April 17, 2018
Ron Penna, founder of Quest Nutrition and a brilliant self-taught student of human physiology, flexed his python-like biceps and spoke a little faster. “But it turns out most of these so-called breathing experts are wrong, and that carbon dioxide is a good thing.”
I leaned forward at the dinner table, ignoring my sous vide ribeye steak. I’d always been taught, even in my Master’s level nutrition and exercise science courses, that carbon dioxide (CO2) was a metabolic waste product associated with lactic acid accumulation and poor breathing patterns, and resulted in nasty issues like metabolic acidosis and cell damage. Ultimately, I’d always been taught that the less CO2 you have floating around in your bloodstream, the better.
Ron continued. “High levels of CO2 in the body, if you can figure out how to get high oxygen levels at the same time, is actually one of the best ways to completely saturate your tissues with oxygen, and as a matter of fact, the naked mole rat, an animal that lives an inordinately long amount of time, has rock-bottom levels of inflammation and has never been known to develop cancer lives in underground holes that allow it to maintain remarkably high levels of CO2.”
I was skeptical, but Ron went on to explain something called the “Bohr effect”, which occurs when high levels of CO2 cause the hemoglobin in red blood cells to readily dump their precious oxygen into tissue such as the brain and muscles, resulting in huge surges in energy and physical performance. He also described the fascinating practice of Buteyko breathing that you’ll learn later in this article, a little-known form of breathwork that plummets stress levels, optimizes oxygenation and maximizes both O2 and CO2 levels.
I still had one more question for Ron. “So what’s the best way to teach the body how to do this the right way?”
Ron’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You mean you don’t know? I would have thought you were doing this every night, Ben. It’s mouth taping.”
I nodded and gulped.
Talking my wife into me taping my mouth at night during our normal “snuggle and chat” time could be a tough task, but I was willing to experiment with Ron’s anti-cancer, cortisol-lower, life-extending suggestions (which I actually later did, and you can view the entertaining, mildly embarrassing results in this quick Facebook video). Head spinning, I left dinner and immediately looked into the book “Normal Breathing: The Key to Vital Health”, a $70 textbook that re-invented my entire approach to breathwork – specifically altering my belief that you need to breathe deeply from the belly, and breathe off as much harmful CO2 as possible, and that instead shallow, infrequent nasal breathing could be a big hidden key to longevity, decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lowered risk of cancer. I also read this fantastic article by Ray Peat that Ron recommended.
The power of breath to change the human body, emotions, chemicals, neurotransmitters, hormones and more was not a new concept to me. Years before speaking with Ron, I had first realized the importance of breath awareness when I interviewed author Budd Coates, who taught be the exact rhythmic exercise breathing techniques you’ll discover later in this article. When training with Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine at his famous Kokoro crucible camp in California, I learned box breathing and holotropic breathwork (the latter of which got me the highest I’ve ever gotten sans psychedelics). Freediving instructor Ted Harty introduced me to static apnea tables for breath hold and carbon dioxide tolerance, world-famous holistic health coach Paul Chek taught me the best tricks to proper deep belly breathing, the iceman Wim Hof taught me his fire-breathing tactics, and big wave surfer Laird Hamilton showed me how to instantly enter the parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest” state with breath.
You’ll learn everything I’ve been taught by these experts in this article, which you can consider to be the “best-of-the-best” of the breathing protocols that I’ve discovered and that actually work. But first, you must understand how something called “The HPA Axis”, along with how important your breath (which you can consider to be the equivalent of your life force, your invisible energy, your prana and even your Ki) is to your cortisol levels and your carbon dioxide levels, and why breath is one of the most potent, built-in, free tactics to decrease stress, fix your nervous system and even change your genetics.
