Diaphragmatic Breathing: What It Is and How It Works



How often do you think about breathing during the day? If you’re like most folks probably not much...That’s mostly due to the fact that it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system located in the brainstem. The nerve cells that live within these centers automatically send signals to the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to contract and relax at regular intervals. So, right about now you might be asking yourself: if breathing happens whether I think about it or not; why bother? Well, because the diaphragm is unique as it can work both as a voluntary and involuntary muscle – giving us some control to hold our breath or increase or decrease the rate of inhalation. Exercising this muscle ensures it will be strong and help you stay healthy. Before we take a closer look at why diaphragmatic breathing is important, let’s start with the anatomy.




The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration – it is the dome-shaped sheet of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. It is attached to the lumbar spine, lower ribs and sternum.  As the diaphragm contracts, the lungs move downwards, expand and fill with air. 

The brain stem uses sensors called “chemoreceptors” to regulate breathing. When chemicals are discovered in the body, chemoreceptors pass information along to nerves in the central nervous system. The central nervous system then sends that data to the respiratory control centre. Working together, the body is constantly monitoring and adjusting pH and oxygen levels in the arterial blood. For example, if carbon dioxide levels are too high this information is relayed to the brain which triggers faster, deeper breathing.



Optimal Oxygen Delivery

Shallow breathing, mouth breathing, holding our breath are some examples of poor breathing habits.  We fall into these unhealthy breathing patterns through lifestyle changes and poor posture. This means that our cells are not getting the oxygen they need at the best rate.

Diaphragmatic breathing (also called "deep abdominal breathing" or "belly breathing") encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen to nourish all the cells in our body for outgoing carbon dioxide to eliminate waste effectively.

This type of breathing reduces heart rate and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.

Retraining ourselves to breathe with the diaphragm more can lead to increased vitality and well-being.

Stimulates the Relaxation Response

Our autonomic nervous system has two main branches; the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to increase your heart rate to activate the “fight or flight” response when faced with stressful events. The parasympathetic nervous system when activated will slow your heart rate and turn on the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down. Many people spend so much of their time in a state of high stress that their sympathetic nervous systems are always triggered; causing them to feel nervous, stressed, anxious and overwhelmed.

By practising deep abdominal breathing you can stimulate the relaxation response which can lower the risk of stress-related conditions like heart disease, digestive disorders, sleep disorders, depression, and more.


Practice, practice, practice


If you’re trying diaphragmatic breathing for the first time you may find it easier to lie on your back; if you are a more seasoned belly-breather or practice yoga you may find it comfortable to sit or stand with your back straight and shoulders down.

Once you have found a comfortable position:

Close down the eyes and observe your breath and how it feels as it moves in and out of your body.

Inhale slowly through the nose feeling your abdomen slowly expand.

Exhale slowly through the nose feeling your abdomen slowly deflate - trying to make your exhales longer than your inhales

Repeat 5-10 times

To increase body-breath awareness you can place one hand on your abdomen below the navel and the other hand on your chest. Feeling the rise and fall of the abdomen while continue to breathe fully and deeply.


Now that you know the where the diaphragm is, what it does and how deep abdominal breathing can impact your whole body and well-being will you incorporate a breathing exercise into your day?