Deep breathing is prescribed for a vast array of problems. Feeling anxious? Take a breather. Feeling angry? Breathe and count to ten. Feeling overwhelmed? Well… you get the idea.
Studies have shown that breathing practice (AKA deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) offer a range of measurable psychological and physiological benefits. You’ve probably heard of deep breathing techniques as a way to improve mood and reduce stress. But you’re likely unfamiliar with its effects on the lymphatic system. As you read this post, there are over 700 lymph nodes in your body working to filter through approximately 15 liters of lymph juice. That system is as important as it is weird.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system operates a lot like the vascular system: a network of vessels, tissues, and organs (known as lymph nodes) work together to circulate lymph liquid throughout the body. Where the vascular veins and arteries go, so too does the lymphatic system, filtering out cellular waste as lymphatic fluid passes through each lymph node. Any abnormal cells are also removed from the bloodstream.
The lymphatic system is also a vital part of our immune system. Immune cells and lymphocytes (AKA white blood cells) are contained within each lymph node, ready to fight against any disease-causing invaders like bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
When something in the lymphatic system is dysfunctional, like a lack of circulation, the watery lymph liquid gets backed up and the area swells (it may also become painful or sore). Think about sitting on an airplane for hours. Gravity and lack of movement prevents the lymph from flowing properly, which in turn makes your ankles swell or back ache. In fact, if you regularly experience muscle stiffness, chronic fatigue, chronic inflammation, or bloating, you may be dealing with a lymphatic issue. Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple solution: Just take a deep breath.
How Does Deep Breathing Help?
Unlike the vascular system, where the heart works to pump blood through body, the lymphatic system does not have an active pump to propel lymphatic fluid. This is where the breath is key. Deep abdominal breathing (AKA diaphragmatic breathing) acts as a pumping mechanism and helps with lymph circulation.
The diaphragm connects with 76 other muscles. The downward and upward movement of the diaphragm helps cycle lymphatic fluid back into the bloodstream. Long-term benefits include improved metabolism, stronger immune system, and reduced cortisol levels.
Notice the way you inhale and exhale. Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chest instead of breathing down into the diaphragm. In times of stress, breathing is also constricted. That restricts the diaphragm and can negatively impact the way the lymphatic system functions.
Deep Breathing Exercises and Tips
Effective diaphragmatic breathing takes a little practice. The easiest way to start is to sit upright, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. As you breathe in, your belly should expand. As you breathe out, your belly contracts. Likewise, the hand on your abdomen should move with each inhale and exhale while the hand on your chest remains still. For maximum efficacy, practice first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Instead of sitting, lie face-up on the ground with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor.
Definitely easier said than done. But we happen to live in the golden age of media and information. The internet is full of diaphragmatic breathing tutorials and how-to guides. You can also find plenty of pranayama and other yoga breathing practices as well.
If interested, you could also try downloading one of the many meditation apps for guided breathing practices:
iBreathe – This easy-to-use app is for interval breathing exercises. Users can customize interval lengths.
Breathe+ – This app acts as a visualization tool, allowing users see the inhales and exhales as moving images.
Liberate – This is both a meditation app and safe space designed by, and for, the Black community. The app aims to “help the Black community collectively heal and be free.”
MyLife Meditation – Previously known as Stop, Breathe & Think, this app revolves around the user’s emotions. It helps users identify what they’re feeling and recommends short videos based on the emotion.
The above list requires a subscription for long-term use. But there’s lots of free and open source meditation apps, too.
And you don’t have to be perfectly still to practice deep breathing. Marrying breath with movement is even more powerful. This could be an hour of yoga, swimming laps at the pool, or even a walk in the park. Just be sure to breathe from your gut.
It may sound silly, but regular breathing practice does improve your breathing. Conscious deep breathing exercises make you more aware of your breathing throughout the day. That awareness will pay dividends in your future.