HPA Axis 101
There is a thin, beige kite string laying on the surface of my desk. Each day, when I arrive at my desk to write, I take that kite string and tie it around my navel. No, I am not obsessed with narcissistic waist measurements, nor do I have a kite fetish. Rather, the “kite string trick” is a method taught to me by fitness pioneer Paul Chek, who discovered that everything from constipation to back pain to poor stress control is caused by squeezing one’s abs in: a habit I developed to perfection during two years of competitive “abs-in-chest-out” competitive bodybuilding. Paul also teaches that one of the best fixes for this – which he refers to as an inverted breathing pattern that locks up the abdominal wall, pulls the rib cage down and puts extra tension on the chest and neck muscles, restricting the amount of oxygen your body receives – is to simply tie a string around your waist and focus on expanding that string in and out with each conscious belly breath.
Nifty trick, eh?
This is also a potent way to decrease stress since the pressure receptors in your chest can activate cortisol release during the process of shallow chest breathing. Now don’t get me wrong: stress does not suck. Stress is, in fact, good for you. Stress is why ripping muscle fibers apart with a barbell makes you stronger, sucking wind and tasting lactic acid in your mouth during a run makes your heart healthier, skipping a meal or fasting enhances longevity and your ability to control blood sugar, eating bitter wild plants and tannic coffees and teas increases your immune system strength, getting bombarded with sunlight radiation causes vitamin D synthesis, and blasting through a hundred emails causing the growth of new neurons.
A heavyweight, a fast-moving treadmill, a morning without food, a mouth-puckering bite of raw kale, a bit of afternoon UVA and UVB rays and even stress from a lion jumping out of the email inbox in your computer are all examples of mild stressors that are perceived by your body as “hormetic stress”, also known as “hormesis”. Heck, this concept of hormesis is why I personally live my life by the mantra that I must do something mildly uncomfortable every day (e.g. a cold shower, a sweat session in a sauna, a hard-breathing workout, etc.) and something that scares the living hell out of me about once a quarter (e.g. a long and hard obstacle course race, an off-road triathlon, an open mic night performance, etc.).
Hormesis is a biological reaction in which a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, muscle growth, longevity, etc.) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that could be toxic or lethal at higher doses. Take exercise, for example. Sure, exercise could kill you if you did extreme amounts of it, but in low, moderate, or controlled doses, exercise can give you hormetic benefits, such as increased ability to fight free radicals, manage heavy loads, or be more resilient to environmental stressors. Other examples of hormesis include fasting, calorie restriction, cold temperature, heat shock, low-level radiation, and even exposure to some natural bacteria and germs.
It’s only when this type of stress – especially when paired with additional stressors such as physical stress from lack of sleep, chemical stress from drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and environmental pollutants such as cleaning chemicals or pesticides, mental stress from worry and anxiety, emotional stress from anger, guilt, loneliness, sadness, or fear, nutritional stress from food allergies or a vitamin and mineral deficiency or spiritual stress from troubled relationships or financial or career pressures – gets too high too hard for too long that you begin to trigger the third way that your brain can break and the particular focus of this article: an all-too-common condition most of us walk around with 24/7 – a condition known as Hypothalamic-Adrenal-Pituitary axis dysfunction, also called HPA axis dysfunction.
As the name implies, the HPA axis involves three specific parts of the body: the hypothalamus (part of your forebrain towards the front of your skull), the pituitary gland (just below the hypothalamus) and the adrenal glands (at the top of the kidneys). By producing a host of chemicals, including corticotropin-releasing Hormone (CRH, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), glucocorticoids and cortisol, these three parts work to regulate functions such as stress response, mood, digestion, immune system, libido, metabolism, and energy levels.
This entire mighty axis operates on feedback loops. A feedback loop occurs when the output of any system, including a system in your body, somehow loops back to that system as input, and influences its functioning. For example, a positive feedback loop would increase a system’s output, while a negative feedback loop would decrease a system’s output.
So let’s take a look at how a feedback loop would take place in the HPA – in this case with regards to cortisol. You lift a heavy barbell at the gym, your body realizes it’s about to step into a fight against that barbell, and cortisol gets released. At the same time that cortisol gets released to activates your fight and flight stress response, that same cortisol sends a signal back to your hypothalamus to inhibit CRH production and your pituitary gland to inhibit ACTH production. In this way, using a negative feedback loop, cortisol is able to put the brakes on an excessive release of a built-in stimulant called norepinephrine, ensuring that you don’t completely exhaust all your energy stores by lifting barbells all day.
