Sign me up, of course! This sounds WAY too good to be true, but I wouldn’t steer you wrong. For those of you not aware of this exciting medical finding, Dr. Andrew Huberman conducted an extensive study to compare breathing strategies for stress reduction and the findings revealed:
Physiological sighing for 5 minutes significantly outperformed meditation & 3 other breathing protocols executed for the same duration to reduce stress and improve mood ‘around the clock’ for a 24-hour period!
In the discussion below you will not only learn how to perform the physiological sigh and its health benefits, but also see the details of the study to prove its effectiveness.
But first, let me more properly introduce the man behind this critically practical & profound information! Dr. Huberman is an American neuroscientist and tenured associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. He has made major contributions to the fields of brain development, brain plasticity and neural regeneration and repair.
Luckily for us, in 2021 he launched the “Huberman Lab” podcast with the goal of translating neuroscience into valuable applications for everyday life. Throughout his podcast episode, “How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning & Performance,” he discusses the findings of what his laboratory found as the most effective intervention for not only immediate stress reduction, but for the entire day! The podcast link is noted below so you can watch it in its entirety. You can imagine how much I enjoy the ‘deep dives’ into anatomy and physiology, but I know it’s not for everyone. I’ll give you the bare bones summary as these results speak for themselves.
The Basis of the Study
Published earlier this year in Cell Reports Medicine, Dr. Huberman, Dr. David Spiegel & team compared three different types of deep breathing with mindfulness meditation. The goal was to see whether a breathing technique might be as effective as mediation in reducing stress. Researchers sorted 114 people into four groups and asked them to practice mindful meditation or one breathing exercise listed below for 5 minutes a day for 28 days.
Cyclic sighing, box breathing and cyclic hyperventilation were compared to mindful meditation to determine which protocols would best promote effective and efficient stress management.
To perform a cyclic (physiological) sigh, you inhale through the nose to fully inflate the lungs, then quickly inhale again, followed by a long exhalation (fully deflating the lungs).
Box breathing involves equal bouts of inhalation, breath hold, exhalation, breath hold, with volume determined by your carbon dioxide tolerance.
Finally, cyclic hyperventilation involves up to 30 long, forceful inhalation/short exhalation cycles followed by a 15-second breath hold.
By analyzing wearable data sensors (including heart rate variability and other physical parameters) it was determined that breathwork, and more specifically cyclic sighing, was more effective than meditation for stress management. And the best part is that it takes less than FIVE MINUTES of practice per day to achieve a better state of well-being.
Now don’t get me wrong. Mindful meditation is extremely beneficial. It is well-documented that 10-plus minutes of meditation per day helps to improve focus, memory, cognition and learning. But five minutes of breath work per day led to greater reductions in stress than five minutes of meditation!
Keep in mind, there is ZERO cost needed to improve stress management and well-being. Simply adjusting normal breathing patterns at rest can help to regulate anxiety, nighttime sleep and hyperactivity of the brain
History & Medical Benefits of Physiological Sigh
Initially studied in the 1930’s, sighing was observed as an involuntary breathing pattern that occurs most often before we are about to fall asleep, during sleep, and when we cry. It re-emerged in the 2010’s based upon research of UCLA neurobiologist Jack Feldman and Stanford biochemist Mark Kransow.
As you will hear in the full version of the podcast, there are many body systems that work in parallel to achieve specific functions. Let’s focus now on just one aspect of how this additional ‘second, short, nasal inhale’ makes all the difference in the body’s ability to achieve long-lasting stress reduction and mood change.
The lungs themselves do not move on their own. Like bellows, they expand and compress from the skeletal muscle around them, mainly the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles. One important fact is that the lungs have little sacs at the bottom of them where oxygen exchange occurs with the blood supply. Due to most people having inefficient breathing strategies, the lungs are left with a lot of ‘dead space,’ meaning the lungs are not fully utilized. That intense inhalation helps to “pop” the alveoli to undo the “collapse,” and therefore, maximizes the surface area for balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the blood. (Fun fact: If you laid out all the alveoli from one person, they would cover an entire tennis court!)
There are tremendous health benefits associated with this “sigh.” In short, but very importantly, you are switching from your sympathetic to your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate, decreases blood pressure, improves digestion, lowers anxiety & improves mood, just to name a few!
We need to be able to freely and deliberately switch gears and pass between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. Acute stress can be beneficial in reactionary situations, like that quick inhale when you are afraid or in danger, which triggers your fight or flight response. But we must be able to turn it off and recover as we are not meant to constantly live there.
In this day & age, there are so many hacks and gimmicks out there, it can get overwhelming for sure. The physiological sigh is not a hack but an involuntary response to our body’s needs to regulate gas levels in the blood, but we can also voluntarily sigh to produce immediate and long-lasting improvements to our stress and mood.
“People think taking a deep breath is the way to ease stress, but it turns out that exhaling slowly is a better way to calm yourself,” Dr. David Spiegel highlights. The physiological sigh uses the body to control the mind, rather than trying to use the mind to control the mind. I mean, it doesn’t get any easier than that! I do it when I get in the car every morning, what about you?
