Stop scrolling. Now inhale slowly, concentrating on expanding your lungs, to a count of five. Exhale, just as slowly and deliberately, as you count to five.
You might find that, in just that 10 seconds, you suddenly feel just a little bit more relaxed or centred. Follow the same practice for 20 minutes a few times a week and – according to the research – you might not just reap the benefits of feeling calmer. You may also be helping to protect against various diseases, including, a recent study has suggested, even Alzheimer’s disease.
The benefits of breathing exercises – sometimes called “breathwork” – have been recognised for millennia. In more recent decades, scientific studies seem to support what people in many cultures, particularly in Asia, have long practiced: that deliberate breathing may help to improve a variety of health conditions, including hypertension, stress, anxiety, and even chronic pain.
In the latest study, researchers measured biomarkers in blood plasma that are associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, particularly amyloid beta 40 and 42. Half of the 108 participants were told to try to bring themselves to a place of calm by imagining a serene scene, listening to relaxing sounds, and closing their eyes – essentially, mindfulness meditation. The goal was to decrease their heart rate oscillations, encouraging their heart rate to have a steadier, more consistent beat.
The other group followed a breathing exercise on a computer screen – when a square rose over the course of five seconds, they inhaled, and when it dropped for five seconds, they exhaled. This kind of deep, slow breathing has been found to increase heart rate oscillations – making the time interval between heart beats more variable (hence a higher “heart rate variability”). Both groups practiced the technique twice a day, for 20 to 40 minutes each time, for five weeks.
When they looked at participants’ blood samples four weeks into their practice, the results came as a “surprise”, says Mara Mather, professor of gerontology, psychology and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California and one of authors of the study. The breathing exercises aimed at increasing heart rate variability decreased levels of amyloid beta. The mindfulness exercises, which decreased heart rate variability, made those levels higher.
Traditional breathing exercises are practiced all around the world and are said to bring a variety of benefits (Credit: Getty Images)
Although no definitive single cause has been identified for causing Alzheimer’s, clumps of amyloid beta protein known as plaques have been found to be one of key features of the disease. Certain types of this protein can be particularly toxic when they clump together inside brain cells, causing them damage that affects their normal function and causes them to die.
Mather and her team hadn’t expected the levels of amyloid beta to be “affected so robustly”. And it wasn’t just for older adults who already might have been more susceptible to having higher levels of amyloid beta. “The effects were significant in both younger and older adults,” Mather says.
“This is an intriguing finding because, in healthy adults, lower plasma levels of amyloid beta are associated with lower risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease later,” she says. “Slow-paced breathing might have benefits not only for emotional well-being – but also for improving biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
The researchers aren’t sure why, exactly, this might be. But one hypothesis is that slow, deliberate breathing may mimic some of the benefits of deep sleep, which research has found might clear neurotoxic waste products from the brain and nervous system at a faster rate. The build-up of these waste products seems to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
The key factor seems to be how each exercise affected heart rate variability (HRV), which reflects how much fluctuation there is between heartbeats. Research has indicated that heart rate variability is a good metric for the functioning of the nervous system, and, therefore, an indicator of overall health and various health conditions, from depression and chronic stress to viral infection and sepsis. Intriguingly, more variability (ie a less consistent pattern) seems to be far healthier, perhaps because it shows the body’s ability to adapt to stressors.
A regular practice of deliberate, slow-paced breathing seems to be something that could benefit most people
Regardless of the exact mechanism, Mather says, a regular practice of deliberate, slow-paced breathing seems to be something that could benefit most people.
HOPE IN THE FIGHT AGAINST AMYLOID PROTEIN
A new drug called donanemab has shown promise in a global trial for helping to clear the build-up of amyloid beta protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The drug has been described as a “turning point” in the fight against Alzheimer’s after it appeared to slow the pace of the disease by around a third.
The results suggest that removing amyloid beta clumps from the brain can help to alter the course of the disease and help patients to retain much of their daily routine.
“We don’t yet know what dose is optimal. But it probably doesn’t have to be every day – my guess at this point is that doing 20 minutes 4-5 times per week would have benefits,” she says.
The study didn’t compare different types of breathing techniques, so they don’t know yet which type of breathing pattern might be most effective. “What we do know is that breathing at whichever pace between nine and 14 seconds per breath that increased that individual’s heart rate oscillations the most was effective at reducing plasma amyloid beta levels,” Mather says.
The research has also yet to be replicated in larger numbers of patients to confirm whether a meaningful long-term effect can be seen. Some scientists have also expressed doubts about how effective or reliable breathing techniques could be compared to drug treatments.
But it is far from the only study in recent years to have found health benefits of breathing exercises. Studies have found, for example, that breathwork may reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension, help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reduce insomnia. A recent meta-analysis, meanwhile, found that it could lower stress and improve mental health.
Breathwork is starting to make its way beyond yoga and meditation classes to corporate retreats and even schools. In New York City, mayor Eric Adams recently announced that all public schools will have to teach daily mindful breathing sessions to students. As he put it: “There’s a science to breathing.” There are plenty of researchers, it turns out, starting to agree with him.