In healthy, low-stress individuals who are not, say, crushing a Crossfit WOD or destroying themselves at the gym each day, this entire HPA axis feedback loop works in harmony. But when cortisol and norepinephrine are chronically overproduced, the HPA axis eventually becomes desensitized to the negative feedback telling it to “calm down”. This leads to chronic stress on the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, and eventually leads nasty adrenal fatigue issues that cause hard-charging, high-achievers to wake up each morning tired, groggy and unmotivated until they can get their paws on a piping hot cup of liquid cortisol – coffee.
Interestingly, HPA axis dysfunction is 100% linked to the neurotransmitter imbalance issues that I talk about here, too. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressants can actually be very effective at treating panic issues. This is because these drugs keep serotonin high, and when serotonin is high, levels of norepinephrine fall, so you feel less of the effects of chronic stress. But this is a less-than-ideal way to treat stress, since you’ll simply need more and more anti-depressants as time goes on, and the body becomes desensitized to serotonin.
How To Fix Your HPA Axis
So what can you do about HPA axis dysfunction? You can probably guess the single most important tactic I have ever discovered for the stress that causes HPA axis issues: breathing.
A multitude of research has repeatedly proven a link between stress and breath, and scientists have figured out that you can actually relax your brain through your breath and that you can also speed up stress reactions and cortisol release via hyperventilation. This all has to do with your brain’s “respiratory pacemaker” for breath – comprised of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that affect breathing, emotional states, and alertness.
Harvard researcher Herbert Benson even coined the term “The Relaxation Response” in 1975 with a book of the same name. In that book, Benson shows that short periods of meditation, using breathing as a focus, can significantly alter the body's stress response, and even writes that breathing can change the expression of genes, claiming that by using your breath, you can alter the basic activity of your cells with your mind, use the mind to change your body, and directly alter gene expression. This concept of changing your biology with your thought patterns, emotions and breath is intimately related to the “Biology of Belief” principles that Bruce Lipton introduces in his equally excellent book by the same name.
But even more fast-acting than the gene-altering effects is the ability of breath to be able to train the body's reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of excessive stress hormones, and also the ability of breath to be able to alter oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the way that Ron was explaining to me at dinner. Short and rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which is part of your “fight or flight” response, while slow, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic reaction, activating the “rest and digest” response.
As a hard-charging, high-achiever, these are all reasons that I’m infatuated with the power of breathwork. And in my quest to become a better breather, I’ve settled upon the “best of best” of the myriad of breathwork tactics I’ve learned, each of which you’re about to discover.
The Best-Of-The Best Breathing Techniques
-Buteyko Breathing: Patrick Mckeown, author of the excellent book “Oxygen Advantage”, first introduced me to Buteyko breathing, which is primarily used as a highly effective approach for reversing the host of health problems associated with improper breathing, the most common of which are over breathing and mouthbreathing, which contribute to poor sleep and sleep apnea. Buteyko breathing – named after the Russian physician who developed the technique – is based around the concept that when you stop mouth breathing and learn to engage in slow, nasal, whisper-like breathing, you possess the ability to engage in far better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain.
As Ron described to me in the dinner conversation at the beginning of this article, we are all told that you must breathe to remove excess CO2 – but it’s still extremely important that your breath actually maintains ideal CO2 levels in your lungs, because lack of CO2 constrict the blood vessels and may detrimentally affect your heart function, tissue oxygenation and pH. In addition, the nasal breathing utilized in Buteyko allows you to carry the gas nitric oxide more readily into your lungs, since high levels of nitric oxide are found in the nose. Think of nitric oxide as “Viagra for your entire body” – not only does it significantly dilate blood vessels and bronchial tubes, but it also acts an antibacterial agent that helps neutralize germs and bacteria.
So how can you learn to Buteyko breathe and reverse a mouthbreathing habit? The two best methods are to practice the control-pause technique and to mouth tape as you sleep.
