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The Benefits of Slow Breathing

There are all manner of purported hiccup “cures,” which include everything from chewing on a lemon, inhaling pepper, or, our dog’s favorite, eating a spoonful of peanut butter. In my video How to Strengthen the Mind-Body Connection, I talk about the technique I’m excited to try the next time I get hiccups: “supra-supramaximal inspiration,” where you take a very deep breath, hold for ten seconds, then, without exhaling, breathe in even more and hold for another five seconds, and then take one final, tiny breath in and hold for five last seconds to achieve “an immediate and permanent termination to hiccups…”

When I was a kid, I taught myself to control my own hiccups using slow-paced breathing, and, as an adult, was so excited to see there was finally a case report written up on it.

There’s a nerve—the vagus nerve—that goes directly from our brain, to our chest, and to our stomach, connecting our brain back and forth to our heart and our gut, and even to our immune system. The vagus nerve is like the “‘hard-wired’ connection” that allows our brain to turn down inflammation within our body. When you hear about the mind-body connection, that’s what the vagus nerve is and does. “There has been increasing interest in treating a wide range of disorders with implanted pacemaker-like devices for stimulating the vagal afferent [vagus nerve] pathways,” but certain Eastern traditions like Yoga, QiGong, and Zen figured a way to do it without having electrodes implanted into your body.  

“A healthy heart is not a metronome,” as a study titled exactly that explains. “Your heart rate goes up and down with your breathing. When you breathe in, your heart rate tends to go up. When you breathe out, your heart rate tends to go down.” Test this out on yourself right now by feeling your pulse change as you breathe in and out.

Isn’t that remarkable?

That heart-rate variability is a measure of vagal tone—the activity of your vagus nerve. Next time you’re bored, try to make your heart rate speed up and slow down as much as possible within each breath. This can be done because there’s an entirely other oscillating cycle going on at the same time, as you can see at 2:08 in my video, which is the speeding up and then slowing down of your heart rate, based on moment-to-moment changes in your blood pressure. And, as any physics student can tell you, “all oscillating feedback systems with a constant delay have the characteristic of resonance,” meaning you can boost the amplitude if you get the cycles in sync. It’s like pushing your kid on a swing: If you get the timing just right, you can boost them higher and higher. Similarly, if you breathe in and out at just the right frequency, you can force the cycles in sync and boost your heart rate variability, as you can see at 2:36 in my video.

And what’s the benefit again? According to the neurophysiologic model postulation it allows us to affect the function of our autonomic nervous system via vagal afferents to brainstem nuclei like the locus coeruleus, activating hypothalamic vigilance areas.

Huh?

In other words, it’s not just about curing hiccups. Practicing slow breathing a few minutes a day may have lasting beneficial effects on a number of medical and emotional disorders, including asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and depression. In the United States, we’ve also put it to use to improve batting performance in baseball.

To date, most studies have lacked proper controls and have used fancy biofeedback machines to determine each person’s resonant frequency, but, for most people, it comes out to be about five and a half breaths per minute, which is a full breath in and out about every 11 seconds. You can see the graph at 3:34 in my video. When musicians were randomized into slow-breathing groups with or without biofeedback, slow breathing helped regardless. It’s the same with high blood pressure. As you can see at 3:52 in my video, you can use this technique to significantly drop your blood pressure within minutes. The hope is if you practice this a few minutes every day, you can have long-lasting effects the rest of the day breathing normally.

Practice what exactly? Slow breathing—taking five or six breaths per minute, split equally between breathing in and breathing out. So, that’s five seconds in, then five seconds out, all the while breathing “shallowly and naturally.” You don’t want to hyperventilate, so just take natural, shallow breaths, but be sure to simply breathe really slowly. Try it the next time you get hiccups. Works for me every time!


For more tips, watch my video on How to Stop Hiccups.

And, because slowing down our pulse in general may also have beneficial effects, I encourage you to check out:

Every time I’m amazed by ancient wisdom, I have to remind myself of the video I did on toxic heavy metals—Get the Lead Out. So, though traditional healing methods may offer a plethora of insights, they still need to be put to the test.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Discuss

Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.


