There is one truth that I frequently return to when working in with clients it is: keep it simple.
I have found again and again the best medicine is often the simplest. The simplest medicine is a deep breath.
Here are a few ways the breath nourishes and heals the body.
1. Deep breathing improves lymphatic drainage.
Lymph, containing metabolic toxins, flows uphill in the body and drains into the circulatory system through two ducts at the base of the neck. This is a tricky feat for the lymph, as unlike the circulatory system that has a pump, lymph is reliant on the movement of muscles to flow.
Particularly important are expansion and contraction chest muscles and the diaphragm: the muscles used for deep breathing. Deep breathing enhances lymphatic drainage. Back in circulation, lymph flows into liver and kidneys where toxins are processed for elimination.
2. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic system.
During deep breathing the rise and fall of the diaphragm massages the wandering vagus nerve. Stimulation of the vagus nerve turns off the stress response relaxing the heart, stomach, liver and kidneys, and intestines.
Massaging the vagus nerve releases acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that relaxes the body and mind. This calming neurotransmitter is associated with increase in attention, focus and memory. Low levels of acetylcholine are linked with depression.
In a study of several depressed patients on a psychiatric ward, 45 adults were assigned to three groups.
The first group was given only SKY (a yogic deep breathing technique) breathing training and no medication.
The second group was given 150 mg/day of an antidepressant, imipranine.
The third group was treated three times a week with unipolar electroshock therapy.
At the end of four weeks, the patients were retested, using the Hamilton Depression Scale and the Depression Inventory.
The group given SKY breath training showed as much improvement in their depression scores as the group given impramine. SKY and impramine groups did almost as well as the electroshock group.
(Source: How to Use Herbs, Nutrients and Yoga in Mental Health Care, Richard Brown MD, Patricia Gerbarg MD, Philip Muskin MD)
3. Deep breathing increases the release of carbon dioxide.
Stress is oxygen hungry. To supply stress’s increased demand of oxygen, chest breathing is stimulated. Chest breathing creates short, shallow breaths that gulp oxygen and limit the exhalation of carbon dioxide. Chronic chest breathing leads to high blood levels of carbon dioxide.
Here are just a few symptoms of moderately high blood levels of carbon dioxide: headache, dimming of eye sight, blue fingers, swollen ankles, difficulty hearing, increase heart rate and blood pressure, flushing, confusion, drowsiness, muscle tremours and — if the CO2 level are really high — death.
Deep breathing enhances the elimination of carbon dioxide.
In my practice, I use two herbs to open airways and deepen the breath. Both herbs act on the mind, easing anxiety.
Hyssops (byssopus officinalis): Hyssops is an easy plant to grow in the garden. It enjoys the sun and is not too fussy about water. I have grown it in dripping wet summers and summers stricken by drought. Hyssop’s medicine is made up of volatile oils. During dry summer days, hyssops concentrates its volatile oils. Rain dilutes hyssop’s volatile oils, weakening its medicine. I frequently recommend hyssops tea to make breathing easier for those struggling with asthma, bronchitis or congestive heart failure.
Lobelia (lobelia inflata): The second herb that I commonly use to open up airways and deepen the breath is lobelia. Lobelia has a complex chemistry made up of at least 14 alkaloids with conflicting actions in the body. Some of the alkaloid stimulate the central nervous system while others relax it.
Because of its complex chemistry, it has been difficult to discern the exact mechanisms of lobelia’s effect on the body.
Lobelia’s alkaloids have an acrid taste. This unpleasant sensation on the back of the throat triggers the gag reflex, inducing vomiting. Lobelia is such potent emetic that it’s common name is “puke weed.” In high doses, lobelia is guaranteed to induce vomiting.
In lower doses, lobelia eases spasms in the bronchial pathways. It is a traditional remedy for asthma. I also use it to open up the breath for those struggling with congestive heart failure.
Lobelia relaxes skeletal muscles. I find it releases tension in the muscles that open and lift the rib cage. This deepens the breath.
So take a little simple medicine daily. Sit back and breathe.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached www.abraherbs.com.