How to turn on your relaxation reflex and increase your energy

We’ve all heard that food is medicine. This is true and incredibly important. It can control our development or not of chronic disease. It can help us sleep well and have sustained energy or cause insomnia and fatigue. It can literally cause or eliminate almost any symptom. And we all need to consume it. So we might as well use it to our benefit. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you already understand this on some level. Another thing that we do every day, in fact every second of every minute of our lives we do this - and we can do it in a way that pushes us towards vitality or makes us feel depleted. We can induce anxiety or calm. What is it?

Breathing! When I was 12, after I had had a respiratory illness, I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma. It was very limiting as an athlete. Especially for endurance. Although I still excelled, I often felt like I couldn’t get a deep breath. My lungs burned when I would play basketball or run track. I was given an inhaler but did not often use it and eventually forgot about it, but still getting a real deep breath stopped me from reaching my athletic potential.

When I was 24 I went on a trip to Bali and got incredibly sick. When I returned to Abu Dhabi, where I was living at the time, I would often hop in a taxi to go to the gym so I could regulate my labored breathing on the treadmill. Again I had a really hard time getting a deep breath. It turned out that I had caught mycoplasma pneumoniae which resulted in chronic fluid in my lung sac making it hard to get a deep breath. I started playing recreational basketball about a year after this and would get winded very quickly. One of my professors at the time who was more than twice my age could run circles around me simply because he could breathe easily! It was very frustrating, but at the time I did not know what to do about it. After a 6 month round of antibiotics to kill the infection 15 years ago and more recently opening up some stuck fascia, I could finally breathe like my professor.

My first huge a-ha about breathing came after listening to a life-changing book by James Nestor aptly named, “Breath”. I learned that professional athletes were using certain kinds of breathing to increase their endurance. The focus was on a longer exhalation and keeping the mouth shut for both inhalation and exhalation. 

When I started focusing on keeping my mouth shut while I slept, the night sweats I had been having quickly disappeared. I mentioned this to a patient and within a few days hers were gone too. 

Last year I attended a 4 day workshop where I received some bodywork from a massage therapist who was also attending the workshop. She did a release on the tissue (fascia) around my ribcage and diaphragm. My breathing opened up in a way I hadn’t felt in years. I could get a deeper breath. There were no restrictions. It was great.

And more recently I attended a conference where I learned what the longer exhalation was really doing. By breathing out longer than you breathed in, you were essentially freeing up more room for oxygen in your lungs on the inhale. And more oxygen, allows for more energy production. More energy production creates better endurance. 

The next step in this evolution of learning about breath was this – when you exhale longer than you inhale, and you use primarily the space below your diaphragm to do this (what you might call a belly breath), it flips a switch and turns your your nervous system from “fight-or-flight” to “rest-and-digest”. From anxious to calm. In a stressful world, this is an invaluable tool. 

It can be used anytime, anywhere. You do not need a prescription for it. And it does not cost a penny. 

Try it out. And as you practice more, you can increase your inhale/exhale time. If you’ve never done this before, start with::

  • Breathe in for a count of 4
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4
  • Breathe out for a count of 6
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4

Repeat this cycle at least 10 times a few times a day. As the count gets easier try slowly increasing to:

  • Breathe in for a count of 10
  • Hold your breath for a count of 10
  • Exhale for the count of 16
  • Hold out 10 and repeat

Make sure you are fully using the space below your diaphragm before you expand your lungs and do not use the space from the shoulders up into the head. This will create a paradoxical anxiety response. Keep your mouth closed and only use your nose. Pay close attention, you may notice changes like:

  • Increased energy
  • Deeper level of relaxation or calm
  • Better sleep
  • Better hormone balance
  • Fewer symptoms of asthma and allergies

Let us know what you find!