De-Stress Life with Breath of Fire

Like competition, stress can be a good thing. A healthy amount of stress can help you hit a deadline at work, increase your energy level during a presentation, and execute on those to-do list items you’ve been avoiding.


As you can imagine, from an evolutionary standpoint, a healthy dose of stress likely gave you a survival advantage. Stress puts the body in a state of hyperarousal, a state that likely helped your ancestors avoid being eaten by, let's say, a saber-tooth tiger.


Fortunately, it’s not every day that you have to concern yourself with being eaten. However, this state of hyperarousal, also known as your body’s fight or flight response, can still be activated when exposed to seemingly small life stressors.


Unfortunately, when you are exposed to too many life stressors for a prolonged period of time, it can have deleterious effects on your body.


How Does Your Body Respond to Stress?



When you’re under stress, your body activates a region of your brain called the hypothalamus. This produces corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which in turn activates the anterior pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels to your adrenal glands resulting in the production of cortisol (your body’s stress hormone), epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine.


These hormones course through your circulatory system targeting a number of organs having dramatic effects along the way. Let’s take a deeper look.


1-Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure


Epinephrine acts as a signal to the heart to beat faster, subsequently increasing our heart rate. It also causes the blood vessels to vasoconstrict, essentially decreasing their diameter, resulting in increased blood pressure. [1]


2-Increased Risk of Stroke or Heart Disease via Endothelial Damage


Endothelial cells are the cells that form the inner lining of our blood vessels. Increased levels of cortisol can cause endothelial dysfunction which can be the initial stage of atherosclerosis or plaque build-up in our arteries. This increases your risk of developing a stroke or heart attack. [2]


3-Acid reflux


Stress activates your body’s autonomic nervous system which can cause increased production of stomach acid predisposing you to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It has also been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as stress can cause changes in gut motility. [3]


4-Obesity and Diabetes


Cortisol is a known appetite stimulant. It causes the body to crave calorie-dense food to replenish energy stores. This puts you at a caloric surplus causing weight gain and increased cytokine production. Increased cytokine production can predispose us to things like decreased insulin sensitivity, a precursor to diabetes. [4]


5- Immunosuppression and Prolonged Healing


Chronic stress can suppress the body’s immune cells. This makes you more susceptible to infections and slows your rate of healing. [5]


Unfortunately, the list of negative effects of chronic stress goes on and on. So now that you know chronic stress is bad for you, what strategies are there for reducing stress.


Strategies for Stress Reduction


Some of the most common strategies for reducing stress are:


  • Limiting your caffeine intake

  • Eating a healthy diet

  • Exercising

  • Getting appropriate amounts of sleep

  • Meditation

  • Planning out your day ahead of time

  • Limiting the amount of time you check your email and overall screen time

  • Breathwork


Breath of Fire (BOF)


Today we will be focusing on a less-commonly known method of breathwork typically referred to in the yoga community as “Breath of Fire.”


How to do BOF


  1. Sit with the spine erect, place the back of your hands on your knees with your palms facing up and with your mouth closed as BOF is performed via nostril breathing.

  2. Air is forcefully exhaled by contracting your abdominal muscles. Think about actively trying to draw your navel in toward the back of your spine. This will cause air to be exhaled out your nose.

  3. Relax your abdominal muscles which allows your lungs to passively fill with air with no additional effort on your part. You should experience an expansion of your belly as your body fills with air which means you are belly breathing, aka using your diaphragm, as opposed to chest breathing, which utilizes your accessory muscles or respiration. To reiterate, step 2 will require you to actively contract your muscles, while step 2 requires you to relax these muscles allowing air to be sucked in without any effort.

  4. Now that you have steps 2 and 3 down, it is time to increase your respiratory rate to around 2 cycles per second. It should be a quick exhale, followed by a quick inhale with no pauses in between. Ideally, the duration of your exhalation should equal that of your inhalation.

  5. Repeat these steps for 45-60 seconds and wallah! You are on your way to mastering BOF!

A helpful youtube video about BOF can be found here.


Benefits of BOF

In addition to a quick abdominal workout, BOF is an effective strategy for stress reduction that can be accomplished in under a minute of time. Not only does it help focus you to the present moment, it can also have a calming effect on your body. This tool can also be used to curb cravings for things like chocolate, nicotine, or alcohol.


BOF Isn’t for Everyone


Before performing BOF, it’s important to check with your doctor to make sure this is a safe practice for you. This list is far from all-inclusive, however, key groups of people that should not perform this practice are:


  • Pregnant women

  • Individuals with cardiac or pulmonary disease

  • An active respiratory infection

  • Spinal disorders

When under stress, we tend to turn toward our soft or hard addictions. We work out less, eat crummy food, smoke like a chimney, or drown our feelings in alcohol. These outlets certainly do not serve as well and often result in additional stress. This is exactly why positive tools for stress reduction, like BOF, are so important.


Whether you choose to try BOF or not, the most important thing is to recognize the deleterious effects that chronic stress can have on your life and continue to develop strategies for stress reduction.


How about you? What is your experience with BOF? What other stress-reduction strategies do you use?


References:


[1] Hamer, M., Taylor, A., & Steptoe, A. (2006). The effect of acute aerobic exercise on stress related blood pressure responses: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biological psychology, 71(2), 183-190.

[2] V Ushakov, A., S Ivanchenko, V., & A Gagarina, A. (2016). Psychological stress in pathogenesis of essential hypertension. Current hypertension reviews, 12(3), 203-214.

[3] Konturek, P. C., Brzozowski, T., & Konturek, S. J. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol, 62(6), 591-599.

[4] Hackett, R. A., & Steptoe, A. (2017). Type 2 diabetes mellitus and psychological stress—a modifiable risk factor. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 13(9), 547.

[5] Hughes, O., MacQuhae, F., Rakosi, A., Herskovitz, I., & Kirsner, R. S. (2017). Stress and wound healing. In Stress and Skin Disorders (pp. 185-207). Springer, Cham.

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