26 responses to “The Benefits of Slow Breathing

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  1. This idea of getting the cyclical bodily functions in sync reminds me of the famous quote by Nikola Tesla:

    “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
    ― Nikola Tesla

    He certainly had some very futuristic ideas many of which turned out, and some that didn’t. In any case, he did have a unique philosophy of the Universe.

    (And, no, he didn’t invent the electric car! But I’m sure he would be enthralled by one today.)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Tesla

    1. Darwin,

      If I recall this correctly, electric cars were developed at the same time as gasoline powered ones — the two types of automobiles were in competition. And the ladies preferred the electric cars! Because they were easier to start. But for some reason, the gents preferred hand cranking to start their machines — maybe to show off to the ladies? In any event, the combustion engine eventually muscled out the electric one, and now we all drive gasoline powered cars.

      But, perhaps the ladies were actually prescient? As they usually are, about most things. And they were right: electric cars are better.

      1. Dr J, I think the largest factor in the industry migrating to gasoline cars in the early 1900’s was because the batteries back then couldn’t hold enough charge to go far distances. In fact, that is still true today to a certain extent, but with the newer technologies being used, batteries are getting much more efficient. Combined with solar panels integrated into the roof and hood, an affordable electric car might be a winner!

        1. Darwin,

          Have you seen the new batteries that you can cut with scissors and not have them explode?

          They will be able to make a whole car out of a battery soon if they want to.

          1. Deb, No, I haven’t read up on those batteries yet. We are definitely living in a time when technology is increasing exponentially! But the massive infrastructure of a lot of the things we do, prevents us from making changes too quickly. And that can advantages as well as disadvantages.

      2. Battery powered vehicles first appeared on English roads at the end of the C19. Electric trams were introduced in 1883, and electric cars and commercial vehicles were quite common (in relative terms) prior to around 1910, especially in London, where electric limousines were popular with ladies who appreciated the absence of noise and smell. Experimentation with electric buses began in the 1880s, but the first operational fleet did not make it onto the street until 1907, when the London Electrobus Company was founded, running its 20 electric double-deckers for three years.

    2. Tesla was a little recognized giant who few knew, but Einstein did. Whe Einstein was asked how does it feel to be the smartest man alive, he said” you better ask Tesla.”

      1. Robert,

        That is a great line. Of course, no body other than the smartest man alive would know which person the real smartest man alive was. And they might be smart enough to not acknowledge that it was them.

        In Christianity, it is working on being humble that has that paradox because the minute you recognize yourself as the most humble person, you have lost the revelation.

  2. I am glad to see this article. I learned to cure hiccups via breath by slowing the breath and watching very carefully with attention on my solar plexus for the beginning of the hiccup. Normally our awareness misses that part of the hiccup process. After 2 or 3 hiccups the next one never comes with this method.

  3. As a practiicing Buddhist over many years, you find that if you simply observe the breath, it slows, and when you forget the breath and a person breathing, the breath is almost imperceptible.

    1. Robert, regarding breathing, I’ve also read that it’s much better to breathe through one’s nose rather than through the mouth. Big advantages in doing this, especially now, because it helps to decrease infections.

    2. I practice Yoga Science and have learned to “Never” forget the breath whether during meditation or off the mat (real life situations).
      The breath is dependent on the senses – Visual, Auditory, Gustatory, Kinesthetic, Olfactory and more.

      Our (at least mine) actions are based on our reactions to our senses. If I forget my breath, my actions become habitual and based on conditioned mentality/behavior I learned in the past instead of being consciously aware. If I can feel/sense my breath, I can perceive and react (based on which sense) and take actions that will not bring undesirable feelings/emotions.

      As a result, I’m able to control how I feel and always tend feel emotionally joyful for some events, and for others I do not let them affect me. I see things as they are and take action if I have control over them.

  4. Interesting!

    I practice anapanasati meditation, awareness of breathing (the normal, natural breathing, not controlling it in any way), and have learned to observe my breathing without interfering with it. My normal resting respiration rate is usually 5-6 breaths per minute, even outside of formal meditation.