-The Control-Pause Technique (CP): CP is a holding of the breath after an ordinary exhalation of air, until you experience the first tiniest desire to breathe in. The control pause provides very good feedback about your ability to efficiently raise your carbon dioxide levels and engage in nasal breathing. To obtain an accurate measurement, rest for 10 minutes before measuring. Next, simply begin to breathe through your nose. After an ordinary exhalation through your nose (not a full, deep exhalation), you should squeeze the tip of your nose with your fingers and look at a stopwatch. If you experience even the slightest inclination to breathe in or gasp air after six seconds, you should immediately let go. In this case, your CP would be six seconds. If you have to take a big breath at the end of the breath hold, then you held your breath for too long.
A good CP amounts to 30 seconds, a very good CP amounts to 45 seconds and Buteyko claimed that if someone had a CP of 60 seconds “he or she is insured against illness.”. A control pause of less than 30 seconds indicates room for improvement, while a control pause of less that 15 seconds is indicative of symptoms such as respiratory issues, disordered sleep breathing, anxiety and stress. My first CP was 17 seconds, and via nasal breathing and mouth taping, I am now up to 41 seconds and still improving.
-Mouth Taping. The concept of mouth taping is quite simple: you tape your mouth prior to sleep to force your body to learn nasal breathing. I personally mouth taped for a month, then found that my body simply became “trained” to breathe through my nose during the night. You’ll want to get 3M Micropore tape from Amazon or any medical supply dealer, or a done-for-you mouth-shaped mouth tape called “Somnifix”.
Apply a small amount of an edible oil such as olive oil or coconut oil to your lips and the edges of your mouth – which will make it simple to roll back the tape during the night if you need to speak or cough – then simply apply the tape your lips. Once the tape is covering your mouth, attempt to gently inhale through the mouth to make sure you didn’t miss a spot. The next step is easy: fall asleep while breathing through your nose. You’ll find it relaxing, easy-to-learn and amazingly, I found that I instantly became accustomed to sleeping with mouth tape on, even when I was first learning the technique.
–Box Breathing: Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine taught me this simple tactic for quieting the mind during periods of extreme stress – such as struggling for entire nights to stay warm while standing in the bone-chilling waves of the Pacific ocean or sitting in giant tubs of ice for over fifteen minutes. I also use this tactic for resisting the urge to flinch from needles and syringes during procedures such as stem cell injections or blood lab draws. The technique is simple: close your mouth and slowly breathe in through your nose for four counts. Hold your breath for four seconds. Then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of four. Hold the exhale for another four counts. Doing this a few times through will help you achieve a more relaxed state. Commander Divine has even developed an app that easily teaches you his own style of box breathing, complete with useful audio cues and timers.
Box breathing is very similar to another popular style of relaxation breathing called “4-7-8” breathing. For 4-7-8 breathing, begin by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind the upper front teeth. With a quiet inhale through the nose and an audible exhale through the mouth, inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of 7, and then exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound for a count of 8. Repeat this cycle at least three more times.
–Kundalini Yoga: Of all the forms of yoga I’ve learned, Kundalini yoga is the most invigorating and the most capable of circulating oxygen throughout the body. In the Kundalini yoga tradition, a combination of movement and breathing techniques are used to ignite the “Kundalini energy” at the base of your spine. The first time that I performed a Kundalini session on the beaches of Kauai, I found myself in an invigorated, trance-like state for hours afterwards. Kundalini breathing doesn’t really involve one single form of breathwork, and instead incorporates several core breathing concepts woven into a single yoga routine, including:
–Breath of Fire: If you’ve ever watched a dog pant, you’ll get the gist of Breath of Fire. This is one of the few forms of breathing I perform to invigorate the body and activate the sympathetic nervous system, rather than to relax or decrease cortisol. To perform it, hold your mouth open then inhale and exhale as quickly as you can while pressing your belly out on the inhale and in on the exhale.
–Sitale Breath: Also known as the “Cooling Breath”, Sitale brings you into a state of calm from which you can feel centered and focused. Close your eyes, curl your tongue and inhale through your open mouth. Then close your mouth and exhale through your nose. That’s it: it’s that simple. I’ve found that performing six Sitale breaths when I’m in stuck in traffic or overwhelmed by a stressful workday can be incredibly centering.
