So many women who come to my office have difficulty losing weight. When I recommend breathwork, they are surprised. How can breathwork help with weight loss?
Sarah was one of these women. As a 45-year-old busy mother of three, she was stressed and frustrated. It’d been eight years since her last child was born, yet the ‘baby weight’ had never come off. In fact, the scale was showing a few extra pounds each year. She has, of course, tried diets and exercise, but something was missing.
When Sarah came to my office, the first thing I noticed was that she wasn’t breathing. She seemed stressed and anxious. Her breathing was so shallow. I could barely notice it.
It’s okay, just breathe. She seemed confused when I said that. She was breathing. She wouldn’t be alive without breathing, after all.
The problem is that, like Sarah, most people only practice shallow breathing. Shallow breathing only uses the upper area of your lungs. Your diaphragm doesn’t get to work. Your body doesn’t receive the metabolic boosts associated with increased oxygen.
Sure, shallow breathing still delivers some oxygen to keep you alive. But it doesn’t let you thrive.
It may not be surprising that shallow breathing is associated with stress. Even though your body needs deep breathing the most when you are stressed, you are the least likely to practice it naturally.
Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your relaxation and healing response. It helps to lower stress, boost immune function, reduce blood pressure, and offers many other health benefits.
And yes, much to Sarah’s surprise, breathwork can also help your weight loss goals. Let’s see how.
How Breathwork Can Help with Weight Loss
Breathwork is truly powerful. A 2010 study Biomedical Research has found that participants who practiced Senobi, a Japanese breathing method, experienced weight loss. How does this happen, though? How can simple breathwork help with weight loss?
Breathwork reduces stress
Don’t underestimate the role of stress in weight gain. Whether it’s because of stress-induced cortisol rise, stress-eating, or both, stress can make weight loss and weight maintenance very difficult.
When you are stressed, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline as part of your stress response. Your body will also release blood glucose for energy in order to allow you to escape a potentially dangerous situation. Once the perceived threat subsides, your adrenaline and blood sugar levels will drop. Cortisol, on the other hand, kicks into second gear to help replenish your energy supply.
What does this mean for you? Sugar cravings! Because glucose fuels your body, it makes sense that sugary foods are the first things that you are automatically reaching for under stress. The problem is that a quick sugary snack will be stored in the form of abdominal fat, which is difficult to lose.
Beyond causing sugar cravings, cortisol can also slow down your metabolism. Even if you are not making unhealthy choices, high cortisol can make weight loss extremely difficult. A 2015 study published in Biological Psychiatry has found that female participants who experienced at least one stressor within 24 hours burned about 104 fewer calories than those women who didn’t report any stress. This can add up to a whopping 11-pound weight gain in one year just because of stress.
Of course, stress can also lead to unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits. Stress eating, emotional eating, mindless snacking, skipping meals, late-night binging, choosing unhealthy comfort food or fast food over healthy meals, exercising less, and sleeping poorly are very common among women who are under a lot of stress.
All this feeds the vicious cycle of stress, cortisol, weight gain, sugar cravings, unhealthy choices, more weight gain, and more stress. Breathwork can help to break the cycle. It can reduce stress and as a result, help you to lose weight.
Deep breathing is one of the fastest ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and trigger a relaxation response. Countless research studies have shown how breathwork can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and symptoms of trauma. Your breath is the fastest medium that can communicate with your nervous system and switch from high alert to low in a matter of seconds.
Yet, most of us, when we are under stress, tend to hold our breaths or take rapid, shallow breaths instead of deep belly breaths. You may also notice your heart pounding and muscles clenching. Once the stressor goes away, your body can return to normal breathing, your heart rate can slow down, and your muscles can relax again.
The problem is that if you are experiencing chronic stress or anxiety, like Sarah, your body can never relax and your body can never restore equilibrium. If you are under constant stress, you may not even realize that you are barely breathing, that your heart is racing, and that your muscles are always tense.
This is where breathwork comes in. If you practice deep belly breathing, your body can finally restore its balance. Your heart rate can decrease, your lungs can expand, and your muscles can relax. Your mind can stop racing and your body can start functioning again. Without extra cortisol, your metabolism can start working again. Your body doesn’t have to hold onto extra calories. You won’t be as tempted to reach for unhealthy snacks.
Breathwork may decrease hunger
Sarah has tried to improve her diet countless times. But she always felt so hungry that she eventually gave in and reached for a high-calorie snack. She thought she needed more discipline. It turns out, all she needed to do is breathe.