    The last couple times I was at a doctors office and they took my pulse and made notes including the respiration rate, they put 14 and even 18 once. Ridiculous! When I asked how this was determined, she said they count the pulse rate for thirty seconds, then observe the breathing for thirty seconds, by watching the chest or abdomen. I had her do it again and just observe the breathing, and she came up with 8 breaths per minute, which I figured was about right considering I find doctor visits pretty stressful. Also, apparently, the “normal “ or average respiration rate is around 14 per minute.

    Several times, while laying awake at night, I’ve attempted to replicate my husband’s respiration rate, and I felt like I was hyperventilating, it was very uncomfortable. Watching my clock and counting his breaths, it was indeed about 14 per minute.
    I noticed that after I exhaled, during the pause until the next inhalation, he would take several complete breaths.

  5. I use this technique every time I am in a doctor’s office. I suffer from the dreaded “white coat syndrome”, probably because I have had a reaction to every drug I have ever taken. I used the technique to lower my blood pressure. I got tired of being told I had HBP when I only had it in their offices and naturally no one believed me. I’ve also been told that I have atherosclerosis from looking at me across a room and at my BP numbers and to forget about expecting anything after I had changed my diet working towards completely plant based. The real funny thing was that I had had scans done just for giggles because my primary a few years prior was trying out a new equipment toy showed that my arteries were absolutely clear. Thank you for being here and adding confirmation to what I believe to be true.

  6. I have been practicing this technique since childhood without it ever having had a name. It has worked every time for nearly 70 yrs.

  7. Thanks, Dr. Gregger. I get hiccups frequently, and I have practiced this technique for many years. It really works. Another thing that I do is to visualize a serene lake (it can be whatever calm picture that works for you). After a few minutes I have no more hiccups. I also use this technique when I feel anxious or even for some pains. It melts the pain away.

  8. I tried the supra-supramaximal style breathing sans the hiccups.

    If I don’t try it now, I won’t remember it if I ever get the hiccups.

    The vagal nerve and breathing connection is interesting to me. I do PEMF stimulation of vagal nerve.

    I do breathing exercises, but what I find is that breathing exercises are like eating, when you are working over 50 hours per week, plus getting your life in order and not sleeping, it becomes just a bite-sized amount of time focusing on breathing.

    I do find it very easy to go into breathing when I have 30 seconds off and there is an immediate benefit from it every time.

    For me, being in nature or doing spiritual practices or in a waiting room, remembering breathing is so much easier. Traveling or doing Pilates or sitting in silent prayer. That is when breathing just happens.

    Using certain sound frequencies can enhance it. Though I also love silence.

  9. I got my self-watering microgreen kits in today and watched how to harvest heirloom tomato seeds.

    I have been watching grow-light competitions.

    This will be the end of all of my life projects, except that I have to organize everything all over again.

    It still might take a few more months before I use them, but I feel almost like I am about to be able to sit and rest.

    I feel like the rest of society is getting to do that and the essential workers are waiting for society to open so that they can sit down for a few minutes.

  10. Is this not the Buteyko Breathing technique also known as the oxygen advantage. The oxygen advantage just put out an email discussing the exact same thing on the vagus nerve……….interesting

  11. Thanks for the article and the discussion of the relationship between slow breathing and the vagus nerve. The ability to reduce your blood pressure using slow breathing exercises seems to be the same effect that the RESPeRATE products use. I used one of these devices for a while but not for long enough to decide whether or not I thought it helped me. It would be very interesting to see the results of a trial comparing a group of people who were told to breath at the 11-second per breath rate with a group who used a RESPeRATE device. Obviously the company has little motivation to perform/publish a study that might show that the 300USD product they sell isn’t needed but maybe you can find a researcher who is interested enough to do this comparison.
    p.s. RESPeRATE has been tested in multiple studies and has FDA clearance for treatment of hypertension (according to https://www.resperate.com/clinical-proof/).

  12. Vagus nerve stimulation and modulation is a huge topic! But I’m amazed you didn’t lost the 100% sure fire method for hiccups- 2 tablespoons of vinegar stops them in their tracks – and yes it’s because it shocks the vagus nerve.

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