–Alternate Nostril Breathing: In the Kundalini tradition, this form of breathing, also known as “Nadi Shodhana Pranayama” is a potent stress-reducing tactic. Begin by pressing your thumb on your right nostril and breathe out gently through your left nostril. Next, breathe in through the left nostril gently, and press the left nostril closed with a different finger. Remove your thumb from the right nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Next, breathe through the right nostril, close the nostril, and then exhale from the left.
–Rhythmic Breathing: After reading the book “Running On Air” by Budd Coates, I began to use rhythmic breathing as a strategy to get through long Ironman bike rides and runs, then realized that it can be used in just about every exercise situation. Whether you’re lifting weights, running, or cycling, rhythmic breathing is just as effective as nasal breathing, but can be used to keep your body in a relaxed state no matter how hard you’re moving. Learning to breathe rhythmically is difficult initially but becomes second nature within just a few days of practice. In a nutshell, when you’re running or cycling, you want to inhale more than you exhale, and when you’re lifting weights, your inhalation and exhalation are equal. You never, ever allow your breath get out of control or become nonrhythmic.
For example, if you’re running or cycling, simply take one deep nasal breath in for every three-foot strikes or pedal strokes and one relaxed nasal breath out on the subsequent two-foot strikes or pedal strokes. As you increase your intensity and go faster, you can continue this breathing pattern but speed things up by taking one deep breath in for two-foot strikes or pedal strokes and one deep breath out on the subsequent foot strike or pedal stroke.
If you’re lifting weights, release one deep nasal breath as you exert yourself and push or pull the weight, then take one deep nasal breath in as you return the weight to its starting position.
–Decompression Breathing: Hunching all day at a keyboard, tilting our heads forward over our phones, commuting long hours, and slouching on the couch simply magnify and aggravate these problems, resulting in poor posture that throw our bodies out of balance, causing unnecessary stress and strain that compromises our joints, restricts organ function, and weakens our force output. So the reasoning goes something like this: if you can wake up in the morning and do something that fights all the effects of gravity and restores your body to a decompressed state that theoretically allows you to feel better and stands taller all day long, with better digestion, no low back pain, and enhance circulation, why not try it?
Enter my former podcast guest, Dr. Eric Goodman. After watching Eric’s TEDx Talk “The Unexpected Physical Consequences of Technology”, I interviewed him on my podcast about the decompressive breathing he teaches in his Foundation Training program, which teaches your posterior chain muscles, specifically your shoulders, back, butt, and legs, to shift the burden of supporting your body to where that burden belongs: the large posterior chain muscle groups. Foundation Training was birthed through necessity when Dr. Goodman began suffering repetitive back problems while in his mid-20’s. He had blown out L4-L5 and L5-S1, and was told at 25 years old, that he needed back surgery.
Instead, Dr. Goodman, who was in chiropractic school at the time, became a man obsessed. He used his anatomy knowledge, his deep understanding of exercise and his drive to banish his back pain to figure out how to use breath and simple exercises actually decompress the spine and restore nerve and low back function. Each movement incorporates the same basic decompressive breathing pattern in which you inhale and expand your ribcage up and out to the sides of your chest. You then focus on keeping the rib cage expanded while you exhale–using your stomach muscles to expel the air out of your lungs. From turning on the glute muscles, to releasing low back pain to activating the core, this is another form of breathwork that I include every day, typically during a quick break from computer work or while on a long road trip or airplane flight.
–Static Apnea Tables: Static apnea tables, which I was introduced to me by freediving instructor Ted Harty, are sequences of timed breath holds designed to accustom the body to the extreme conditions of lack of oxygen or excess carbon dioxide. These can be quite useful for training inspiratory and expiratory muscles, for increasing breath-hold time, and even as a “mini-workout” on an easy, recovery day. The tables can be performed in water or dryland (e.g. when you’re on the couch at home, driving in your car, etc.).
