Breathwork has long been known to improve emotional and spiritual wellbeing. The focused, intentional practice of controlling the breath can reduce stress, boost creativity, and help people connect more mindfully to the world around them.
Still, the benefits of mindful breathwork go far beyond the spiritual space. Hundreds of scientific studies have found intentional breathing can lead to physical as well as mental healing. In some cases, breathwork has demonstrated the power to improve health conditions that have traditionally required medication or intensive therapies to control.
In this article, we’ll look at five health conditions that have been scientifically proven to benefit from breathwork practices.
5 Health Conditions that Benefit from Breathwork
Anxiety and Depression
Sitting somewhere on the precipice of mental and physical ailment are the all too common conditions of anxiety and depression. Both of these issues are classified as mental health disorders but involve a significant number of physical symptoms from hormone imbalances to immune system compromise.
Given the connection between emotional and physical, it should come as no surprise that breathwork has proved a valuable tool in helping people overcome anxiety and depression.
One study focused on university students found that breathwork was more powerful in staving off and reversing depression and anxiety than yoga, emotional regulation techniques and other mindfulness exercises.
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition that affects nearly half of all American adults. Left untreated, this condition puts people at risk for heart attack, stroke, metabolic disease and dementia. The most common treatments for hypertension involve medications meant to decrease blood volume and reduce the force exerted by the heart.
An alternative to pharmaceuticals that has shown incredible promise for lowering blood pressure is breathwork.
Both slow and fast breathing techniques have been shown to have an acute effect on blood pressure, but only breathwork involving slow, deep breaths was found to reduce hypertension long term. Multiple studies, including one out of India, have found adding breathwork to a person’s hypertension treatment can significantly reduce the amount of medication needed to keep them within a healthy blood pressure range.
One of the more surprising findings to come out of studying intentional breathing is that this practice can influence how your immune system functions. Specifically, breathwork that uses short, shallow breathing appears to prime the immune system to be less reactive, thereby reducing inflammation.
In one study, a group of participants was taught a breathing technique that utilized cyclic hyperventilation and breath retention. After 10 days of using this technique, the participants were exposed to a bacteria that causes moderate flu-like symptoms. The researchers found that the participants who had been utilizing the breathing technique had fewer inflammation markers in their blood after exposure than the control group.
While more research is needed, these results seem to indicate that breathwork could be beneficial to those living with autoimmune disorders and other chronic inflammatory conditions.
Neuropathy is a type of nerve disorder most commonly caused by poorly controlled diabetes. There are two common types that affect this population: peripheral and autonomic. Peripheral neuropathy affects the nerves in the body, particularly those that control feeling in the limbs. Autonomic neuropathy, on the other hand, affects nerves that control involuntary functions like heart rate and blood pressure.
Researchers have found that slow, deep breathing has the potential to not only ease the symptoms of autonomic neuropathy but may be able to reverse the condition entirely. By taking long breaths at a rate of six per minute, participants in the study were able to improve their autonomic cardiac function scores by 32 percent after just one session. The researchers believe this breathing technique creates a hyper-oxygenated environment within the body that helps drive the repair of this system.
The correlation between pain reduction and breath is nothing new. Women have been using this practice to reduce the pain of labor for centuries. Today, breathwork remains an integral part of Lamaze and many other childbirth techniques, but the pain-reducing benefits of intentioned breathing go far beyond labor pains.
A number of studies have shown the potential of breathwork to reduce pain scores in patients suffering everything from cancer treatments to acute trauma.
In one study that looked at cancer patients, researchers found participants who were taught mind-body practices, including yoga and breathwork, reported significant pain reduction after putting these techniques into practice. A similar study found that breathwork alone helped reduce pain for patients undergoing burn treatment in a hospital setting.
Interestingly, research into the connection between intentioned breathing and pain reduction has yet to reveal exactly what it is about the practice that helps lower pain levels. What we do know, thanks to studies like this one, is that deep breathing does not cause the body to release its own opioids as a means to dull the pain. More likely, breathwork helps relax the body and reduces stress hormones that cause inflammation and sensitivity.
Starting a Breathwork Practice
Whether you suffer from one of the above conditions or are just looking to bring a little more wellbeing into your life, starting a breathwork practice is a great idea. Not only does intentioned breathing benefit your mind and body, it’s easy to learn how to do and, once mastered, can be done anywhere.
There are dozens of breathwork techniques out there. Some rely on long, deep breathing, while others focus on shallow breaths and cyclic hyperventilation. Both have unique applications and effects on the body and mind.
Many of these different techniques can be learned from breathwork trainers and yoga instructors. These days, you can even learn some of the more popular techniques by downloading a smartphone app like Calm or Headspace. If you would like to get started with a few simple exercises, you can check out our three all-time favorite breathwork techniques.