It seems that breathing exercise is no longer just the preserve of yoga devotees, spiritual seekers and “health nuts”. In fact, everywhere you turn lately there are new findings about the beneficial effects of certain types of breathing. Now it appears that our breathing may even be one of the keys to a longer life.
A recent study carried out by the Preventive Medicine Research Institute of Sausalito, CA, and the University of California, San Francisco, reveals that breathing exercise, along with other lifestyle changes, can increase levels of a substance called telomerase.
Telomerase is a critical enzyme involved in repairing and rebuilding telomeres, bundles of DNA at the end of chromosomes that control how our cells age. As a telomere become shorter its structure breaks down and the cell ages and dies. In a sense, telomerase acts like the fabled fountain of youth in that it helps lenghten telomeres, keeping cells healthy and vibrant.
Shortening of telomeres is recognized as a risk factor for disease and premature death from many types of cancer. In the study, 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer carried out lifestyle changes that included diet, nutritional supplements, exercise, stress management with relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. After three months the participants showed an average 29 percent increase in telomerase levels.
Of course breathing exercises were only one aspect of a significant change in lifestyle for this research and there is no way to judge their effect alone. However, there are numerous other cases in which the benefits of breathing exercise, or more specifically, slow breathing, were measured on their own and the findings taken altogether have a wide-ranging impact on health in general and longevity. These findings have to do with stress levels and blood pressure.
Stress was once considered a mainly psychological state with only fleeting physical symptoms such as sweating or a pounding heart. But it is now well known that chronic stress can lead to devastating health consequences. Just one of many hormones produced by the body under stress is cortisol. Cortisol is beneficial at normal levels but high levels produced by stress contribute to brittle bones, decreased muscle mass, high blood pressure and eventual heart disease, among other things.
Stress also affects telomeres. In fact, it’s one of the key culprits that shortens them. Dr. Oz, Oprah’s resident physician, demonstrated how stress damages telomeres and shortens lives in a July, 2008, program. In his usual enthusiastic way he explained: if you want to live longer, you better control your stress!
So how do you control stress? Of course there are many ways to do this but one of the most ancient – and now scientifically proven effective – ways is through breathing. A racing heart and increased blood pressure along with hyperventilation is the classic physical response to stress and they are all connected. Slow and calm your breathing and the heart follows. This connection between the respiratory and circulatory systems has been known since times of antiquity.
A second significant way in which breathing affects our health and lifespan is through its effect on our blood pressure. Using a method called slow breathing for 15 minutes a day has shown to lower high blood pressure in at least a dozen rigorous clinical trials. Many thousands of people have proved the same through real-life practice of slow breathing. The method is surely one of the most effective – and totally safe – natural ways to lower blood pressure.
Maintaining healthy blood pressure not only improves health and extends life in the obvious way: by preventing death through heart attack or stroke. It also immeasurably improves quality of life by maintaining healthy, flexible arteries. High pressure on the walls of our blood vessels builds up resistance, making them tougher and thicker. Thick, rigid blood vessels restrict blood flow, further increasing blood pressure. This leads to a condition called ischemia, a lack of blood supply. The eventual outcome is that organs, in fact the entire body, ages and dies more quickly.
Slow breathing (it’s a disservice to call it exercise as it’s actually very enjoyable) is just one of many lifestyle means and other natural methods to manage stress and lower blood pressure, thus improving and lengthening lives. But it’s surely proved to be one of the single most important factors, especially with regard to blood pressure control. It’s not called the “breath of life” for nothing.