For example, a CO2 Tolerance table is designed to accustom the body to high levels of carbon dioxide by reducing the duration of resting time between breath hold periods. The following 25-minute table consists of 8 cycles and is based on breath hold time of 1:30 minutes:
Hold breath – 1:30 min
Rest – 2:15 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 1:45 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 1:30 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 1:15 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 1:00 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 1:00 min ; hold – 1:30 min
In contrast, an O2 Tolerance Table is designed to accustom the body to extremely low levels of oxygen by prolonging the duration of breath holds between resting periods. The following 30-minute table consists of 8 cycles:
Hold breathe – 1:00 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 1:15 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 1:30 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 1:45 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 2:00 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 2:15 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 2:30 min
Rest – 2:00 min ; hold – 2:30 min
Obviously, the math can get distracting when you’re trying to focus on your breath, so I’ll it can be helpful to use an app like the Apnea Diver app, which can walk you through each table for a variety of different breath hold times, along with helpful audio cues or vibrations.
These walks are a personal invention of yours truly. Several afternoons each week, I duck out from writing and working in my home office, and scramble up a steep hill through the forest to an old farm road that travels a mile out and a mile back. The road is dotted with telephone poles spaced approximately 100 yards apart. Every time I pass a telephone pole, I take one long, deep belly breath then hold for as long as possible. Then, once I’ve run out of breath, rather than gasping for air – which every muscle in my body wants desperately to do – I instead breathe only through my nose. After a brief 20 to 30 minute walk like this, I feel as I’ve been in deep meditation for hours. This type of walk can be performed in a park, airport, treadmill or anywhere else you want to combine movement and breathwork.
–Holotropic Breathwork: The holotropic breathwork session I performed in San Diego got me higher than I’ve ever been without the use of psychedelic drugs: providing me via the power of my own breath with an intense out-of-body experience, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Dr. Stanislav Grof, the psychology researcher who developed this form of breath work, describes the ability to use your breath to “transcend the narrow boundaries of the body ego” and achieve a relaxed, spiritual high.
Holotropic breathing was engineered by Dr. Grof while he was researching the effects of LSD and became interested in altered states of consciousness and how they could help empower people to deal with their trauma. He developed a method for achieving a psychedelic experience via only breathing and called it “holotropic breathing” (derived from the Greek holos, which means whole and trepein, which means to move toward).
You can’t really do holotropic breathwork on your own or via the use of some fancy phone app. Holotropic breathwork is instead typically led by a certified professional holotropic breathwork facilitator, often in a 2-3 hour long group session. There is usually evocative, intense music that is rhythmic throughout the intense breathing portions, then transitions into meditative music towards the end, as you enter a trancelike state.
So has learning all these breathing skills paid off for me?
Not only can I now use the power of breath to relax and breath my way through incredibly intense, stressful or painful parts of my life, but I can also target my breath to amplify my nervous system and focus on performance, as well as freedive and spearfish for amazing, tasty seafood in just about any tropical locale on the face of the planet. I’ve also used quantifiable measurements such as heart rate variability testing and blood cortisol evaluations to analyze how proper breathing affects my nervous system and hormones, and the results are astounding.
So don’t blow off breath: you can easily learn these tactics too, and the ones I’ve described above – of the dozens and dozens of breathwork techniques that exist – are those that have moved the dial most for me.
Three Other Potent Ways To Reduce Stress
Of course, in addition to breathwork techniques you’ve just discovered, there is a myriad of other ways you can banish stress, kiss high cortisol goodbye and fix HPA axis dysfunction. While breathwork is the fastest and best way to address stress, three other very effective tactics include:
1. Avoid Excessive Exercise. Chronically elevated cortisol levels, overreaching and overtraining are the quickest paths to HPA axis dysfunction, and lead to many of the brain fog, mood and irritability issues especially experienced by exercise enthusiasts and highly active individuals. But the truth is, there are plenty of ways to move the body without necessarily crushing the weights at the gym or pounding the pavement on a run, including Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, heart rate variability training, hot-cold contrast therapy, cold thermogenesis, electrostimulation, heat shock training and beyond.
