How to Dissolve Stress with your Breath

“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”

Hans Selye, The Stress of Life

I’m on a journey toward bowel freedom. Would you like to join me?  I imagine eating whatever I want, digesting it with ease, feeling energetic and eager to play after meals, and having bountiful, beautiful, bowel movements upon rising each morning.  Doesn’t that sound dreamy? Doesn’t that sound so ideal?

Perhaps you’re already there, in that fluffy wonderland of digesting and assimilating, no problem.  Your body breaks down what you give it, incorporating it into muscles, repairing injuries, making hormones, 

However, if you’re noticing any kind of bloating, overwhelm, fatigue, or even a buildup of tension in your shoulders and neck with no gut issues whatsoever, I invite you to continue reading… Stress, in its many forms, detrimentally claws at the functioning of the gut and overtime, leads to symptoms and disease.

In the process of following my own winding path of complex, idiopathic, chronic, debilitating, potentially pathogen-based constipation, I’m pulling out every tool in the bag.  I’m working backwards, teasing apart the pieces, and wondering: how did this all begin? What is the chicken, what is the egg, and what is that large elephant of chronic, invisible illness that we are all only starting to acknowledge?

At this point, stress, in all it’s sneaky and cunning forms, seems to be the culprit.  From what psychoneuroimmunology and trauma researching shows, stress literally changes our metabolic functioning.  It makes us more susceptible to every disease, including the number one cause of death: heart disease, which of course, directly links to our precious hearts that pump and contract in response to the stressors, thoughts, and hormonal shifts that we experience.  A basic hormone, like cortisol, adrenaline, estrogen, serotonin, or prolactin, all associated with prolonged stress exposure, too quickly becomes toxic to our cells when they circulate unopposed.

Stress throws all sorts of hooks and daggers into the functioning of the gut, the home of our immune system, our 2nd brain, and responsible for assimilating the components of energy we need to survive. We all can relate to losing our appetite during moments of intense stress or even excitement: the cortisol directly suppresses our appetite and decreases enzyme production, halting digestive processes and sending off fireworks of danger! danger! danger!

A recent review showed that stress of any kind can lead the way to autoimmune conditions, by means of disrupting the gut barrier.  Furthermore, “after a misdirected autoimmune response has been triggered once, inflammation will be triggered in the future in response to even small amounts of whatever initially triggered the response. Viruses, infections, environmental toxins, stress, and trauma can trigger a renewed inflammatory response at any time.”  

Something as simple as eating a marshmallow while reading about the spread of coronavirus could set your gut up to mount a hyper-immune response every time you eat a marshmallow, it seems.  “Let the madness begin!”, commands The Stress, as it slowly loosens the junctions of our guts, and puts a halt on digesting and moving the matter along the winding tubes of our intestines.

As  trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk speaks about, these biochemical changes store in our fascia, leading to tissue constriction and further tension in our already overburdened systems.  Not only does stress impact our immediate experience by severely hampering our enjoyment of life, but it changes our DNA, damaging our health slowly, increasing our rate of aging, and is then passed down to our offspring, setting them up with fragility and propensity to decline.  It is no coincidence that each generation is becoming increasingly more sickly and deranged, the new norm of youngsters that have gut issues, auto-immune conditions, depression, panic attacks, migraines, psoriasis, insomnia, chronic pain, thyroid disease, the list just drags on, while our parents seem to be actually, quite better off.  

Is there any hope?

When I take a look at the tools I’ve accumulated in the past 10 or so years that effectively discharge this buildup of unavoidable stress, I realize, wow, the tool bag is HUGE. It’s absolutely packed.  It’s overflowing with goodies! It’s filled with some of the latest hot topics, like limiting EMF exposure, avoiding plastics, swapping cardio for strength-training, and blocking excess blue light, mixed in with some ancient wisdom like getting enough sunlight and putting my barefeet in the dirt, sweating, and making time to play and connect with the humans and creatures I so deeply adore.  But what seems to be lending the biggest and most immediate impact remains the most simple, foundational practice of breathing with my mouth closed. Yes, breathing with my mouth closed. I admittedly took this all-important skill for granted for far too long, shaking my head in doubt as I pursued rabbit holes of supplements, protocols, and IVs, the miracle pill that would heal my stress, and my gut.   

