Since the beginning of the Covid outbreak most attention has been focused on preventing transmission and providing care for the acutely ill. However many people are struggling with symptoms that persist weeks and months after infection. What can be done to accelerate recovery and prevent recurrence? As Covid is a respiratory illness, a focus on optimal respiratory health should be front and centre. Let’s explore the role that conscious breathing can play in prevention and recovery.
Stress and The Immune System
In recent times, it’s never been more important and necessary for us to find ways to release anxiety and stress. If we are constantly operating in a heightened state of anxiety or stress, we are compromising our immune system and our overall well-being. Our stress response is designed to be short lived, and once the stressor has passed, the nervous system shifts back into a state of recovery. However when we are stuck in a chronic state of stress, our immune system is compromised and we are more prone to inflammation. Breathwork can be hugely effective in helping us shift from the stress response to the relaxation response.
Boosting Nitric Oxide
Nitric oxide has been called the ‘miracle molecule’ for good reason. The molecule is produced in the sinuses of the nasal cavity and plays a role in relaxing airways and blood vessels. But why it is even more important is that it has potent antibacterial and antiviral properties, helping the body to destroy pathogens as they enter the body. A recent study showed that if we hum as we exhale we produce around 15 times more nitric oxide compared with exhaling normally!
Improving Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
It has been shown that HRV is consistently lower for those recovering from Covid-19. Low HRV is linked to many chronic illnesses, increased levels of inflammation and is usually indicative of a persistent ‘fight or flight’ response. Certain types of breathwork have been shown in many studies to improve HRV, particularly practices such as Resonance Frequency or Coherence Breathing. This slow, steady pattern of breath increases the oscillations of the heart rhythm, which causes a state of ease and balance across multiple systems in the body. Try inhaling (nose) for a count of 4 or 5 and exhaling (pursed lips) for a count of 5 or 6. Most importantly it should feel comfortable.
Nasal Breathing and The Immune System
The nose is an incredibly complex piece of anatomy that is truly designed for breathing. The nose is lined with tiny hairs called cilia, which are designed to prevent microscopic particles from entering the lungs. It is also home to the mucosal lining, which produces immunoglobulins (immune system defenders). Breathing through the nose also gives us more access to the diaphragm, our primary respiratory muscle, which supports optimal blood and lymphatic flow.
Breathwork practices help us to strengthen the diaphragm, improving our ability to oxygenate the body.
Improving Our Biochemistry
Breathing is about much more than just moving air. It is intimately involved in regulating the chemistry of the body. Whether the body is in an alkaline or acidic state is often down to how we are breathing. The most important thing about the chemistry of breathing is ensuring we are able to deliver oxygen to the cells, so we can produce energy. Breathwork practices that involve slow breathing or breath holding (apnea) help the body to become more tolerant to carbon dioxide. This in turn means we can deliver more oxygen to the cell. Breath holding time has been shown to be a strong predictor of risk of Covid complications. Try introducing brief breath holds between exhales and inhales to prevent ‘overbreathing’ and improve biochemistry.
Restoring Our Biomechanics
Optimal breathing is driven by the diaphragm, which draws air into the lower part of the lungs where there is more surface area for oxygen and carbon dioxide to move in and out of the blood. Less optimal breathing pulls the air into the upper part of the lungs, using the ‘accessory’ respiratory muscles. With increased stress, including the psycho-emotional stress related to covid, breathing patterns tend to shift to mouth breathing, high in the chest, and at a faster rate. This puts more strain on the nervous system and is less efficient, meaning we have to work harder for less energy.
Balancing the Autonomic Nervous System
Multiple studies are now linking long lasting Covid symptoms with the functioning of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is best known as the ‘fight or flight’ or ‘rest and digest’ system. When the body shifts into the parasympathetic state it prioritizes recovery through cellular repair and reducing inflammation. One of the fastest ways to access the parasympathetic state is through Breathwork. By controlling the duration and intensity of inhales and exhales, we are able to influence the autonomic nervous system, directing the body to a place of recovery and restoration. Box breathing is a simple practice shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
The Wim Hof Method has been shown to reduce the inflammatory response to infection by producing adrenaline and stimulating the release of a key anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin 10 (IL-10). IL-10 inhibits the release of other cytokines that contribute to inflammation. One of the known responses to Covid has been the ‘cytokine storm’, which is when the body produces excessive inflammation. Wim Hof Method breathing is a simple and effective tool to help the body reduce inflammation in as little as 20 minutes.
Maintaining Lung Health
When we are feeling good, we might walk, jog, run, ride or participate in a variety of other forms of exercise. What happens when we do this? Our body demands more ventilation (breathing becomes deeper and faster), which causes our lungs to expand fully. However when we are experiencing illness, we often don’t feel up to exercising. This means there is no demand for deeper breathing, and our respiratory system becomes deconditioned and weak. Breathwork helps to maintain our lung capacity until our energy levels return, and we can get back to our normal exercise routine.
Connecting With Community
You might be thinking… ‘Wait, I thought this list was about the benefits of Breathwork?’ It is. One of the most important but often overlooked benefits of Breathwork is the community aspect. Connecting with a group, sharing space virtually, being seen and heard, can be incredibly effective in boosting psychological well-being which has been shown to be hugely supportive of the immune system and can be a catalyst for healing. Humans are social creatures, we thrive when we feel connected. Connecting to our breath, and connecting to others, should not be overlooked when trying to restore and maintain a state of wellness.Breathwork is so much more than just breathing exercises. It is a gateway into better physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and wellness. It is an opportunity to connect to yourself and others on a deeper level. In the ongoing fight against Covid, turning to our breath can become one of our greatest weapons. If you haven’t tried breathwork, join us at Frequency Mind and explore the wide range of classes on offer.