There's no rule that “avoid excessive exercise” dictates you spend an off-day from the gym laying on the couch with a bag of pork rinds. For example, a typical recovery day for me looks something like this:
-Morning nasal breathing and breathholding walk in the sunshine.
-Frequent movement breaks during work to perform jumping jacks, body weight squats, pushups, jumping on the trampoline, etc.
-Reading magazines or doing easy yoga in a dry or infrared sauna to move lymph fluid and to detox via sweat.
-A couple cold showers, or a cold-hot contrast session of alternating sauna and cold pool.
-A full body foam rolling routine.
You get the idea. There's no rule you can't “make your body better” even if you're not exercising.
2. Shut Down Inflammation. When I wake up with a “fuzzy brain”, which can happen after a late night out, too much alcohol, or getting sleep disrupted during the night, one of the first things I do is pop 1000mg of curcumin (a curry-like extract of the turmeric plant), which can rapidly shut down inflammation and mitigate the effect of a poor night’s sleep on the HPA axis. This is because curcumin is a potent anti-inflammatory. Since cortisol causes full-body inflammation, decreasing inflammation with a strategy such as curcumin can be a highly effective HPA axis protection and repair strategy.
For example, in mice, researchers have experimented with a protein involved in inflammation in the hypothalamus called NF-kB (pronounced en-eff-kappa-bee). When NF-kB is switched off in the hypothalamus of the mice, they live about 20% longer! On the flip side, chronically elevated levels of NF-kB not only accelerate aging but also decreases another important brain protein called GnRH. When GnRH is turned down, fewer new brain cells are created, and aging is accelerated even more. From cold-processed fish oil to pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, there a host of other inflammation-decreasing strategies that I discuss in articles like this.
3. Sleep. The only time your body actually repairs neurons and nerve cells are when you are sleeping – specifically during the deep sleep stages that occur as your body temperature decreases between about 2 am and 6 am. So if you’re attempting to fix your HPA axis and you’re not getting quality sleep, then you’re never going to fully recover and repair. As a matter of fact, because of the crucial role that sleep plays in the health of the nervous system, getting adequate sleep is the single most important strategy you could ever implement for fixing your brain and enhancing your mental function. Even if you incorporate all of the biohacks, nutrition tips and other strategies you discovered in this article, you’re never going to experience 100% optimal brain and nervous system performance if you aren’t sleeping properly. Here a few posts to help you with basic sleep hygiene concepts such as controlling sleep temperature, sound and light, along with several more advanced sleep strategies:
- Everything You Need To Know About Sleep Cycles (And Four Ways To Hack Your Sleep Cycles)
- The Last Resource You’ll Ever Need To Get Better Sleep, Eliminate Insomnia, Beat Jet Lag and Master The Nap: Part 1
- The Last Resource You’ll Ever Need To Get Better Sleep, Eliminate Insomnia, Beat Jet Lag and Master The Nap: Part 2
- The Terrifying Condition Of Sleep And Why You’ll Die Earlier If You Don’t Experience It
- How To Hack Your Sleep, Beat Insomnia & Get Into A Deep Sleep Phase As Fast As Possible
- A Tiny, 1/2 Ounce Piece Of Game-Changing Sleep Technology (And How To Use PEMF For Sleep)
The de-stressing tactics of proper exercise programming, decreased inflammation and good sleep are all interrelated and codependent, and you implement each of these strategies combined with the breathing strategies you've just discovered, your HPA axis will work with wonderful efficiency.
When paired with fixing neurotransmitters and the blood-brain barrier, you can now venture forth with a head that’s fully primed and prepared for an upgrade.
Let's finish with a simple, practical exercise that will get you down the road to incorporating mindful breathwork without creating overwhelm for you…
…there are many different forms of breathwork, but it’s handy to know at least one “energizing” form and one “relaxing” form. So your task today is to energize your body before a workout or during a bout of tiredness with one full minute of Wim Hof-esque fire breathing (short rapid forced inhales followed by short rapid unforced exhales) and to also try – preferably before bed or during a stressful time of the day – one full minute of alternate nostril breathing (breathing in through your right nostril with finger covering left nostril, exhaling through left nostril, then vice versa).
