Mindfulness - Relationship Between Breath, Lungs and Heart Health

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Breathing is regulated both automatically and voluntarily. The average person breathes 12 to 15 times a minute, using a pint of air per time. The automatic or spontaneous breathing system is activated by the respiratory core of your brain (the medulla of the brain stem), which activates your chest muscles to shift pressure and push air into and out of your lungs. 

When you catch your breath, sing, or voice, higher brain centers change the automatic pathway, giving you voluntary control of your breathing. Breathing is difficult to pay attention to since it is involuntary, and as you can find in this novel, it takes time to pay attention to your breathing or other habitual or automatic responses. Learning to be careful of one's breath is a perfect way to get a better understanding of and power over one's breathing.

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Mindfulness has been studied to see how it affects breathing and cardiac health. Changing the breathing rate, for example, affects pulmonary sinus arrhythmia, which occurs when our hearts pound faster when we breathe in than when we breathe out. This discrepancy is a symbol of good health, and it diminishes as people age and develop those illnesses (diabetes, cardiovascular disease). A research conducted at McGill University in Canada using a body-scan meditation (similar to the one described at the end of this chapter) showed that mindfulness, like exercise, causes increased respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

Mindfulness seems to help with heart health as well. Over the course of ten months, two types of people at risk for heart disease were observed at Duke University. The first group received a package that included a fitness consultant and mindfulness and stress-reduction instruction, while the second group received a written summary on their health evaluations then went back to their primary care providers for follow-up care as normal. After ten months, those who had completed the mindfulness program had significantly lower heart disease risk scores, were more active, and had lost more weight.

Another line of inquiry has been into the impact of respiratory techniques on breathing-related issues such as asthma. Twenty-two asthma patients were taught pranayama breathing, a traditional breathing technique seen in some types of yoga and meditation that deals with prana, or life energy, in a limited but well-controlled study of breath training on asthma sufferers. The exhale is stretched to twice the duration of the inhale in one kind of pranayama breathing. (At this stage, you might note how long the exhales and inhales are in relation to one another and try to make the exhale twice as long as the inhale.) 

In half of the participants, the researchers used a breathing system to achieve this two-to-one exhale-to-inhale ratio, while the other half received a placebo device. Participants in the study used their "breathing aids" for fifteen minutes twice a day for four weeks. 

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The study found that the community doing pranayama breathing had increased lung function, decreased asthma symptom levels, and used less drugs to control their asthma. The improvements were similar to those seen in people with moderate asthma who were given treatment (low-dose inhaled corticosteroids).

You may also want to read more about Mindfulness Meditation and Healing here.

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