Goodbye excuses and chasing symptoms, hello slow, deep, tummy breaths! 

Breathing has captivated the tendrils of my mind.  It acts as a companion in moments of stress, in pauses of relaxation, while I’m climbing up a slippery boulder problem, navigating through a busy intersection in my bird-pooped covered Kia, and spurring the continual aha-moments, serving as a true spark for revelation, reflections, sometimes even leading to a deep feeling of grounded joy.  

If I could go back to my bed-ridden self, or even before symptoms started cropping up, maybe in elementary school, I would ask myself to master one skill: I’d start with perfecting the art of breathing effectively and fully.  Visualize deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing, mouth closed, extending the exhale, even pausing before taking my next breath, similar to the breathing of a sleeping toddler. The more I practice, even as I jot down these sentences, I find this is the quickest method that actually signals to my nervous system that all is safe, the armor can be shed.  Each intentional breath gently whispers to every little cell to release stress and resume their projects conducive to health and repair. The cells smile, eager to let go of the by-products associated with the build-up of stressors unavoidable in modern life, urging them out of the system with minimal damage.  

What Stress Really Means

When I use the word “stress,” I use it knowing that it is the most loaded, umbrella-like term.  Its weaseled its way into every self-help book, blog, podcast, youtube video, and online class out there, for construction workers with joint pain, those on the path of addiction recovery, or, like most of my readers, those just trying to regain health. Anyone living in this day and age can’t go a day without it coming up in some kind of conversation, whether someone wears it as a badge of how busy they are, or simply just expressing their overwhelm with life as it unfolds for them.  

 Not only are we feeling stressed, we are desperately seeking trendy and quick ways out of the mayhem.  Help! Let me out of here!

The view that seems increasingly accepted among lay people and stress researchers alike is that we are continually bombarded with stressors that send our system into chaos, even when we aren’t aware, even when we do not consciously label it as being “stressed out.”

These stressors might be coming from:

  • Additives, preservatives, inflammatory oils and even organic compounds in our foods
  • Noise, sound, and air pollution (excuse me, that was an ambulance and a trash truck going by)
  • Fluoride, hormones, and heavy metals in our food, showering and drinking water (yum! Soak it in!)
  • Endocrine disruptors in the plastic bottles holding that pink coconut water everyone loves
  • EMFs that envelop us at all times, even when we’re sleeping, especially when we have our phone in our pocket right up against our gonads.
  • A negative thought related to our capability, our reality, I “should’ve (fill in the blank…)”
  • Endotoxins and LPS from the critters within us (these are inescapable, unfortunately)
  • A broken elbow or a strained hamstring from our daily morning jog
  • Lack of quality sleep, waking up to pee every couple of hours
  • Guzzling black coffee at 5am before racing to the morning boot camp class
  • Living at such a fast pace, never taking a moment to sit and “just chill,” as my mother likes to say
  • Bright blue light all day, with maybe only 6 minutes of sunlight
  • That 2nd round of hoppy beers and cookies at your office’s Friday Happy Hour, instead of dinner
  • Following fad diets that ignore basic biochemistry (I’m looking at you, Keto!)
  • Not having the energy to do what we really want to be doing
  • Reading the list above, while scrolling through your Instagram, stuck in traffic, feeling your stomach grumble for dinner

I could go on, but I’ll restrain myself.  

