The Immune-Balancing Benefits of Deep Breathing
As of this writing (May 2020), Internet searches for “how to boost immunity” have increased dramatically compared to March, April and May of 2019. But what many people don’t realize is that boosting your immune system can do more harm than good.
That’s because some people have immune systems that are hyperactive and therefore don’t need boosting. Consider the estimated seven percent of the U.S. population that suffers from autoimmune diseases, a collection of 80 or so chronic illnesses, in which the body’s own immune system attacks itself. Autoimmune diseases occur when antibodies in the immune system overreact and attack the body’s cells instead of an infection.
So really what we should all strive for in a healthy immune system is balance. A healthy, balanced immune system is one that’s neither too weak nor too strong. And one of the easiest ways to have a more balanced immune system is by maintaining a daily deep breathing practice.
Excuse this long-winded introduction into the benefits of deep breathing—yes, pun definitely intended!
Immune Benefits of Deep Breathing Courtesy of The Ice Man
Many people are aware that meditation has very positive effects on mental health and well-being. But less known are the physiological effects of deep breathing practices, particularly when it comes to the immune system.
But thanks to one individual in particular—whom many would call crazy—the immune benefits of deep breathing are becoming more well known. Wim Hof, aka “The Ice Man” a 61-year-old Dutch extreme athlete, made famous for his record-setting submerged swims in freezing water and climbs up Mt. Everest half-naked, has made deep breathing very popular.
Deep, controlled breathing is what makes it possible for Hof to withstand tortuous conditions, comfortably soaking in an ice bath for nearly two hours.
If you have Netflix streaming service, check out the episode he’s featured in, in the series Goop Lab. If you’re not familiar with Hof, here’s a quick run down:
At the age of 17, Hof on a whim (no pun intended), decided to take a plunge into the freezing-cold waters of a local canal. Years later, in 1995, his first wife, with whom he had four children, committed suicide. Controlling his body while submerged in freezing temperatures and developing a deep breathing regimen helped him cope with grief.
Years later, Hof volunteered to have his body injected with toxic e. Coli bacteria. In a normal person, being exposed to an endotoxin (a toxin that is released in the body when cells die) initiates an innate-immune response. Your innate immune system is your body’s first line of defense. In a normal person exposed to a pathogen, it’s the innate system that produces fever, chills, and sweating, in an effort to eliminate the pathogen.
But Hof clearly is no normal human being. By focusing on the deep breathing exercises he developed, Hof was able to essentially turn off his innate system. Because his body was flooded with adrenaline, Hof hardly felt the side effects of the endotoxin; his immune system was suppressed. The deep breathing also stimulated the release of an anti-inflammatory protein called cytokine, which is involved in immune cell messaging. Cytokines are critical for fighting pathogens.
Normally, when we hear immuno-suppression, we assume it’s a bad thing. But as Hof’s weird science experiment shows us, suppressing the immune system can work to your advantage.
Is Hof the benefactor of a genetic malfunction that makes him impervious to cold, not to mention endotoxins? Perhaps to a slight degree.
However, the experiment Hof was subjected to was repeated with a group of people that Hof personally trained in deep breathing, cold submersion and meditation.
The group of 18 people he trained experienced similar results: quicker recovery, higher levels of IL-10 (anti-inflammatory cytokines) and increased infection-fighting white blood cells.
Deep Breathing For Stress Management
Obviously, stress levels play a critical part in immune system balance. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can lower salivary cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the body’s stress hormones. Chronic stress places a heavy burden on the adrenal glands, which secrete cortisol. High cortisol levels can cause the immune system to become imbalanced.
In research published in Frontiers in Psychology, 40 participants were randomly assigned to either a breathing group or a control group. The participants in the breathing group received intensive training for 20 sessions, implemented over 8 weeks, that consisted of a breathing rate of about four breaths per minute. (The control group did not receive any training.)
According to the researchers, deep, diaphragmatic breathing significantly lowered cortisol levels. (The control group showed no change in cortisol levels.)
The researchers concluded that diaphragmatic breathing could improve sustained attention and cortisol levels.
How to Do Deep Belly Breathing
Deep belly breathing takes practice but the instructions are fairly simple. Lie down comfortably. While sucking in air through your lips like you’re sucking on a straw at the bottom of a milkshake, expand your belly, then your chest, and then take the inhale all the way to the crown of your head. This should take about four seconds or so.
Then, exhale for the same count but don’t exhale all the air. Repeat 30 times. Rest. Don’t breath for about a minute to 90 seconds. Finish the cycle by taking a big breath and holding it for 15 seconds while tensing your body. Repeat for two more rounds.
Mindfulness meditation or deep-breathing a la Wim Hom seem to be able to elicit disease-fighting responses in the body. It’s a simple, highly-beneficial practice that can keep your immune system balanced. Now that you’re done reading this, take a deep breath. And then another. And another…