The benefits of diaphragm breathing

General health, Osteopathy

diaphragm breathing

Breathing is an automatic function of your body. Most of the time we don’t give it a second thought. But how you breathe affects your health – especially if, over time, you have got used to breathing in a shallow way. Breathing should get your diaphragm moving, yet often we draw breath in only as deep as the upper ribs. In this blog, Claire Forrester discusses how posture and alignment affects breathing, and the reasons why it’s important to re-learn diaphragmatic breathing rather than upper ribcage breathing.

What is the diaphragm?

Your diaphragm is a large sheet of muscle which sits in a dome beneath your ribs. Iti attachs to the back and front of your body, and it separates your abdomen froom your chest.

As you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts downwards, creating more space in your chest for the air you take in. As you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes and rises up again, compressing the space in your chest.

Why are osteopaths interested in the diaphragm?

Osteopaths are interested in the function of your diaphragm because of its various attachments and influence on thoracic respiration and mobility. The diaphragm attaches to the inside of the lower six ribs, inner sternum and to the upper two or three lumbar spine vertebrae.

It also has connections to many major organs including the outer layer of the heart (pericardium), lungs (pleura), liver, spleen, colon and to muscles which stabilise the spine; quadratus lumborum and psoas major. Three large major vessels pass through it; the aorta, vena cava and oesophagus.

Injury or disease that affects the muscles, nerves or organs that support us to breathe, or changes in our posture such as after pregnancy, weight gain or surgery can affect the diaphragm. Effects on the diaphragm’s workload, strength, position and ability to function can result in other muscles compensating and working harder, creating increased tension around joints.

What are the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing has a number of benefits, including

  • Increasing attention and focus – a deep, slow breath brings a calming effect, reducing both stress and pain levels and allowing the mind to clear.
  • Slowing your resting breathing rate – diaphragmatic breathing oxygenates your blood and helps expand your lung capacity
  • Slowing your resting heartbeat – with three major blood vessels passing through it, when the diaphragm is working optimally, circulation and blood flow is supported
  • Lowering blood pressure – a vein called the inferior vena cava passes directly through the diaphragm. As you breathe in, the pressure in your chest increases. This helps move blood towards the heart.
  • Relaxing and resting your nervous system – diaphragmatic breathing lowers the levels of cortisol in your system.
  • Supporting core muscle stability and capacity to exercise – as the diaphragm contracts, the lumbar spine is stabilised.
  • Prevent reflux – the oesophagus passes through the diaphragm. As you breathe in, internal pressure rises which compresses the oesophagus, preventing acid reflux from the stomach.
  • Lymphatic drainage – the diaphragm acts as a lymphatic pump. Its movements and consequent fluctuations in pressure support lympthatic drainage.
  • Minimising pain levels – pain relievers, named endorphins and enkephalins, are made in the brain. These hormones are associated with positive feelings. During diaphragmatic breathing, you oxygenate your blood and trigger the release of endorphins which decrease sensitivity to pain.

How does posture affect breathing?

If you work at a desk, your sitting posture will affect your breathing. That’s because your posture affects the length of your diaphragm, changing the space in which it can freely function. A study from 2016 found that diaphragm breathing is significantly reduced by our position when seated.

What are the effects of this?

Long periods of sitting can lead to a series of negative effects on our bodies such as bad circulation, poor digestion and an increased risk of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Increased musculoskeletal fatigue and pain can also result.

An osteopathic approach to support diaphragmatic breathing

Claire uses muscle activation techniques to support her patients to stretch their muscles in between breaths. Deep diaphragmatic breathing oxygenates the body, which in turn relaxes it and allows for the reduction of muscle tension. With more relaxed muscles, an osteopath can better work with sore and injured areas.

So here in our Cambridgeshire clinic, Claire works to get your diaphragm moving and functioning optimally to support many other body functions.

A simple exercise to support diaphragm breathing

This simple exercise allows a more full movement of the diaphragm.

  1. Place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest
  2. Over a count of 4 seconds, take a deep breath all the way in, pushing your stomach out as you do this.
  3. Hold that breath for 2 seconds
  4. Again, over a count of 4 seconds, exhale all the way out, drawing the stomach IN this time.
  5. Repeat this 3 times