The Transformative Power of Breathwork

Written by: Marianne Sheena

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Healf Journal

Breath. It's an involuntary action that sustains our life, yet few of us truly harness its full potential. Beyond its physiological necessity, our breath can unlock profound mental, emotional, and physical benefits and is one of the quickest tools we have for changing our state. But are we doing it all wrong?

Written By Marianne Sheena - Nutritional Therapist specialising in gut, hormonal and adrenal health. Her approach focuses on combining dietary changes with lifestyle and biohacking techniques to rebalance and restore optimal health

Why Does Breathing Matter?


Breathing is a simple involuntary action. We all do it unconsciously, all day every day, without thinking and without any effort. So why should we care about how we breathe? Most of us learned in biology lessons that the purpose of breathing is to draw oxygen into the lungs through the air we breathe in and to expel carbon dioxide in the air we breathe out. Once it's reached the lungs, this oxygen passes into the blood where it is carried by haemoglobin to our cells, which use it to generate energy.

Mastering the Basics – Hello, Nose!


What most of us didn't learn at school are the key functions performed by our noses in the breathing process. The nose is essentially an air quality control centre. Think of it as your personal air spa, warming, filtering and humidifying the air you breathe and regulating its quality before it reaches the
lungs. The nasal airways also excrete nitric oxide, promoting blood flow and increasing oxygen absorption in the body by a huge 20% when compared to mouth breathing. That's a lot more oxygen for cellular energy production!


For this reason, breathing experts emphasise the importance of nasal breathing for optimising sleep, energy and alertness, and reducing anxiety. Those who breathe through their mouths during sleep (if you’re unsure if that’s you, one clue is to ask yourself whether you wake up with a dry mouth in the morning), have less deep sleep and are more likely to snore and suffer from fatigue and insomnia.


Given around half of us are mouth breathers, this suggests that many of us could access significant benefits simply by adjusting our breathing approach.

Next: Go Slow and Gentle


Patrick McKeown, a renowned breathing expert and author, is the founder of the Oxygen Advantage method. This focuses on nasal breathing as a core practice, alongside the correction of poor breathing habits such as shallow breathing (breathing through the upper chest, thereby activating our fight or flight stress state) and over-breathing (taking full big breaths which result in
hyperventilation). The idea that full big breaths are detrimental, although counter to everything we’ve ever heard before, is explained by the fact that breathing this way causes blood vessels to constrict, which decreases blood circulation and oxygen delivery, thus inducing hyperventilation. As
a result, this reduces blood flow to the brain which explains the light-headed sensation we experience when we take several deep breaths in a row.
 
Given this, McKeown's approach is centred on restoring the body's natural breathing pattern by slowing down and reducing the breath rate. The exercises he recommends help increase the level of carbon dioxide in the body which, although counterintuitive, is beneficial to our cellular health as it trains the body to tolerate higher carbon dioxide levels. Carbon dioxide triggers the haemoglobin in our blood to release oxygen into our cells, which therefore leads to better oxygenation of tissues.

Wim Hof Method: The Iceman's Approach


Wim Hof, famously known as the "Iceman" due to his numerous ice exposure-related world records, developed a method combining breathwork, cold exposure, and mindset techniques. This has gained widespread attention due to his extraordinary feats which demonstrate the mind's influence over
the body's response to extreme conditions. Hof’s breathwork technique is focused on controlled hyperventilation for a period of up to 20 minutes. While chronic hyperventilation leads to negative health impacts, when hyperventilation is deliberately induced for a short period, it can provide significant health benefits. This is because short-term hyperventilation leads to temporary hypoxia,
or low blood oxygen, which is a form of hormetic stress – namely a short burst of intense stress that trains your body to adapt and become more resilient.

Benefits


Techniques like slow, diaphragmatic breathing and elongated exhalation activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our "rest and digest" state, which induces relaxation responses, reduces stress, improves mental clarity and promotes emotional balance.
 
