Therapeutic Breathwork: Current Scientific Understanding

Therapeutic Breathwork™ encompasses a wide range of techniques, each with its own unique benefits and physiological effects. It includes practices such as faster-than-usual breathing, slower-than-usual breathing, and breath holds, all of which can have profound impacts on the mind and body.

Moreover, Therapeutic Breathwork extends beyond mere breathing exercises; it also incorporates elements of embodiment and mindfulness, connecting us with our physical sensations, emotions, and present moment experience. This multifaceted nature of Therapeutic Breathwork makes it challenging to describe its complete physiology, as it engages various physiological systems, including the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, while also influencing mental and emotional well-being. Its holistic approach emphasizes the interplay between body and mind, making it a versatile and powerful tool for personal growth and healing.

This page will primarily focus on the physiology of faster than usual breathing, as it is a key component of Therapeutic Breathwork, and makes it distinct from other therapeutic modalities.

What happens in the body as we breathe faster and deeper than usual?​

Very shortly after engaging in deep and fast breathing, carbon dioxide levels in the body start declining. This is because the air outside of our bodies has much less carbon dioxide than our blood, and the more we breathe the more gases in our body equalize with the environment. 

As carbon dioxide decreases, pH of the blood increases and this causes a shift in the shape of hemoglobin, making them bind tighter to oxygen. The tighter binding of red blood cells to oxygen decreases the release of oxygen in the tissues, and creates a low oxygen environment in the body and the brain.

Another effect of the decrease in carbon dioxide is decrease in cerebral blood flow due to vasoconstriction, which also contributes to the low oxygen environment in the brain.

The longer we engage in deep and faster than usual breathing, the more we are decreasing the carbon dioxide content of the blood and the more we are creating a low-oxygen (hypoxic) environment. This hypoxia is especially accentuated during breath holds.

Isn't a low oxygen environment bad for the brain?

Short answer: No. In fact it is probably good for the brain. 

Long answer: How low oxygen environments effect the brain, depends on the severity of the low oxygen environment. When occurring acutely and periodically, low oxygen environments create adaptive stress on neurons. Gordon S. Mitchell PhD, one of the lead researchers in this field, has demonstrated that low oxygen environments stimulate neurons to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), increasing neural growth and plasticity. In fact, intermittent acute hypoxia is currently being explored in clinical trials for treating spinal cord injuries.

By creating a temporary low oxygen environment, we are creating the environment for our brain to change and generate new connections.

This is potentially why Therapeutic Breathwork is so effective at changing thoughts and behavior.

Endogenous DMT might be part of the story as well

Endogenous dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has been proposed as a potential underlying factor contributing to altered states of consciousness experienced during breathwork practices. 

In conditions of hypoxia, where oxygen levels in the body are significantly reduced, it has been postulated that the brain may release dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as a response. Hypoxia, which occurs during breathwork, triggers various physiological changes in the body. The release of endogenous DMT in the brain during hypoxia could potentially contribute to the reported mystical or otherworldly experiences that some individuals have described during breathwork. 

However, it is important to note that the exact mechanisms and significance of DMT release in hypoxia are still speculative, and further research is required to establish a more comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon.

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