Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
Your thoracic diaphragm is the main engine for breathing, supplemented by the accessory muscles of your chest and abdomen. It is also an important postural muscle with functional connections to your pelvic floor. We’ll go over those connections in a future post; in this blog post, let’s look at “diaphragmatic” or “belly” breathing.
In diaphragmatic breathing, you actively expand the abdomen during inhalation. The abdominal expansion occurs via the diaphragm contracting and pressing down on the abdominal contents. Chest expansion is kept at a minimum in this type of breathing. Exhalation is a relaxed process and occurs through the elastic recoil of the chest wall and lungs.
Regular practice of diaphragmatic breathing draws the mental focus into what is known as the “belly brain”. It has a calming effect on the mind while, at the same time, potentially strengthens the diaphragm. I recommend practicing diaphragmatic breathing for 5-10 minutes per day. We have included a video link below to guide your practice and aid you in visualization of the movement of the diaphragm and abdomen.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Video:
How much does your diaphragm actually move?
The answer to this question depends on how deep of a breath you take and what part of the diaphragm you are asking about. The diaphragm is a sheet like dome-shaped muscle (when it is relaxed). Upon contraction, it flattens out and presses down on the abdomen. The net result is a negative inspiratory pressure, which draws air into the lungs.
Tidal, or resting breathing results in smaller movements of the diaphragm, while vital capacity breathing (as in a deep diaphragmatic breath) results in much larger movement. This is where you take a complete full inhalation.
The posterior, or back part of the diaphragm exhibits the greatest excursion; the amount of diaphragmatic motion decreases progressively as we come forward. Figure 2 illustrates this. MRI studies (which are considered the most accurate) have quantified diaphragmatic motion during deep breathing, with the posterior region moving an average of 10 cm (about 4 inches) between inhalation and exhalation. This decreases progressively moving forward, with the most anterior portion moving about half that of the posterior. Diaphragmatic motion decreases by about one-third in the sitting position compared to lying on your back. (see reference below)
Does the heart move with your diaphragm when you breathe?
Yes, but not the full excursion of the posterior diaphragm. The pericardium, which is a sac surrounding the heart, has fascial connections to the diaphragm. Accordingly, the heart does move during breathing. Your heart is located more anterior on the left dome of the muscle, and so it moves less than the full excursion of the posterior portions of the diaphragm, but it moves significantly nonetheless.
Diaphragmatic breathing technique
1. Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can use a pillow under your knees to support your legs. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
2. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
3.Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips (see “Pursed Lip Breathing Technique”).The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.
To help you realize the importance of deep diaphragmatic breathing, here are 12 benefits to regularly practicing this healthy habit:
1. Reduces the risk factors for heart disease such as lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), raising good cholesterol (HDL), lowing blood pressure and stabilizing blood sugars
2. Cuts chances of cancer by as much as 400%
3. Reduces negative stress by lowering the stress hormone (cortisol)
4. Helps reduce cravings for processed carbohydrates (junk food)
5. Cuts chances of diabetes by strengthening the insulin beta receptor sites
6. Improves quality of sleep by improving stage 1 and stage 4 sleep cycles
7. Lengthens the cell’s life span by cleansing the cells more thoroughly through increased lymphatic flow
8. Slows the aging process by increasing the secretion of human growth hormone (the anti-aging hormone)
9. Optimizes the immune system by strengthening T-cell formation and improving lymphocyte production
10. Improves your mood by elevating the “feel good” hormone, serotonin, and other positive endorphins
11. Improves mental focus and concentration by increasing blood flow to the Pre-Frontal Cortex of the brain
12. Improves the quality and effectiveness of meditation by changing brain wave activity from the more stressful beta wavelengths to more relaxing and healthier alpha and theta brain wavelengths.