Friday, March 31, 2017

Why deep breathing relaxes us

Breathe slowly and smoothly. A pervasive sense of calm descends. Now breathe rapidly and frenetically. Tension mounts. Why?

It’s a question that has never been answered by science, until now.

In the West we don't pay much attention to breathing. You have to go to a yoga class to discover its power. 
Medical practitioners sometimes prescribe breathing-control exercises for people with stress disorders. Similarly, the practice of pranayama — controlling breath in order to shift one’s consciousness from an aroused or even frantic state to a more meditative one — is a core component of virtually all varieties of yoga. 
“This study is intriguing because it provides a cellular and molecular understanding of how that might work,” said Mark Krasnow, MD, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University.
What he found is a tiny cluster of neurons linking respiration to relaxation, attention, excitement and anxiety  deep in the brainstem. This cluster, located in an area Krasnow calls the pacemaker for breathing, was discovered in mice by study co-author Jack Feldman, PhD, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA, who published his findings in 1991. An equivalent structure has since been identified in humans.
The investigators surmised that rather than regulating breathing, these neurons were spying on it instead and reporting their finding to another structure in the brainstem. This structure, the locus coeruleus, sends projections to practically every part of the brain and drives arousal: waking us from sleep, maintaining our alertness and, if excessive, triggering anxiety and distress. 
It’s known that neurons in the locus coeruleus exhibit rhythmic behavior whose timing is correlated with that of breathing. In a series of experiments, the Stanford researchers proved that the preBötC neurons that express Cadh9 and Dbx1 not only project to the locus coeruleus — a new finding — but activate its long-distance-projections, promoting brainwide arousal.
What's happening to us affects how we breathe. Now we know why the reverse is also true: how we breathe affects how we feel.

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