for a test or for competition.

Here are numerous proven benefits athletes can receive from using diaphragmatic breathing [7]:

  • Enhanced motor coordination (i.e., hand-eye coordination, speed, timing)

  • Improved ability to regulate emotions (i.e., composure)

  • Increased focus and concentration (i.e., hearing the snap count)

  • Faster information processing (i.e., decision making, problem-solving, improvisation, discrimination)

One of the functions of mind-body medicine is to tap into the body’s natural relaxation response -- in order to promote slower breathing, improve blood pressure, reduce stress and enhance wellness. While simply breathing deeply in and out can work, it can be more helpful to have a structured approach that gives you something to really concentrate on and take your mind off the stress at hand.

REFERENCES: 

1. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress, Martarelli.D, Et Al, 2011

2. Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva: a pilot randomized controlled trial, 2016

3. Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers, G.K. Pal, S. Velkumary & Madanmohan, 2013

4. Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice, Kevin Yackle, Et al, 2016

5. Immediate Effect of slow pace bastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate, Pramanik.T, Et Al, 2009

6. Positive Effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Physiological Stress Reactivity in Varsity Athletes, Melissa G. Hunt, Et Al, 2018

7. Coherence: Bridging Personal, Social, and Global Health, McCraty and Childre, 2010