I thought so. Enjoy your newfound knowledge.
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about breath control, cortisol and HPA axis management? Leave your comments below and one of us will reply!
16 thoughts on “The Ultimate Breathwork Ninja Guide: How To Banish Stress & Kiss High Cortisol Goodbye”
Hi Ben, is this In a podcast, I can’t find a link to it anywhere or when searching in Your podcasts. Can’t find the rob penna one either but can find the article
Which other breathing technique is best before visits to a doctor’s office? My anxiety level is through the roof esp for Bp readings? Box breathing doesn’t work much for me.. I also don’t think I know how to breathe during the test itself
Try the Sitale method, or any of the other ones listed.
Hi Ben, very helpful post!
I’m curious, I’ve read about Buteyko breathing and it seems to be the opposite to fast paced breathing techniques such as breath of fire.
If Buteyko breathing is the optimal way to increase oxygen in tissues, would these other techniques worsen it? What about hyperbaric oxygen therapy?
Thank you for the attention and for posting such valuable content
Fantastic article! I have recently been experimenting with different breathing modalities like decompression breathing and box breathing, and I have been amazed by their effects on the body and the mind.
I was excited to read the section about rhythmic breathing and tried it on a four mile run yesterday. It did take a little time to get used to, but once I got used to the pattern, I had one of the best runs I’ve ever had. It became really meditative focusing on my breathe, and I felt my running became much more efficient.
I am an Austinite and will be attending Paleo f(x) for the first time. I look forward to visiting the Kion booth!
Hello, Ben! This is about to get disgusting. I’m in a sticky oral-nasal situation, pun intended, and have a combination of dry tissues, dry mucus (often stuck to those tissues), a number of broken capillaries (and a 2-months old cauterised vein that just recently got reopened via a frontal, direct impact from a soccer ball to the face) that cause recurring nosebleeding, as well as dry lips (despite drinking plenty of water), a higher than average drool production (I spit constantly while exhaling rapidly in an O-shaped mouth during Wim Hof exercises), and a semiregular tendency to spit phlegm after intense breathwork under the influence of cold exposure. So (and I understand you’re not a doctor, a medical authority, a giraffe, rhino, elephant and what not), how do I approach this?
To specify: Dry NASAL tissues, dry NASAL mucus, broken NASAL capillaries et al; I will provide further information if needed in weighing my situation.
Hey man, sorry I can't be of more help, but this is a great question for the Kion community. Because I get so many questions like this and it's impossible for me to respond to everyone individually, I built this community of like-minded people who both have advice and are seeking advice! Facebook.com/groups/getkion/ Also, I would definitely consider seeing a doctor if you haven't already for this.
Love his article and the implications of what breath can do for us daily and long-term. I am recovering from a concussion and am curious if a certain breathing technique is particularly helpful for that recovery?
I have some tips on recovering from a concussion in this podcast: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/transcripts/tran…
Great summary of the techniques Ben.
I notice you’re missing some key elements like: — – knowing how to string the methods together to periodised your breathwork into your training.
– Knowing when to use a technique and when not and finally and most importantly
– never breathe to get high. I learned this through the holotropic breathwork teachers but applies equally to WHM. Getting high is also going deep. If you go deep and don’t know what you’re doing you can cause untold damage to your psyche. ;)
Great read! I have made the decision to start lowering my caffeine levels and using food (and now breathe) to increase my energy. I tried the Sitale Breath in the middle of reading this and noticed an immediate change in my mental state. It works! Thanks for sharing these techniques Ben.
Great, great article. Thank you. I read it at 4:00 in the morning, during a rare but growing bout of stress inspired insomnia. It helped provide some hope and mental clarity that allowed me to go back to bed and sleep like a champ for a bit. I’m sharing it with our team at work.
You Ray Peat has been talking about the value of CO2 since the 70s. Good stuff. Perfuses o2 deep into tissues
I was going to say the same thing. Ray Peat is way ahead of these guys.