Deep breathing: How it can activate your ‘rest and digest’ response

deep breathing

Deep breathing is a powerful tool that should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to its impact on the nervous system. In basic terms the autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls all involuntary processes in your body, for example heart rate and digestion. The ANS has two modes that it operates in, these are known as the Sympathetic Nervous System (or your fight or flight response) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (or your rest and digest response). Both modes are important for different times in our day and lives. The autonomic nervous system is something I discuss throughout my book.

Put simply, too many people are sitting in a sympathetic dominant state. It’s the mode we go into when our body/mind identify there is a stress or danger. Take a moment to think about how frequently you get stressed. In this state blood is diverted away from our digestive tract and directed towards our arms and legs (ready to fight off danger or make a run for it). Our heart rate increases, muscles contract, adrenaline increases and digestion is down regulated. This is great if we are engaging in short intense activity or running across the road, it’s not so great if we are trying to eat a meal or need to sleep. This is where the parasympathetic response is so important. When we are in this state our blood pressure lowers, blood sugar stabilises, energy increases, digestion functions well and we have better quality sleep.

How to move from the sympathetic response to the parasympathetic response:

Breathing deeply is one of the best ways to activate your PNS. Practice it now, as you’re reading these words. Take a deep slow breath through your nose, focusing on your belly moving outwards. Once you have a full breath, hold for 1-2 seconds and then slowly release it. Repeat this cycle for 1-2 minutes. If it helps you to focus on your deep breathing, then try counting for 4 seconds on the breath in and 5 seconds on the breath out.

How to make it a habit:

This simple technique can make a huge difference. It can calm down your stress response, improve restorative sleep, increase concentration and support good digestion. If you can incorporate it throughout your day you will see huge benefits. Try making it a habit. For example every time you wash your hands spend 1 minute practicing deep breathing. Or before every meal, sit and practice a few minutes of deep breathing. A great place to implement deep breathing is when you lie down to go to sleep. Spending 3 minutes with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath will help put you to sleep and support your body in having a truly restorative rest.

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Dr Ron Ehrlich
Dr Ron Ehrlich

Dr Ron Ehrlich, or ‘Dr Ron’ as he is affectionately known, is one of Australia’s leading holistic health advocates, educators and a holistic dentist. Dr Ron also hosts a free weekly podcast called “Unstress with Dr Ron Ehrlich” and is the author of, “A Life Less Stressed: the 5 pillars of health and wellness”.