The breath affects the nervous system in so many ways. Learning some neuroanatomy can help us consciously harvest numerous benefits that we might miss out on otherwise.
In medicine, the ABCs come first: airway, breathing and circulation. Osteopathic medicine focuses on optimizing the ecosystem of the body. Much like a garden, the landscape or terrain of our bodies requires water, nutrients and energy for optimal growth and healing. Delivery of all these resources depends heavily on the effective circulation of fluids, air and electricity.
The nervous system plays a big role in supporting our terrain. When our breathing is effective, our body feels safer and the nervous system relaxes. The relaxation response creates less resistance to the movement of air, blood, lymph and even the electrical impulses and current that flows to each of our cells at all times. It’s a feed-forward mechanism: Better breathing supports better circulation, which in turn supports even better breathing.
Most of us walk around barely breathing. We routinely breathe shallowly, often only as deeply as the upper chest, without engaging the many areas of the body that can support the full, healthy pumping of all our circulations. Full-body breathing is our natural state, and because we all have a body memory of this behavior, returning to it is not as challenging as you might think.
The first thing I love to do is notice if my ribs are moving. If I’m stressed, they generally are not. The movement of the ribs can begin to soothe the nervous system immediately. Motion at the bottom of the back of the ribcage begins to release tension and move blood through the kidneys or renal system. Calming the renal system calms the adrenal glands, the walnut-sized glands that sit on the kidneys, which immediately reduces the production of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. This is a direct link. Renal, adrenal, adrenalin.
When we move the lungs, we stimulate the heart and the anterior or ventral branch of the vagus nerve—known as the “ventral vagal pathway” in polyvagal theory. In doing so, we activate the portion of our neural circuitry involved in connecting with others. Esteemed neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges of the University of Indiana has identified this aspect of the nervous system as an evolutionarily advanced development that exists only in mammals. He calls this our social engagement system, or S.E.S.
Activating the S.E.S. has the effect of making us feel safer and more connected, which directly calms the survival or stress response in the body. Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine why physical, social play between mammals can be so deeply restorative, and that socially connecting through activities like dance, yoga, music, riding horses and even simply walking the dog can be so healing.
Another piece of neuroanatomy to keep in mind are the parasympathetic fibers in the membranes or capsules around our lungs. These parasympathetic fibers are part of our relaxation system nicknamed “rest and digest.” Stretching them, which happens at the height of inhalation, can have a powerful calming effect.
Notice when you inhale whether you can feel those fibers stretching. Many ancient breath practices include a component of imagining the expansion of the incoming breath continuing up through the neck and the head. These extra seconds of breath, when the breath is silent and the lungs are still stretching, are considered the most potent moments of the breath cycle. When we breathe this way, the whole ribcage expands even more, which further calms the kidney, renal and adrenal circuit, and deeply stimulates the ventral vagal pathway by way of the organs in the chest.
There are a few ways to create an even more rapid and powerful relaxation effect. Resting the tongue across the roof of the mouth, from just behind the teeth to the soft palate, ensures we’re breathing through our noses, which is supportive of our physiology. Tongue pressure on the palate, which happens simply by way of this resting position and even more so when we swallow, deeply calms the nervous system the way that suctioning during breastfeeding does. Whether or not we were breast-fed, the nervous system responds to pressure on the palate in much the same way.
Note that when we swallow, large waves of force move through the head, stimulating the “diaphragm” of dural membranes that support the brain. Like the movement of the ribs, this mechanism also involves the vagus nerve and other nerves of the social engagement system.
Another benefit of resting the tongue on the roof of the mouth is that we breathe through our noses. Nasal breathing adds carbon dioxide and nitric oxide to the air we inhale. Both gasses are calming, and both dilate the smooth muscle in the walls of our arteries and airways, which increases circulation of all the fluids in the body.
Waking up the pelvic floor, which is also a diaphragm, also supports full-body breathing. In yoga, the practice of gently engaging the sphincters or muscle-lined openings there helps us build power and heat in the body, and helps activate the pelvic floor so that it can begin to synchronize with the other diaphragms.
Ultimately, the activation and synchronization of all the diaphragms in the body stimulates native, integrated, full-body breathing. Full-body breathing is so natural and so deeply programmed into our system that once we relocate our memory of it, this deeply restorative resting behavior can begin to express without having to think about it. In homeostasis, the breath need not be dramatic or cause the body to move much, because each cell also synchronizes and does its part. With a little attention, full-body breathing can become surprisingly effortless, amazingly efficient, delightfully pleasurable and deeply healing.
Dr. Michelle Veneziano is a doctor of osteopathic medicine and an adjunct clinical professor at Touro University in Vallejo. She lives in Forest Knolls.