My point feels almost aggressively clear, and you already know it: our modern world is killing us, quickly.  Our jobs are stressful, traffic is stressful, being HUMAN within a corrupt political system is stressful. We are swimming through a soup of frequencies, lights, sounds, schedules, and chemicals that our bodies are not equipped to deal with. I know about three people who wake up feeling energized, have stable energy throughout the day, and have the zest to pursue the passions that ignite them.  I don’t believe that feeling rundown, achey, or fatigued, is normal, especially at such a young age. Recognizing the dysfunction of our society, it is up to us to take our health back into our own hands. It is our duty to take care of our cells, starting by discharging some of this stress so that we can actually feel fabulous for the blink of time we are on this earth.  

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

-Jiddu Krishnamurti

Instead of making a list of supplements and sending you to an EMF proof cave removed from city life to protect your precious cells, I think the most fundamental step we can take to mitigate these stressors is to BREATHE.  If all else fails, start with the breath. It is likely the fastest way to signal to your cells that they are safe, physiologically shifting them towards producing ATP and CO2, lowering stress hormones and bolstering up the fuzzy feel good chemicals.

Wim Hof Breathing and the Stress Response

When I started looking into effective breathing techniques to release stress and quickly shift my physiology, I tried: 

Unconscious chest breathing (my default. Great at increasing stress levels)

yogic pranayama breathing

Lion’s breath

Humming bee breathing (yes, this is a thing)

kundalini alternating nostril-pinching techniques

breath holds

Holotropic open mouth breath work (great at increasing adrenaline, as well)

As tigers like myself tend to do, I went all in.  I kept collecting and trying new methods, determined to “heal.”  Nothing really stuck.

I noticed that the Wim Hof Method kept coming up in the conversations with biohackers and wellness gurus, even claiming a place on Gwyneth Paltrow’s health series on Netflix.  I immediately fell in love with Wim Hof’s genuine warmth and humor. I felt inspired by his wisdom of transcending the body, overcoming our limitations, agreeing that “the breath knows how to go deeper than the mind.” He reminds us all to, “Breathe, motherfucker!” which he has found a way to say in a tone simultaneously endearing and inspiring.

The experimenter inside me grew curious, eager to join the Wim Hoff fan club.   I tried the technique myself for a few days, dropped off for a while, and came back just this month, adding in the cold showers first thing in the morning, hoping to unlock the mystery and absorb the beneficial effects.  I wanted a quick fix! I wanted an escape from the stress! (While I no longer practice this breathing technique, I still like to add in cold showers when I know my cortisol is very low and I can truly relax afterwards. I think of Wim Hof, every time).

Essentially, the Wim Hoff method breathing technique seems to be a form of hyperventilation, quickly expelling CO2 and oxygen from the lungs, which mounts a very quick adrenaline and cortisol rush, akin to a mini panic attack.  Impressively so, this burst of hormones allows Wim Hoff and his followers to successfully mount an anti-inflammatory response when injected with endotoxins:

“Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators and subsequent dampening of the proinflammatory cytokine response elicited by intravenous administration of bacterial endotoxin.”

The healthy volunteers therefore avoid getting sick by flooding their body with stress hormones.  The key takeaway here pays homage to the burst of stress hormones that are consciously triggered and short-lived, practiced by “healthy volunteers” that can relax shortly after.  We know that cortisol, in short bursts, is highly anti-inflammatory and can protect us from catching the flu or even mounting an immune response to the coronavirus.  However, the key point is that this stress is short lived, followed by a subsequent relaxation response. Danger and then safety.  Complete recovery.  

Evidence suggests that short term stressors are good AS LONG as we relax afterwards: our limbic systems are built for this balancing act.  Small stressors allow the system to adapt, and quickly return to a parasympathetic state. Like lifting a heavy bag of groceries and lowering it gently onto your kitchen counter, your arm quickly relaxes as you think about what snack to munch on. Willfully choosing do to something challenging and squirm-inducing, like hyperventilating or leaping into a cold shower shortly after rising, getting through it, and realizing you’re actually quite all right teaches the cells to remain calm when unchosen, REAL stressors might arise: it’s almost like mindfulness training, combined with a shot of adrenaline.

