Positive Psychology

Slower Breathing Facilitates Eudaimonia via Your Vagus Nerve

Slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, boosts HRV and lowers blood pressure.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

Aristotelian ethics defines eudaimonia as "the condition of human flourishing or living well." In this post, we'll look at a few science-based ways that hacking the vagus nerve by mindfully slowing down one's breathing can improve psychophysiological well-being in ways that facilitate eudaimonia (i.e., a happy, healthy, and contented life). Eudaimonia is a core tenet of positive psychology.

Taking a deep diaphragmatic inhalation through your nose, followed by a long, slow exhalation through pursed lips, stimulates your vagus nerve, boosts your parasympathetic nervous system's robustness, and creates an inner sense of calm. The power of deep, slow "belly breathing" to counterbalance fight-or-flight stress responses is well established. (See here, here, here)

WikiVisual/Creative Commons
Source: WikiVisual/Creative Commons

Last year, I wrote a blog post, "Longer Exhalations Are an Easy Way to Hack Your Vagus Nerve." In that article, I recommended a 1:2 ratio of breathing in for four seconds and breathing out for eight seconds; this breathing cycle takes 12 seconds, equating to five rounds of inhaling/exhaling per minute.

As a competitive athlete, I stumbled on a 1:2 (inhale:exhale) ratio of diaphragmatic breathing combined with some "relaxation response" mindfulness exercises as a reliable way to secrete tranquilizing "vagusstoff" (vagus nerve substance) on demand.

That said, yogis, yoginis, and ayurvedic practitioners have been recommending similar pranayama breathing exercises for millennia. Numerous yoga-based breathing techniques can benefit one's autonomic nervous system and facilitate a happy and healthy psychophysiological state of being.

What's Hypertension Got to Do With Slow-Paced Breathing?

Elevated blood pressure (i.e., hypertension) is one of the leading causes of morbidity and premature mortality in the United States and worldwide. The American Heart Association's "Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2019 Update" (Benjamin et al., 2019) for adults over age 20 in the U.S. estimated that about 116 million women and men have high blood pressure.

Okan Caliskan/ Pixabay
Source: Okan Caliskan/ Pixabay

Roughly one decade ago, a study (Pramanik et al., 2009) on the immediate effect of slow-paced bhastrika pranayama breathing on blood pressure found that a respiratory rate of six inhalation/exhalation cycles per minute for five minutes caused a significant decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

"Slow pace bhastrika pranayama (respiratory rate 6/min) exercise thus shows a strong tendency to improve the autonomic nervous system through enhanced activation of the parasympathetic system," the authors concluded.

Now, a new study (Brenner et al., 2020) corroborates the physiological benefits of taking about five to seven diaphragmatic breaths per minute in conjunction with practicing a mindfulness technique. This paper, "Mindfulness with paced breathing reduces blood pressure," appears in the September 2020 issue of Medical Hypotheses.

According to the authors: "Paced breathing is deep diaphragmatic breathing with typical rates equal to or less than 5 to 7 breaths per minute compared with the usual rate of 12 to 14."  

How Does Slow-Paced Breathing Lower Blood Pressure?

"One of the most plausible mechanisms is that paced breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces stress chemicals in the brain and increases vascular relaxation that may lead to lowering of blood pressure," corresponding author Suzanne LeBlang of Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt College of Medicine said in a news release.  

Another study (Pal et al., 2004) of different effects slow-paced breathing vs. fast-paced breathing has on autonomic functions found that slow-paced breathing increases parasympathetic activity and decreases sympathetic activity. However, the researchers didn't observe any significant changes in autonomic functions or flexibility associated with fast-paced breathing.

"The findings of the present study show that regular practice of slow breathing exercise for three months improves autonomic functions, while the practice of fast breathing exercise for the same duration does not affect the autonomic functions," Pal et al. concluded.

A recent systematic review (Nivethitha et al., 2017) of scientific research related to different yogic pranayama breathing techniques also concluded that slow-paced breathing produced beneficial effects on cardiovascular and autonomic variables. In contrast, fast-paced breathing techniques did not have the same results. 

How Can Slow-Paced Breathing Create an Upward Spiral of Eudaimonia?

Slow breathing at a rate of about 5 to 7 inhalation/exhalation cycles per minute stimulates vagus nerve activity, improves autonomic flexibility, and increases heart rate variability (HRV); with regular practice, this improves vagal tone.

Previous research (Kok & Frederikson, 2010) suggests that "autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions" and is associated with psychological well-being. Another recent study (Liu, Ni, & Peng, 2020) found that young adults with higher HRV also tended to have higher Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) scores.

Taken together, this accumulating body of evidence suggests that slow-paced breathing is a cost-free and readily available way to facilitate eudaimonia by lowering blood pressure, improving psychophysiological well-being, and increasing happiness.

References

Jacqueline Brenner, Suzanne LeBlang, Michelle Lizotte-Waniewski, Barbara Schmidt, Patricio S. Espinosa, David L. DeMets, Andrew Newberg, Charles H. Hennekens. "Mindfulness With Paced Breathing Reduces Blood Pressure." Medical Hypotheses (First available online: April 22, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2020.109780

Ivan Liu, Shiguang Ni, and Kaiping Peng. "Happiness at Your Fingertips: Assessing Mental Health with Smartphone Photoplethysmogram-Based Heart Rate Variability Analysis." Telemedicine and e-Health (First published online: February 26, 2020) DOI: 10.1089/tmj.2019.0283

L. Nivethitha, A. Mooventhan, N.K. Manjunath. "Effects of Various Prāṇāyāma on Cardiovascular and Autonomic Variables." Ancient Science of Life (First published online: March 20, 2017) DOI: 10.4103/asl.ASL_178_16

Bethany E. Kok and Barbara L. Fredrickson. "Upward Spirals of the Heart: Autonomic Flexibility, as Indexed by Vagal Tone, Reciprocally and Prospectively Predicts Positive Emotions and Social Connectedness." Biological Psychology (First available online: September 21, 2010) DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005

Tapas Pramanik, Hari Om Sharma, Suchita Mishra, Anurag Mishra, Rajesh Prajapati, and Smriti Singh. "Immediate Effect of Slow Pace Bhastrika Pranayama on Blood Pressure and Heart Rate." The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (First published: March 17, 2009) DOI: 10.1089/acm.2008.0440

G. Pal, S. Velkumary, Madanmohan. "Effect of Short-Term Practice of Breathing Exercises on Autonomic Functions in Normal Human Volunteers." The Indian Journal of Medical Research (First published: July 31, 2004) PMID: 15347862