Breathing improves the health of body and mind

Neuroscientists are constantly discovering the links between breathing and its effects on the brain, well-being and health. Decrease in several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stress, etc. A team of researchers has just explained how something as simple as breathing can have so many beneficial effects.

Breathing is a basic physiological function which is carried out completely independently and whose role is essentially to provide the body with the oxygen essential for the functioning of the cells. In addition to this essential function of life, it has been known for several centuries that breathing can also greatly influence our mental state: for example, it is well known that slow and deep breathing helps to calm down in the event of excitement or excessive emotion, even in extreme cases like panic attacks. Slow, controlled breathing is also used by practitioners of yoga or other forms of meditation to achieve mental stillness and contemplative states. These slow breathing exercises increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and at the same time decrease that of the sympathetic nervous system, which results in a slowing of the heart rate, a reduction in blood pressure and a return to a calmer state.

The neurons of breathing and inner calm

The mechanisms responsible for this link between deep breathing and relaxation have just been identified by a team of neuroscientists from Stanford University in California. This group had identified in 1991 a group of about 3000 neurons buried deep in the brain stem and whose role is to control the respiratory rate, as well as the different types of breathing (sigh, laugh, yawn). Using several state-of-the-art genetic tools, these scientists were able to determine that this respiratory pacemaker contained a subgroup of 175 neurons whose role is to ensure the connection between breathing and relaxation. These specialized neurons act as relays between breathing and the parts of the brain involved in attention and wakefulness: for example, if a person faces danger, the activation of these brain areas will be detected by this group of neurons and breathing will be accelerated accordingly to support the physiological response to this aggression (flight or fight). The beauty of this mechanism is that it also works in reverse, i.e. it is possible to influence the level of arousal in the brain simply by altering the breath. By inhaling slowly and deeply, the 175 neurons of the relay will signal to the brain that the situation is under control and that it can therefore reduce its vigilance. In a person who is very upset or in a state of panic, slow and deep breathing can therefore counterbalance this state of excitement and gradually establish a feeling of calm.

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Yoga, meditation, tai chi, martial arts: all forms are good

The feeling of tranquility and relaxation provided by several slow breathing exercises such as martial arts, yoga, tai chi or even Qi gong is therefore not psychological, but rather physiological. This is not surprising, however, as it is increasingly clear that these types of exercises have a direct impact on the body that goes far beyond their effects on mental well-being. For example, several recent studies indicate that the regular practice of yoga and tai chi is associated with a decrease in several risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, lipid profile and stress, and this, in a manner equivalent to the benefits observed following aerobic exercise. Breathing slowly and deeply therefore has several advantages, both for the body and the mind.


(1) Yackle K et al. Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science 2017; 355: 1411-1415.


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