The power of our breathing has been recognized since the dawn of human awareness. It’s at the core of ancient disciplines such as yoga, meditation, martial arts and a variety of healing arts. Most notably in Eastern cultures, some people have devoted their lives to mastery of their breathing and other physiological processes that enables them to demonstrate incredible feats of physical and mental prowess.
Even in the West, the connection between the respiratory and circulatory systems is taken for granted, though we may not pay it much attention. “Take a deep breath” they always tell you at times of great panic, anger or stress. Breathing deeply and slowly calms the heart and nerves as surely as eating quiets a growling stomach. We know this innately.
The Western tradition, however, is pragmatic. To be fair, few people anywhere in the world these days have the time and patience to master the ancient disciplines. Nowadays we favor efficiency and look for shortcuts that offer the greatest benefit for the least amount of time and effort. We also tend to put more faith in medicines or therapies that have withstood the test of scientific validation.
That’s why a new, natural method to lower blood pressure called therapeutic, or slow, breathing is so compelling. Slow breathing draws inspiration from the ancient principle that breathing has the power to affect other physiological processes. Yet it has been developed and optimized to achieve maximum results in the most direct and efficient way. In doing this it dispenses with anything not contributing an obvious clinical effect. This would include elements for the sole purpose of ritual or discipline. Slow breathing, then, is a purely Western alternative.
According to numerous studies published in medical journals such as the Journal of Human Hypertension, breathing at a slow and regular rate below 10 breaths per minute while extending the exhale phase for just 10 to 15 minutes a day leads to significant reductions in blood pressure. What’s more, the effect is cumulative and begins to last throughout the day after just a few weeks of practicing slow breathing. The result is a significant and lasting drop in blood pressure.
Using slow breathing with the aid of a computerized biofeedback device or in combination with music on CDs or mp3, many thousands of high blood pressure sufferers have confirmed the effectiveness of the method. In some cases the results surpass even the best of those obtained through drug treatment, with documented reductions of up to 36 points systolic and 20 points diastolic. Results such as these have allowed some users to give up blood pressure medications altogether. Many more have used slow breathing to reduce the amount of drugs they require. Thus relieving both the cost as well as unpleasant side effects.
Another advantage of slow breathing over drug treatment is its range of additional benefits. It has proved extremely effective at relieving stress, anxiety and sleeping difficulties. Over time it even improves one’s respiratory fitness. Since slow breathing cannot reduce blood pressure below normal levels. You don’t necessarily have to suffer from hypertension in order to enjoy it for these other benefits.
How does it work? The exact mechanism that explains how slow breathing lowers blood pressure is not completely understood. The most widely accepted explanation is that slow breathing with a long. And relaxed exhale releases tension in the muscles of the diaphragm. This allows major blood vessels to open, relieving the load on the heart. This action is similar to that of beta-blockers, the most popular class of blood pressure medication.
Many practitioners of slow breathing tend to support the relaxation theory. As it seems they can literally feel the chest opening up when slow breathing. Fortunately, the evidence from numerous clinical studies also points in this direction.