This post was originally just going to be about a deep breathing exercise that I use to relax. However, a mutation took place.
It’s all good, there’s nothing revolting going on here.
It is five in the morning, I’m in my gym clothes, no makeup…
Seriously though, as I was researching how various breathing exercises work as a relaxation technique I repeatedly came across the term GABA.
Me being me I wanted to know more, so here's the facts:
GABA is an acronym for Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid.
So what has GABA got to do with breathing? Bear with me, while I make the connection.
A few years ago while I was looking at breathing exercises in the hope of finding the one that might help my daughter Molly to fall asleep I came across the 4-7-8 breathing method which is declared by some to help you to fall asleep in less than a minute.
We both gave it a go and it seemed to work. Although the claim of ‘one minute’ was a bit of a fairy tale it was definitely far more effective than other things we had tried.
As Dr Weil says in the video which I have included below, the numbers 4-7-8 are important and DO NOT REPEAT THIS MORE THAN FOUR TIMES. Is this an ominous warning? Could we render ourselves unconscious (that’s kind of the point isn’t it)?
Oxygen is important
When you are stressed or anxious you tend to breathe shallowly, not allowing enough oxygen into your system. The nervous system that is switched on in this state is the parasympathetic nervous system.
The 4-7-8 allows more oxygen in for longer and expels the carbon dioxide completely. This then triggers some profound responses your body.
- GABA and Glutamate are two of the most abundant neurotransmitters in the body, essentially the bridging method for getting an electrical impulse from one nerve ending to the next.
- GABA blocks nerve impulses so creating calm while Glutamate does the opposite. Too much Glutamate without GABA to moderate it is like a coffee buzz. And interestingly, coffee actually impedes the release of GABA.
- Glutamate that is unchecked by GABA can lead to a variety of anxiety disorders. Still with me?
There are GABA supplements on the market but it is debatable how well these can be absorbed via the digestive system.
Breathing, especially the 4-7-8 method, is a cheap and easy way to relax, fast.
Because breathing is the only thing you can do consciously and unconsciously it a good way to influence both the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems or in more scientific terms, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
That is the connection I spoke about earlier.
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This slow breathing method aids the release of GABA
Our bodies are so ingenious; we have our own mobile drug lab going on. Put the right ingredient in and the end result can be truly beneficial.
I use this method of breathing at night before sleep and at any time during the day when I feel like I need to calm myself. At this time in my life when my hormones are all over the place, it has been a godsend.
I also successfully used it to keep myself calm through an MRI recently.
An MRI is the xray that takes place while your nearly completely encased in an iron box. I get very claustrophobic and in the past have had to take valium to cope with the experience so to be able to breathe my way through to the end was somewhat of a big thing for me.
Other ways of increasing GABA in your system are:
- Valerian -a herb sold as a dietry substance to aid sleep and believed to increase GABA in the brain
- GABA tea – a tea which has been exposed to high levels of nitrogen during its processing to enhance the natural levels of GABA within the tea.
- Theanine – an amino acid found in green and black tea may increase GABA levels.
- Fermented foods – GABA is created through the process of fermentation. Try kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt.
- Magnesium – magnesium binds to and activates GABA receptors. This may be why, if we take magnesium supplements we can alleviate muscle cramps.
- Flavonoid rich foods – berries, citrus, pears, apples, cocoa and wine, and herbs such as noni fruit, chamomile, feverfew, passion flowers and linden flowers may enhance GABA function.
And for my absolute favourite:
- Aged whiskey. Apparently, though the chemicals are only in the fragrance and reach the brain by inhalation. That doesn’t seem at all right. I’m pretty sure I could improve the level of my relaxation by actually drinking the stuff and bonus, the more you drink the more you relax. Total oblivion is absolutely an option.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter which helps to enhance GABA and can be increased by eating foods rich in tryptophan: turkey, crustaceans, seaweed, warm milk and my favourite, Steller Sea Lion kidney are all high in this amino acid.
For those of you who don’t know, the Steller Sea Lion is a near-threatened species, native to Northern Pacific and is listed on the popular Self Nutrition Data site as casually as if it were an egg. I’ll keep that tit-bit stored for next time I’m in Alaska, Sea Lion kidney, yum yum.