3 min version : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBdhqBGqiMc
Full Podcast: https://youtu.be/x4m_PdFbu-s
- Bonus information for watching:
- He provides an absolute hiccup solution (around minute marker 1:45)
- He describes how a ‘side stitch’ is not a cramp but more so ‘referred pain’ from the liver as the diaphragm sits on it and affects its position/mobility during breathing (around 1:36 min)
For reference, this is the study the podcast & article are noting:
Let me ask you a question. How many times do you chew your food before swallowing? Uhh …Yea, I know. Let’s see, am paying attention while scrolling through my phone? Probably not. Does drinking a protein shake while busy at work count as chewing? Nah… but at least it was a healthy option, right? I feel like if you’re not multi-tasking while eating, you are simply starving or rushing through it to get to the next important thing.
If you had to really think, you most likely didn’t consume many foods in the past week that required even moderate effort to eat. Balance can be difficult, but it is important to be aware of these poor habits and learn to take small steps to change your lifestyle for good (and it is all FREE!). The data below will surprise you and hopefully will help you to analyze not only how you eat and breathe, but also any young children/grandchildren in your life, as you could make a profound impact on their health forever.
Despite how frenzied and strained our lives can be, we are rightfully giving more attention to healthier lifestyles and diets. “Eating the entire rainbow,” having proper macronutrient ratios (think carbs, proteins, fats), and a better understanding of gut-health are fundamentally important. But improper chewing and nasal breathing techniques are likely causing inefficient nutrient absorption and could lead to chronic health conditions such as sleep apnea, oral health conditions, and neck/jaw pain, for example. So, let’s ask the question:
Why make the gut work hard when the jaw and its musculature were meant to do that work?
Most of the time, people aren’t even aware they are “mouth breathing” – let alone that they are ineffectively chewing their food – because we are able to get by as our foods are soft or highly processed. Over-cooking vegetables is a good example of having good intension but missing an important element! More often enough, our fast-paced habits can take precedence over mindful masticating (chewing).
To provide hard evidence of this hidden pidemic, crooked teeth are a sign of poor jaw development, and can set the tone for future oral health problems. Today, seven out of 10 children have crooked teeth, whereas before the Industrial Revolution the ratio was one in 20.
“Our jaws are shrinking,”
says Paul R. Ehrlich, Ph.D., a famous evolutionist, confirming that jaws of modern humans are smaller, with more malocclusions, and more teeth impaction, compared to earlier humans. Not only that, but the hunter-gatherers’ skulls also had more teeth! The likely causes of our shrinking jaws include eating soft foods, moving indoors where allergens are more concentrated, mouth-breathing, and worsening posture for bone development. “There’s not been enough time for evolution over the span of only several generations to have made our jaws shrink,” said Ehrlich. “Nor is there any evidence of selection pressures that would have favored smaller jawed-people producing more offspring- and thus perpetuating the trait- than regular-jawed people.”
So how are we supposed to chew?
In general, I think of it as you are sitting the way your grandparents were most likely expected to be at the dinner table:
- Sit up straight (hips ‘stacked’ under ribs)
- Ideally feet both flat on the floor
- Elbows off the table & looking ahead
- Lips together comfortably
- No talking while eating
- Chewing 20-30 times (until food is almost liquefied)
- Holding teeth lightly together, pause for a second or two, then swallow
For children, a good routine can be to start the first 2 minutes of every meal to chew as described 15-20 times before swallowing. Even as adults, making a point to put down distractions to be more mindful of how we are physically eating can make so many incredible benefits despite that our jaw bones are already matured.
So how are we supposed to breathe?
- Mouth closed, teeth slightly apart
- Tongue, the whole tongue (as best possible) on the roof of your mouth.
- Tip of tongue should rest behind your teeth gently, as if you were pronouncing the letter “N”
- Inhale through your nose quietly (if you hear noise, it means you using your neck or “accessory muscles” which is very inefficient)
- The abdomen expands first, then the chest. Think of it as you have 360 degrees of area to expand upon (not just front and back, but East & West)
- You don’t want to feel your neck working. Why? The bottom of the lungs is where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged with the blood. The diaphragm will get a lot of use, which prevents it from becoming tight and/or dormant. – There will be less use of secondary respiratory muscles, and therefore less chance of neck pain, headache, shoulder pain, and back pain. – Posture improves because of all the above.
For those of you who love a quick video, like I do, to truly visual the information, please check this out. There are also more specifics on why the structure of your face changes:
Here’s a quick & VERY effect way to open your nose to improve your execution of nasal breathing on a permeant basis:
My hope is to uncover the benefits of nasal breathing, proper tongue posture and proper mastication to maximize one’s health in the most simple and practical way possible. It is truly amazing how such small adjustments can add up to so many positive changes throughout your body for a lifetime. Here’s a summary of some of the medical advantages:
Proper mastication allows food to be liquefied which aids in better digestion, gut health, nutrient absorption- salvia has enzyme to break down fats when chew slowly, jaw strength, weight loss (brain signal to say full), nasal breathing & proper tongue posture promotes usage of the diaphragm vs accessory neck muscles for better lung efficiency and less tendency for forward head posture, muscularly supporting the maxilla (roof of mouth) against the effects of gravity and maximizing body structures of the skull into late adulthood ultimately positively affecting the cosmetic appearance of the face, filters and warms air that protects lungs and regulates the air for best temperature for digestion, regulates the proper balance of carbon dioxide in our system, produces nitric oxide for improved circulation, specially blood vessel dilation which can help prevent strokes or increased blood pressure.
I wish we all had been taught this since the beginning, but we have a chance to rewrite the future. Ideally, we can intervene with the very young children in our lives quickly to make these small changes. Parents and caregivers, in collaboration with holistic dentists as needed, will work as a team to avoid some serious health issues in the future.