Why Deep Breathing Improves Your Digestive Health (& How to Do It)

Why Deep Breathing Improves Your Digestive Health (& How to Do It)

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
4 minute read

"If you look back evolutionarily, the lungs did not develop from gills. … They actually occurred as an out-pouching of the GI [gastrointestinal] tract.”

- Interview with Michael J. Stephen, MD Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center

The above insight from Dr. Stephen is fascinating to contemplate, and it makes a lot of sense. Our digestive system takes in food, extracts nutrients, and then discards the rest. Our respiratory system takes in air, extracts energy, and then discards the rest. We might even say that breathing is the “digestion of air.”

And based on Dr. Stephen’s statement, it should be no surprise that breathing and digestion are intricately related. In this post, we’ll look at a few of the (many) ways in which the two systems interact, starting with the most obvious link: the nervous system.

The Nervous System’s Link to Breathing and Digestion

The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (the PNS for short) is often referred to as the “rest-and-digest” side. As this nickname suggests, the PNS is more dominant when digestion occurs.

Our breath is our direct line to the nervous system, and to the PNS. This is important because breathing is both voluntary and involuntary, meaning we can deliberately breathe in specific ways and the nervous system will follow suit.

For example, by breathing slowly and deeply, we increase the activity of the PNS. This primes our body to rest and, you guessed it, digest. Salivation increases and peristalsis (the wave-like muscle contraction of your GI tract that moves food through) is optimized. Blood flow to the digestive organs is also increased. All of this ensures digestion performs appropriately. Thus, we can set our bodies up for better digestion by practicing slow, deep breathing regularly, especially around mealtimes.

Deep Breathing, the Diaphragm, and Your Digestion

Another critical way breathing affects digestion is through our primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a dome-like muscle connected to your lower ribs. The word diaphragm is derived from a Greek word generally meaning “something that divides” or “a barrier.” This is a perfect description because the diaphragm literally divides the chest region from the abdominal region.

Because of its location, each time we engage our diaphragm and breathe deeply, we massage abdominal organs like the stomach and intestines. This helps with digestion and reduces abdominal pain.

Aside from these two direct links—the nervous system and diaphragm—breathing can also indirectly affect digestion through another critical process: sleep.

Sleep: An Indirect Link to Better Digestion

Good sleep plays a role in just about everything, including digestion. Research suggests that there’s a strong link between poor sleep and GI diseases, partially modulated through increased inflammation.

The good news is that slow, deep breathing can help here by improving sleep quality. For example, one study found that deep breathing for 15 minutes before bed for 30 days significantly improved sleep quality among participants. For more on the breathing-sleep connection, see this previous blog post.

So, in addition to the direct connection our breath has to our digestion via the nervous system and diaphragm, it can also indirectly improve things by improving sleep quality.

Get Started Breathing for Digestion

Here’s a simple deep breathing exercise you can use to activate your PNS and diaphragm and improve your digestion.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 seconds, ensuring the hand on your abdomen moves while the one on your chest remains still.
  • Exhale audibly through pursed lips for 6 seconds.
  • Continue for at least 1-2 minutes, with 10-20 minutes daily being the ultimate goal.

With this information, we hope you enjoy harnessing the power of slow, deep breathing for better digestive health.

Additionally, if you’d like a holistic tool that supports both your breathing and digestive health, resB Lung Support is a great option. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.

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