GABA is important but it won't work unless you breathe correctly.
So you eat the right foods and you exercise – you’re doing everything right.
But if your body is in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’ thanks to everyday stresses, anxiety or menopausal mood swings, all your energy is being sent to the muscles in your arms and legs to prepare you to run from imminent danger, and your digestive system misses out and becomes increasingly upset.
The same with all your other organ functions. Do you feel you exercise lots but never really see any progress? Or perhaps if you run or walk you find you legs could keep going forever but your lungs aren't coming to the party.
The one thing that can help.
Breathing in a way that you actually recieve more oxygen. Not just for the short time that you might practice a slow breathing technique but
Do any of these sound familiar?
- You raise your shoulders, puff out your chest and suck in your bell when you inhale and relax it all when you exhale?
- You find yourself holding your breath – maybe when concentrating or in an anxious moment
- You yawn and sigh quite frequently.
- You often find yourself breathing fast
- Your in the habit of holding your stomach in, in an effort to look slimmer?
Good breathing techniques promote many good biochemical reactions in your body.
When you learn to breathe correctly it allows for improved lung function.
Better levels of oxygen can increase your mood, energy and exercise performance.
All of these benefits can help you through some of the difficulties that some women can go throught during perimenopuase and menopause.
What are the benefits of breathing the correct way?
The benefits of breathing exercises may include:
- Shaking off feelings of fatigue that typically show up in menopause and having more energy.
- Relieving aches and pains that come from using the wrong muscles to breathe.
- Eliminating brain fog and boosting memory thanks to getting more oxygen to your organs, including your brain and keeping them operating at optimal levels. You will be able to focus and concentrate better. A big bonus as we begin to age.
- Good breathing technique energises your body at a cellular level
- The breath can be used to elimate pain in a powerful way.
- Activating your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) intermittently throughout the day can help you get to sleep and stay asleep.
- You have the tools you need to quickly and easily calm your nerves and even out mood swings.
- Correct breathing using your diaphram strengthens right down into your pelvic floor muscles.
- Deep breathing can reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes.
- Good breathign promotes better digestion which can in turn support weight loss.
- Breathing can improve your hormone balance which lessens the impact of Menopause by keeping hormones such as cortisol (the stress hormone) in check.
How to breathe correctly
Try this exercise which will help demonstrate how to breathe the right way.
While lying down put one hand on you belly and one on the center of your chest.
Breathe in slowly and as you do try to imagine breathing into your belly. Feel you belly rise when you do. Your chest shouldn't rise at all much but you will feel it expanding the ribs out.
Breathe out slowly and as you do feel your belly contract and keep breathing out until all of the air is expelled.
Do this 10 times then relax your breath back to a normal pattern. Take note from time to time to breathe into your belly. Eventually, if you do it often enough, it will become second nature.
If you notice that your breathing is quick and shallow, slow it down by taking long, slow breaths. Inhale slowly then exhale slowly and fully. Count slowly to four as you inhale, and then count slowly to five as you exhale. As you slowly exhale, enjoy the feeling of body naturally relaxing.
Putting it into practice
Now you know how easy it is to keep your nervous sytem in rest and digest and the benefits that will have on your health. You just have to put your new found breathing into practice. Sometimes thats the hard part isn't it?
I suggest that you start by doing the 4-7-8 method every night as you settle down to sleep. You may find it a little difficult at first. Many women tell me they struggle to hold their breath for the count of 7. If you try to struggle through, your likely to get frustrated and do the exact opposite of what you are trying to acheive.
If you are finding it difficult, stop for a few seconds and let your breathing return to normal. Then try again.
You will find that it will very quickly become easier as your body learns to relax into the technique.
After you have mastered that habit begin to also use it throughout the day when your feeling tense or stressed.
Then when you're just sitting, try to take note of how you're breathing and practice using belly breaths.
Before long you won't even know your doing it and you can relax and enjoy the multiple benefits.
The 4-7-8 method of breathing is one of many techniques. I encourage you to check around and find a couple that you feel comfortable with.