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  • Writer's pictureNicole M. Cotter, M.D.

The Power of the Breath

Using the breath to achieve better health may be foreign to you, but the breath has actually been well-recognized as a therapeutic tool for thousands of years. Breathing is something many of us take for granted: “it is simply a bodily function that will happen as it will, I don’t have control over it, and it wouldn’t matter anyway if I did.” Those thoughts could not be more wrong! The breath is a powerful physiological function that, when done correctly, can lead you to better health.

Breathing is the only function in your body over which you have both conscious and unconscious control. That means that you breathe when you aren’t actively trying to, but you can also breathe with intention. The breath is tied to the nervous system, so it makes sense that if you can control your breath, you can influence your nervous system.

We may all breathe, but we do not all breathe optimally. Shallow breathing is what many of us do without realizing it. With shallow breathing, the movement of the breath is restricted to the chest and can activate our stress response. Shallow breathing is what we do when we are angry, stressed, or anxious and it is inefficient when it becomes chronic. Perpetual shallow breathing has even been shown to negatively affect our immune system. Abdominal breathing, on the other hand, allows the lungs to better expand and exchange oxygen. With abdominal breathing, we stimulate the part of our nervous system that is responsible for “rest and digest”. The body starts to calm and we experience positive physiologic changes, such as a decrease in blood pressure, improved lung function, improved digestion, and better sleep.

Try abdominal breathing by sitting in a comfortable position with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Start to breathe slowly and feel what is moving – is it your chest or your abdomen? Try to breathe deeply so your abdomen expands against your belly hand and there is less movement in your chest. Practice this a few times a day. The more you do it, the better trained you will become to breath from the abdomen even when you aren’t focused on it.

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