Why you need to start deep-breathing NOW...and how it will help you later

I like simple cause-effect equations. 

Pandemic causes stressStress causes age acceleration.  Age acceleration causes more stress (I haven’t found a study for the last one but looking at the exploding market of biohacking, I know it’s true). 

It’s no wonder people are looking high and low for methods that counteract stress and the corresponding acceleration of aging.  You may think, I need to win the lottery to afford some of these solutions!  However, among the top things you can do against stress is free, doesn’t take too long, and doesn’t take a lot of physical effort (triple bonus!).  I’m talking about deep breathing.

Here’s the background: our autonomic nervous system (the one that controls involuntary actions) is divided into two parts: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest).  Shallow breathing is a natural response of our sympathetic nervous system to perceived stress.  However, by controlling our breathing and practicing deep breathing, we can naturally lower stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to calm down, think more rationally, and feel better.  Three studies have shown that deep breathing alone, also called diaphragmatic breathing, has a positive effect by reducing physiological and psychological stress.   In addition, a particular type of deep breathing associated with the SKY Breath Meditation (taught by mentors in Sudarshan Kriya Yoga) was shown to outperform other cognitive behavioral therapies to reduce stress, and effects even improved three months later.  

Whether or not you decide to learn the SKY method or other more complex breathing techniques, just starting with a simple deep breathing exercise will get you going in the right direction.  Here is how to start:

  • Lie comfortably in a bed with a pillow under your knees or sit upright in a chair with your knees bent and shoulders and neck relaxed.

  • Place one hand on your abdomen just below the rib cage, and one hand on your upper chest.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose, the object being that your upper hand remains as still as possible while your lower hand moves outward with your stomach.

  • Use your stomach muscles to push air slowly out of your mouth with pursed lips, again with your upper hand remaining as still as possible. (Cleveland Clinic, Diaphragmatic Breathing)

  • Continue for 10-15 minutes, several times a day if possible.

Stress is typically measured in cortisol levels, that hormone that jacks up when fight-or-flight situations arise.  At the molecular level, however, there are other indicators of the toll on stress: telomeres.  Telomeres are proteins found on the ends of our DNA that prevent damage and keep the DNA from “unraveling” or allowing major disease (heart and other organs) from taking over.  One of the discoverers of telomeres, molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, likens them to the tips on your shoelaces.  When the tips get worn down, the shoelaces are at risk of unraveling.  “Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases,” according to Dr. Peter R. Carroll, chair of the UCSF Department of Urology.  Stress shortens telomeres.  Amazingly, deep-breathing (with other healthy lifestyle changes) can significantly lengthen telomeres, even among early-stage prostrate cancer patients.  The samples for telomeres were taken from the blood of these patients, so it’s probable that the effects of deep breathing on our telomeres extend to the general population.  It’s biological, dear Watson!  

This lengthening of our telomeres is the major reason that you should start deep breathing and other healthy lifestyle changes like moderate aerobic exercise, a diet high in whole foods and plant-based proteins and low in fat and refined carbohydrates, and increased social support.   Longer telomeres = longer life.  I can live with that!