But that’s the whole conundrum, isn’t it? Most people do not return to a parasympathetic state in moments of stress because they are already chronically stressed and constantly in the rat race.  Instead, they run on the wobbly wheel of perpetual cortisol. It is the norm, and our systems have learned to love the short bursts of energy that accompany these spikes of cortisol.

What began as an innocent anti-inflammatory cascade, biology taking care of us, soon turned into a pro-inflammatory state, breaking down the bones, tissues, gut lining, thymus, thyroid, and reproductive organs. Deterioration overtakes our precious cells, and we don’t even know it’s happening until full-blown disease overtakes us.  (Wow, this got scary quickly). In the context of perpetual stress, I’m not sure revving up the stress hormones even temporarily, is ideal. In this hormonal milieu, intentional relaxation might lead to more favorable changes, more quickly.

Close Your Mouth and Slow Down

Yet, there is hope! Instead of hyperventilating, I’m learning the art of nose breathing, inspired by the Buteyko Breathing Technique.  (Some people even tape their mouth while they sleep: that’s the next experiment).  It’s the opposite side of the spectrum from the Wim Hof Method. Physiologically speaking, when we breathe through our nose, it leads to greater oxygenation of active tissues while releasing nitrous oxide, which is toxic to our cells.  Even the Washington Post is bringing attention to this new-but-old way of breathing, commenting that “Hyperventilation through the mouth, i.e. the quick and hard breaths through the mouth that so many of us take when exercising at high intensity or feeling stressed, causes the body to offload more CO2, making it harder to oxygenate our cells. In intense moments, nasal breathing is the ideal way to oxygenate our systems”.Thus, cells can operate more optimally, swimming in oxygen as they  carry out their ever important tasks of mitigating the stressors we pull them through.  Even athletes are finding improved athletic performance when they close their mouth and breathe through their nostrils.  

Author, athlete, and founder of the Art Of Breath, Brian Mackenzie shares:

“We are now understanding some of the deeper layers to managing stress, which has direct impact on not only the general population, but is at the heart of how elite performers can optimize performance.”

In addition to reducing oxidative stress, increasing cellular respiration, calming the brain, enhancing athletic performance, recovery, nasal breathing can bolster up the immune system.  It acts as a robust line of defense against airborne pathogens by filtering everything first (#coronavirus). The mouth, on the other hand, has no defense system. 

What My Practice Looks Like

I slow down each breath so that each inhale takes about 5 slow counts, holding for 5 more, exhaling for 5, and again, holding for 5, waiting until I get the gentlest urge to take another breath in. This rhythmic motion travels through my wee little nostrils, mouth shut.  Some people call this square breathing.

I practice it while I walk, while I write this post, while I shower, digging into tight spots, and anytime I catch my stress levels rising in response to the chaos that is my internal chatter.

The effects are immediate and oh my goodness, profound.  Instead of an adrenaline rush, I find myself instantaneously calmed, focused, a lightness sweeps over that almost leaves me giddy. My brain says thank you, resuming functioning and clarity in the way it prefers.   How delicious, and it’s free! Instead of revving up with stress, I am seduced into calmness, claiming power over my perception of whatever might be happening.

Since I started slow, intentional, nose breathing, I’ve noticed increasing and wider moments of calm, deeper chunks of sleep, an improvement of digestive secretions and movement (I can hear and feel my guts working!), and oddly enough, a sense of confidence and for-no-reason-happiness as I go about my day.  

Others find improvements in anxiety, asthma, reduction in inflammation, and even sleep apnea and symptoms mimicking ADHD.

Improved cellular respiration seems to be a nice little boost in the quality of my life and could potentially do the same for you. Just closing my mouth, the world has opened up tremendously.  Thank you oxygen, you’re a little silver bullet, almost magic, I’ve been looking for all of these years!

“To desire a mind that remains curious and can see the beauty in any experience is true freedom. Our breath is the direct link to a calm, clear mind and body.”

Brian Mackenzie

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