If you are interested in wellness, you’re probably familiar with the power of antioxidants, maybe through supplementation or trying diets rich in them. Mopping up excess free radicals is, after all, critical for maintaining optimal health.
At the same time, we know that breathing brings in oxygen, the source of all of life’s energy. Thus, it may surprise you (and even seem paradoxical) that the way you breathe can actually reduce your oxidative stress.
In particular, research shows that slow breathing acts as a natural and effective antioxidant that's always available to us. To understand how, let’s first examine what oxidative stress is.
What is Oxidative Stress?
When cells use oxygen for energy, they give off free radicals as part of their normal cellular metabolism. Simultaneously, the body’s internal production of antioxidants, or external supply from food and supplements, tries to balance them out. Oxidative stress occurs when this equilibrium is disrupted, and free radicals exceed available antioxidants.
In the short term, oxidative stress can be a good thing. It sends a message to the body to prepare for stress (Lane, 2002). Problems arise when the body experiences chronic oxidative stress, such as in many disease states. For instance, infections usually increase oxidative stress, subsiding after the illness is cleared.
Interestingly, slow breathing can affect this process.
The Way We Breathe Can Impact Oxidative Stress
A noteworthy experiment published in Nature Scientific Reports provided strong (albeit indirect) evidence that slow breathing can reduce oxidative stress. To start, they had people with type 1 diabetes inhale extra oxygen. This increased their blood pressure and worsened arterial function—telltale signs of higher oxidative stress.
Then, they had them inhale the same extra oxygen, but this time while breathing slowly at six breaths/min. In this case, blood pressure and arterial function were significantly better than oxygen alone. They concluded that slow breathing acted as a natural antioxidant, offsetting the adverse effects of the additional oxygen.
Athletes and Breakfast Provide More Evidence of the Power of Breathing to Reduce Oxidative Stress
In a study published in 2011, amateur athletes performed an exhaustive 8 hours of cycling. Afterward, half the participants performed deep breathing for one hour while the other half rested quietly, only reading magazines.
The deep breathing group significantly reduced oxidative stress levels as measured 6.5 and 24-hours later. This decrease was complemented by cortisol reduction and increased antioxidant defenses; for example, melatonin increased significantly.
Another 2011 study had participants eat a 900-calorie breakfast. Then, 10 minutes later, one group performed 40 minutes of deep breathing while another group sat quietly reading magazines.
The results showed that deep breathing increased insulin and reduced the blood sugar spike associated with the meal. Simultaneously, antioxidants increased significantly more than in the control group, and oxidative stress was lowered. These effects of slow breathing are somewhat similar to those seen for post-meal walks, with no physical exercise required.
Slow Breathing is a Safe and Effective Antioxidant
Altogether, slow breathing appears to be a safe and effective antioxidant. It might be helpful in disease states characterized by excess oxidative stress or for recovering faster after a workout. Additionally, slow breathing might be beneficial for reducing post-meal blood sugar spikes and oxidative stress if walking is not an option.
If Your Lungs Need Some Extra Love
If you're having trouble controlling your breath or feeling like your breath is controlling you, resB Lung Support is a great holistic tool to get back on track. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.
About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.