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Breathing and Autonomic Nervous System

Autonomic Nervous System








Breathing and Autonomic Nervous System hold a unique relationship:

Of all functions of the ANS, breathing is the only one we can consciously alter, offering us a backdoor 🚪 to the rest of the Nervous System.

Below is the list of some errands our body runs without our conscious participation:

Digestion of food
Detoxification of environmental toxins
Hormone production
Circadian rhythm cycling
Circulation of blood

Take a moment and think 💭, can you control any of the above? Breathing seems to be the easiest one to alter❗️


How is the respiratory system linked to the nervous system?

The components of Respiration

Our breath has 4 phases*: Inhalation “puraka”, Retention “kumbhaka”, Exhalation “rechaka” and 2nd Retention. Breathing exercises determine the:
1. pace: fast/slow
2. source: nose/mouth
3. volume of air: high/low

The components of the Nervous System

Our Nervous System (NS) consists of a network of neurons delivering signals to and from the brain and the peripheral parts of the body. The neurons in the brain and spinal cord belong to the Central Nervous System (CNS), while the neurons in the peripheral tissue belong to the Peripheral Nervous System. The ANS belongs to the Peripheral Nervous Systems and consists of 3 subparts. The:
1. Sympathetic
2. Parasympathetic
3. Enteric

How does the Autonomic Nervous System control Breathing?

Breathing and the Nervous SystemWhile a few regions in the brain contribute to the regulation of the breath all information is consolidated and decisions are made by the brainstem (made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata). In order to regulate the breath according to our metabolic and psychological demands, the brainstem has established a 2-way communication with many areas in the body.

The inputs are derived from muscles and specialized sensory neuron receptor cells (called chemoreceptors). Chemoreceptors monitor our levels of CO2, O2, and pH. The brainstem after processing the inputs communicates to the diaphragm how fast to contract.

Image source: Aminoff’s Neurology and General Medicine

How does the Breath affect the Autonomic Nervous System?

A very compelling theory was put forward in 2006 proposing that voluntary breathing affects the ANS in 2 ways biomechanically (ref). Slow breathing:

  1. activates Slow Adapting Stretch Receptors (SARs) which subsequently cause the inhibition of neurons.
  2. stretches fibroblasts in the lungs leading to the slow down metabolic activity in the surrounding tissue.

Both actions, according to the authors, lead the ANS to a Parasympathetic dominant state. Biochemically though as well our slow breath holds and slow breathing activates the baroreflex receptors decreasing the basal Heart Rate (ref).

What is the fastest way to regulate the nervous system?

Many breathing exercises can help you regulate your nervous system. The following variation of box breathing, called “Empty State of Mind”, has worked wonders for many people.


To improve your breath though when you are not conscious of it check out the Breathe Right 2-week course.