McKeown himself leveraged breathing techniques for his severe asthma which he'd suffered since childhood. Following this, he is now asthma-free and teaches his techniques to asthma sufferers globally. This impact on asthma symptoms is backed by recent research, with a 2014 study demonstrating that breathwork techniques provide significant and sustained improvements in asthma control, including reduction in asthma symptoms and improvements in quality of life. More broadly, McKeown's method has been shown to generate benefits ranging from improved
endurance to reduced anxiety and better sleep quality. Similarly, Wim Hof’s controlled hyperventilation method has been shown to improve immune function, enhance resilience to stress and increase energy and mental clarity.

How to Give Breathwork a Go



Given the benefits discussed above, the first step to more effective breathing is to train yourself to breathe through your nose. Mouth taping during sleep, while a technique that can be met with extreme consternation, has been found to retrain this habit. This can be done with strips such as the Dryft Sleep Mouth Tape Sleep Strips. Although this practice can be uncomfortable for the first few nights, most people acclimatise and are able to re-educate themselves to breathe through their nose after following it for a period of time. The Oxygen Advantage does, however, caution that mouth tape should not be used in certain circumstances, including after alcohol and in cases of nausea or severe medical conditions. Once you have mastered nose breathing, there are numerous breathing techniques you can try.

These include:


Diaphragmatic Breathing
This approach involves engaging the diaphragm, rather than the chest, on inhalation. To try this, sit up straight or lie in a comfortable position. Relax your shoulders and place one hand on your tummy
and one hand on your chest. Next, inhale slowly through your nose and into your abdomen such that you feel it expand under your lower hand, while avoiding any significant movement in your chest and upper hand. Exhale gently and feel your abdomen fall inwards. Benefits from this exercise can be experienced in as little as five minutes.


Box Breathing
This is a simple breathing practice which has been utilised by military and tactical communities as a technique to manage stress, enhance focus, and regulate emotions, allowing for maintained composure during high-pressure situations. It involves a cycle of slow inhalation, breath hold, slow exhalation, breath pause, each for a count of four seconds. This cycle should be repeated for a period of five minutes.


Resonance Breathing
This technique incorporates slow, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing at a specific rhythm of between 4.5 to 6.5 breaths per minute, to achieve coherence between the heart rate and breathing pattern. The approach has been shown to improve heart rate variability, mood, and blood pressure. To try this, sit up straight and slowly breathe in through your nose, engaging your diaphragm, for a count of
five or six seconds, and then exhale slowly for the same count. Continue this for up to ten minutes.


Light Breathing
Lighter nasal breathing is a core pillar of the Oxygen Advantage approach and involves generating a feeling of tolerable and mild “air hunger”, which is essentially a desire to breath in. This improves oxygenation, parasympathetic nervous system regulation and breathing efficiency, as well as
enhancing lung function. The practice involves sitting up straight and taking a soft breath in, low into the abdomen using the diaphragm, and a slow and gentle breath out. With each cycle, gently observe the in and out breaths and gradually reduce the speed of each breath. McKeown recommends following this cycle for 30 seconds, then returning to normal breathing for one minute, before repeating for a total of five sequences.


The Wim Hof Method
Hof’s approach involves stimulating hyperventilation by taking 30 full breaths at a fast pace, followed by a full exhale and breath-hold for 30 seconds on the last breath (increasing to one minut as you become more experienced). This cycle is followed for three rounds in total. To guide people on this technique, Hof has demonstration videos on both YouTube and his own website.

Ready, Set, Breathe!


Given the compelling health benefits, breathwork techniques championed by individuals like Patrick McKeown and Wim Hof provide powerful tools for holistic well-being. Their approaches, rooted in scientific research, promote improvements across physical health, mental clarity, and emotional balance. As the vast potential of breathwork continues to be explored, integrating these free and simple practices into our daily lives can unlock transformative effects, nurturing us into healthier and more resilient individuals.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Healf