Why should you care about how you breathe?

Breathing is both controlled by and affects the nervous system – it affects central blood flow, our blood pressure and it controls gas exchange and therefore energy production in all our cells. It is therefore easy to understand that the way we breathe affects how we feel. The effects can be arrived at via trial and error, which has also happened in most cultures. The problem has been that this has been packaged with a lack of physiological explanatory models. Today we can explain this with the support of research.

I have researched breathing for a long time. Mainly how it affects our circulation and how it can be measured in different ways. My view is that you can do everything else right in terms of training, diet and recovery, but if you breathe wrong, the rest doesn’t matter. Fortunately, breathing happens automatically. So it is enough to redirect a less good breathing to a better one. Which in itself requires work and can be easier said than done.

It is more about unconscious than conscious breathing

Breathing takes place unconsciously, even if you usually think of voluntary breathing when you talk about it. We take 5 – 20 breaths per minute and 10,000 – 30,000 breaths per day. We are aware of very few of these, even if we work with some active breathing routine.

The breathing pattern is controlled from the brainstem. Most people know that this changes under stress. When stressed the brain runs the pattern fast, shallow, with the chest, with the mouth and when calm it runs the pattern calm, deep, with the stomach, with the nose. Fewer know the reverse. If we consciously choose or unconsciously learn to breathe with one or the other pattern, we drive the brain to calmness or stress.

The brain’s plasticity is strongest up to the age of 25. Our breathing patterns are also set here, very much depending on the degree of stress we experience. The problem for many is that they are stuck in a less than good breathing pattern which drives them towards stress unnecessarily without them even thinking about it. Fortunately, there is research that shows that it is actually possible to change the structures in the brain that control our breathing, even in adulthood.

Nothing magical happens when you e.g. closes the mouth and begins to breathe through the nose or moves the breath down into the stomach. You just change the breathing pattern that runs in the brain.

If you consciously follow a pattern often enough, the brain will shift to this even in unconscious breathing. Remember calm, deep, with the belly, with the nose if you want to calm the body and quick, shallow, with the chest, with the mouth if you want to push the body.

Controlling your body with breathing

As we have just learned, we can direct the body towards stress or calm with the help of our breathing pattern. Let’s get into a bit of a premium. Breathing is controlled via the autonomic nervous system. This system has a gassing (sympathetic) and a slowing (parasympathetic) part. Inhaling increases the gas, the heart rate increases and our whole body becomes active. When exhaling, the reverse happens. This is fully measurable and many can even feel this effect in their pulse.

Inhaling causes the pulse to increase and exhaling to decrease it. The collective name for all variations in the heart’s pulse interval is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). The breathing variation is the clearest variation and is called Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) in the literature.

If you consciously control so that the inhalation becomes clear and long in relation to the exhalation, the body’s stress level will increase after a while. Conversely, you can lower stress by focusing on exhalation.

What we have gone through so far can be said to be the basis of a healthy relationship with breathing. An unconscious breathing that promotes calmness and control over how to increase and decrease the body’s stress level. Lucas Rockwood explains this very well in his TED talk where he also gives some practical exercises.

To measure which pattern is active

The calm pattern has the interesting effect of creating a distinct effect on circulation. When you run it the right way for you. When you breathe with your stomach, the diaphragm presses on the structures in the abdomen, while the deeper breath lowers the pressure in the chest. Both cause more blood to flow to the heart as well as increase the heart rate and flow through the lungs and make the blood more oxygenated. The breathing variation in the image above simply becomes strong when we breathe with the calm pattern. A bit like the system is built for this type of breathing.

An effective way to learn to breathe correctly and control your stress is therefore a method called biofeedback. It simply involves measuring and displaying the breathing variation in the figure above in real time. Simply to learn to breathe in a way so that the swing becomes strong.

How do we breathe?

In Linkura, we have a unique opportunity. Since our technology is based on measuring the ECG for long periods of time, we have access to a very accurate HRV and RSA signal and therefore also the opportunity to actually study breathing. We are in the middle of a study where we are investigating this with a user group. Without prejudging the events, we can give a little teaser. In the graph below, we can study an example of how the breathing pattern can vary over a day. The proportion of time in quiet breathing varies greatly between individuals.

Our hypothesis is of course that it is possible to lower stress by increasing the proportion of time in the calm breathing pattern.

Something we also study is how the actual stress load (measured via HRV) correlates to the breathing pattern. The hypothesis is that they are not always in phase but that bad breathing can create stress and not the other way around.


  • Work on redirecting the brain’s default to the calm breathing pattern. Before e.g. an exercise routine with the calm pattern 5-10 minutes every morning. Feel free to combine with random notifications on your mobile phone during the day that remind you to switch to this breathing pattern for a while.
  • If you feel or can hear your heart beating, or have access to biofeedback technology, practice making the breath variation as strong as possible. It can be hard to feel the stroke length but often you can feel the heart beat getting stronger as you inhale. Also work on feeling how they get weaker as you exhale.
  • Laborate by focusing on inhalation to unwind, e.g. on the day when you want to create motivation and drive before a task or before the working day.
  • Correspondingly, which is also more important for many, work out with a focus on exhalation to unwind, e.g. in the evening when you are going to sleep or in micro-breaks between tasks during the day.

Extra tips for biohackers

  • Read about taping (with caution) the mouth at night. This is a way of forcing breathing into the calm pattern at night which for many leads to better sleep. This is also a good way to learn to breathe through the nose. Which can take a while for many who have breathed through their mouths for many years.
  • The so-called Wim Hof method is well worth experimenting with. It is based on alternating hyperventilation (rapid breathing) and breathing pauses. In this way, stress and adrenaline levels are boosted temporarily. By doing this in a controlled way, you create calm and better control of stress during other parts of the day. Boosting with adrenaline is also proven to be good for the immune system. Never do this type of exercise while in water because of the risk of fainting.

There is much more to tell about breathing. Among other things, we have not come across studies that show how a shift to the calm breathing pattern increases gas exchange in the body by as much as 20%. Fewer breaths, better exchange in the lungs, fewer heartbeats, better central flows and therefore less energy consumption per unit of time. More and more elite athletes are starting to realize this but the same benefits apply to us mere mortals as well.

With the hope of a different approach to breathing and hopefully some inspiration. There is much to gain. You have to breathe no matter what, and breathing with the calm breathing pattern is not difficult. The trick is just to get there!