BREATHING IS NOT JUST FOR OXYGEN; IT’S LINKED TO BRAIN FUNCTION AND BEHAVIOR

(from Neuroscience News, Dec 2016)

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular, fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus, the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result, you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

BREATHING AND CORE CONTROL

As you may know, your inner core muscles include the diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis and lumbar multifidi. These are the true core muscles that stabilize your spine and pelvis.  If these muscles are weak, it is very difficult to balance and center your body, and your spine becomes unstable and prone to injury . Additionally, your body will compensate by trying to use other muscles to stabilize the spine (i.e legs, arms), causing overuse and fatigue which can result in ankle, knee, hip and even shoulder pain.

One of the most important of these inner core muscles is the diaphragm.  If you are not breathing properly, you are not using your diaphragm properly.  AND, if you are not breathing properly, your other inner core muscles do not work as well as they should either.  There is a strong relationship between all the inner core muscles; if one is weak or deconditioned, the others tend to be weak as well.

If your balance is not good, and/or you feel pain in your knees and hips (absent any known pathologies), you may want to focus on how you breathe.

A quick way to test if you are using your diaphragm properly is to stand in front of a mirror and take a deep breath.  If you notice your shoulders rise, then you are not fully utilizing the diaphragm. Practice inhaling and feel your back rib cage expand, but your shoulders should stay relaxed.  This is easier to practice while lying on your back with your knees bent. As you inhale (through your nose, if possible), maintain a neutral spine (no arching), and imagine your ribs in the back of your body expanding.  As you exhale (through your nose or mouth), imagine your ribs compressing and your abdominal muscles contracting.

If you can activate your diaphragm fully before exercising, you will find that physical activity may be easier as the other inner core muscles can then do their job to stabilize and center your body. Even walking may be easier and more enjoyable.