Taking a deep breath can help assuage anxiety, calm your heart rate, and even lower blood pressure (BP). In fact, Daniel Harrison Craighead, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, says one breathing technique can lower systolic BP by almost 10 points. He even practices it himself. Here, he explains how breath work can help you manage your BP.
What is breath work?
It is a broad term referring to any sort of conscious control of breathing, and many types have been shown to have effects on BP when done regularly. The specific type of breath work I use is high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST). It involves five to 10 minutes of 30 resisted inspirations through a handheld device.
How does it work on blood pressure?
One way IMST helps is by turning down the sympathetic nervous system—your fight-or-flight response. In those with high BP, this system tends to be overly active, and deep breathing likely reduces its activity. This type of breathing may also improve the health and function of endothelial cells (which line blood vessels).
What happens during a session of breath work?
A person breathes in and out through a mouthpiece as powerfully as possible, taking as full a breath as they can. The device provides resistance, so inhales are very challenging, but there is no resistance to exhales. We have people do five sets of six successive resisted inhales, with a one-minute break of unresisted breathing between sets. The last set of six breaths can be very difficult.
What does the research say?
Research from the group I’m part of at the University of Colorado Boulder and from the laboratory of Fiona Bailey, Ph.D., at the University of Arizona suggests that IMST will lower systolic BP (the top number in a BP reading) by almost 10 mmHg, and DBP (the bottom number in a BP reading) by nearly five mmHg. This improvement is on par with or better than what’s seen with aerobic exercise or weight loss but requires fewer than 10 minutes a day.
How long does it take to work?
Initial reductions in BP are observed within two weeks—which is faster than what’s seen with regular exercise. BP will continue to decline over at least the first six weeks and possibly beyond that.
Is IMST for everyone?
You should consult with a physician first, but IMST is safe for most people. The majority of the research has been on healthy adults or those with high BP.
How can people learn more?
We are working on instructions for clinicians. In the meantime, these devices are commercially available to anyone. The one used in my research is called the Powerbreathe K3, but we think any device that provides a high level of resistance would work. We are also developing a smartphone app that can guide users through a training program and monitor changes in BP, but other apps are available already. Ask your cardiologist or health care provider for more info before getting started.
Emily Goldman is the senior editor at Prevention. She’s spent the last few years editing and writing health, wellness, beauty, food, and more for Marthastewart.com and Bridalguide.com. She’s loved all things health and wellness since starting her bi-weekly podcast Pancreas Pals—a series all about the highs and lows of living life with Type 1 diabetes. When not podcasting, she spends most of her time curled up with a good book or watching a period piece on BBC.