Breathwork may not only reduce stress and cortisol but can help to decrease hunger, lower your food intake, and support weight loss. A 2014 study published in Medical Science Monitor has found that practicing 45 minutes of yoga for 15 days, including 33 minutes of Pranayama breathing exercises, resulted in increased leptin levels, which is a hormone that causes the feeling of fullness. These yoga breathwork sessions also lead to decreased BMI and belly fat.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine has found that participants practicing QiGong breathing experienced lower stomach pH, reduced intestinal pressure, and a decreased feeling of hunger on an empty stomach compared to the control group. Looking at these studies, it may not be surprising that in traditional Asian cultures where QiGong, yoga, breathwork, and similar practices are part of life, people generally experience a healthier life with less weight struggles.
Breathwork may support exercise
If you are thinking about losing weight, exercise is probably the first thing that comes to your mind. Did you know, though, that deep breathing can offer many of the benefits of exercise?
Now, I am not encouraging you to drop your fitness plan. Breathwork is not a substitute for exercise. However, it’s a great first step if you are new to exercise, and it can support the benefits of any form of exercise.
Your cardiovascular capacity refers to how much oxygen your heart and lungs can deliver to your cells. It is one of the first measurements of your fitness. Your muscle cells need energy to burn and any waste products need to be removed.
When your cardiovascular system is able to keep up with these demands, the exercise is aerobic. When the demands of the exercise are higher than your cardiovascular capacity, we are talking about anaerobic exercise. With anaerobic exercise, your body needs to reach for stored energy in the form of glycogen. But once too many toxins accumulate, you ‘hit the wall’, and your muscles can’t continue working anymore.
Both aerobic and anaerobic exercise has their benefits. However, anaerobic exercise is particularly effective at raising your cardiovascular system. This is where breathwork comes in. Deep breathing also helps to raise your cardiovascular system’s capacity and double the benefits of exercise.
Exercise, especially anaerobic exercise, also helps to burn fat for energy instead of tapping into your cells’ energy supply. Deep breathing can also help to support fat burning during low-demand activities.
Remember, when you are stressed, your body tends to burn glycogen, not fat. When you are practicing deep breathing, you are encouraging the relaxation response and fat burning instead of glycogen use.
As you can see, breathwork can reduce stress and anxiety, decrease your appetite, support exercise, and encourage fat burning. Now that you understand all these benefits of deep breathing, let’s start practicing it.
How to practice breathwork
Sarah has never practiced breathwork before visiting my office. When I mentioned belly breathing, she felt confused. She had no idea of where to start. So I guided her through her first breathwork session at my office until she got the hang of it.
You don’t have to come to my office though to learn conscious belly breathing. In fact, the best thing about breathwork is that you can do it by yourself anywhere you are. Here is what I recommend:
Conscious belly breathing
Conscious belly breathing is a fantastic way to start your day. It helps to center yourself, focus on the present, and feel relaxed. I recommend setting an intention for the day before your practice which will help to guide your day. Remember, you can always return to this intention when things get stressful during the day.
To practice belly breathing:
- Lay comfortably on your back. Close your eyes.
- Place one of your hands lightly on your abdomen and let your other hand rest on the side.
- Breath in deeply through your nose, feeling your abdomen rise and expand as you breathe in.
- Keep your breath in for a moment, then let the air out through your mouth, feeling your abdomen fall and contract down towards your spine.
- As you get used to the feeling of breathing from your belly, increase the time of your inhale and exhale. Breath in on a count of two, hold for a count of two, and breathe out for a count of two. Then breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four.
- Continue on through six, eight, and ten. Then breathe on a count of eight, then six, then four, then two.
- Once you are finished with your session, take a moment to feel your entire body tingling with life. Allow your breath to continue naturally.
- Follow your breathing practice with a glass of water to hydrate your body.
You don’t have to be lying down to practice conscious belly breathing. Once you are more experienced with belly breathing, you can also practice it sitting down.
I recommend that you return to your breathing throughout the day. If you have time, go through a full round of breathwork. If you don’t, simply take 3 to 5 deep cleansing breaths.
I recommend practicing gratitude breathing at least once a day. Whether or not you are traditionally religious, I recommend that you offer up a prayer of gratitude for being alive right now. Take a deep breath. Hold it in for a moment. Then exhale slowly.
Do it again, and feel thankful for your ability to breathe in and out and for having the breath of life. If you want, you can dedicate each breath to specific people or things that you are grateful for in life.
Remember, your breath is always there for you. I recommend that you set a timer for several short breathwork sessions throughout the day. Whenever you feel stressed, anxious, or emotional, return to your breath for a few moments to calm your body and mind.
Make time for yourself
As women, we tend to prioritize everyone and everything else over our well-being. But if your own bucket is empty, you can’t be there for others either. Taking time for breathwork throughout the day doesn’t require much time. Yet it’s so powerful. Breathe is literally life. Honor yourself by stopping throughout the day to practice some deep breathing and support your own life flow.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD