6-10 breaths per minute and diaphragmatic breathing is best. I did this today with some slow, steady-state swimming. I just wish that I knew to do this type of breathing when I was feeling anxious and overwhelmed at work. Yoga helps, so does meditation, but if you aren’t one for these activities, then perhaps you can consciously slow down your breathing with some swimming instead?
Whether you are exercising or at work or home, new research indicates that this rhythmic, slow breathing may help to claim back calm, remove the chaos in your mind and reduce your heart rate when ‘life’ and menopause-related anxiety gets in the way.
If I sat you down right now with a blank piece of paper and said to you, “What causes you to feel anxious?” what would you write down on the list?
Then if I was to ask you to put some percentages on each anxiety-trigger and turn it into a pie-chart, how might this pie-chart look? Which piece of the pie is your greatest source of anxiety?
Here’s my graph from when I was in my early 50’s and struggling with uncontrolled feelings of anxiety …. and I’m not an ‘anxious-type’ at all, although my family might argue that. But there’s something missing from this graph and until I did my doctoral studies on women’s health and ageing, I had no idea that the natural decline of oestrogen in menopause, impacts our heart, lungs and nerves contributing to our feelings of anxiety.
We all have various sources of stress that cause us to become more anxious, but the one ‘anxiety-trigger’ that you may not have written on your graph is your physiological ageing. As you continue to lose oestrogen as you pass into menopause, your nerves are ageing. But it’s not only your nerves, it’s your heart, brain and lungs as well. All of these organs lose the effect of oestrogen, contributing to feeling as if your heart rate is racing, your breathing is more ‘panicky’ and your hot flushes are out of control. When you feel over-whelmed with all the things going on in your day, this is what your anxiety may feel like.
Increasing feelings of anxiety and hot flushes are the main reason menopause-HRT is prescribed to women. So, too are anti-depressants prescribed for changing mood and anxiety. HRT helps many women feel calmer and reduces their anxiety because it is replacing some of the oestrogen (and/or progesterone) that is declining during menopause. Some herbs do the same and are marketed as ‘bio-identical hormones’. It’s not a problem if you are on these powerful medications and this is between you and your Doctor, but my challenge to you, is to ask what else are you doing to slow down your racing heart rate and breathing? Are you putting in place some lifestyle changes too?
Once I understood that my nervous system and lungs changed in function as I got older and went into menopause, it changed my entire outlook on my feelings of anxiety.
As we transition through menopause, we are ageing. When I began to understand that the physiological changes that occur throughout our body as part of our menopause transition, send us towards our biological ageing, then it was important to look at what happens to our lungs as we lose oestrogen. Ageing produces changes in our lungs and airways and this starts in mid-life. Both the airways and blood vessels become stiffer and the air sacs lose their elasticity, making it more difficult for gases to move into the bloodstream.
As such, it is easier for us to accumulate inflammation in our tiny little airways that sit inside our lungs. These are known as the aveoli.”Your lung function declines with age, like other parts of your body,” says Dr. Aaron Waxman, director of the Pulmonary Vascular Disease Program at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Your lungs finish development by age 25, and their function remains stable for about 10 years. After that, they begin to gradually decline. By age 65, you’ve typically lost up to a litre of lung capacity compared with when you were younger.”
The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing on your Anxiety and Cardiovascular System as you Age:
If you’ve got a lot going on in your life, have you ever given your breathing a thought? No, I never used to either.
But when I felt anxious and my heart rate became elevated and took longer to return to resting after exercise (shorter-time to return to resting state is a sign of ‘fitness’ which I talk about in the 12 week Rebuild My Fitness programme), and I experienced palpitations and my blood pressure was the highest that it had ever been in my life (despite all my exercise), it slowly dawned on me, that maybe I needed to slow down my breathing. The research convinced me of this too,
According to all the studies reviewed, ‘autonomically optimised respiration’ (i.e. the rate of breathing that has a beneficial effect on the lowering of heart rate, blood pressure and stomach vagal tone), appears to be in the band of 6-10 breaths per minute, with an increased tidal volume (inspiratory and expiratory capacity) achieved by diaphragmatic activation. Nasal breathing is also considered an important component of optimised respiration for health.’ [Russo, Santerelli & O’Rourke, 2017].
Health and longevity research on HOW to change physiological parameters such as blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety with improved breathing practices has only emerged in past decade. This is despite the fact that the act of controlling one’s breathing for the purpose of restoring or enhancing one’s health has been practiced for thousands of years in Eastern cultures.
Slower breathing allows your heart rate to decrease as well as your blood pressure. This is important if your stress levels are high at work or at home, especially in light of all the changes you’ve had to cope with over the past year or so.
The biomechanics of lung ventilation are carefully co-ordinated with blood oxygen, carbon dioxide and pH homeostasis (balance) and the slower we breathe, the better. In fact, 6-10 breaths per minute has the most effect on slowing your heart rate and lowering your blood pressure. (Russo et at, 2017).
If you are feeling anxious, whether at work or not, then please take note of the strategy of slow breathing, including alternate nostril breathing. It’s been a busy, anxious year for many of you, and if you understand that your menopause transition is also a time whereby your lungs and nerves are changing, then you can use this strategy to feel calmer. Many of you in Australia, are also going in and our of lockdowns and uncertainty and stress may well be a daily occurence, so when you can, take a moment to slow-breathe.
If you feel busy, time-poor, over-whelmed, over-weight and you experience, depression, anxiety, dizziness or cardiac palpitations (yes please, get these checked out), then can I motivate you to focus on controlled slow breathing at a rate of 6-10 breaths per minute? I want you to re-learn how to breathe.
Diaphragmatic breathing is best. Whilst I teach women how to do this on my 12 week MyMT™ programmes, there are also incredible coaches who are trained as Breathing Practitioners now. If you can, find one in your area for some hands-on lessons.
The beauty about knowing that the research has defined ‘effective’ breathing which has physiological benefits for our health, as a rate of 6-10 breaths per minute is ‘gold’.
Because even if you only manage a few minutes at the end of the day lying quietly on the floor or in bed, closing your eyes and concentrate on pulling your abdominal muscles in when you exhale and allowing them to expand when you inhale and slowing down your rate of breathing as much as you can, you will be on your way to reducing anxiety, heart-rate, blood pressure and yes, reducing your belly fat too.
PS: When you have time, please have a look around the website and contact me from there if you need to. Look on the ‘programmes’ drop-down link for the Masterclass on Menopause, the two different 12 week programmes (these differ depending on weight loss or not), my 12 week exercise programme for women wanting to get back into exercise and the stand-alonge Joint Health and Gut Health modules are part of my Health Restoration Series, but for women who purchase the full 12 week programme, these additional modules are included.
Harvard Health Publishing (2018). Breathing life into your lungs. Online Version.https://www.health.harvard.edu/lung-health-and-disease/breathing-life-into-your-lungs.
Romieu, I. (2005). Nutrition and Lung Health. Int. J. of Tuberc Lung Dis. 9(4), 362–374.
Russo, M., Santarelli, D. & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13, 298-309.