Breath, Stress, and Meditation
By: Amrito MD
SOME STUDIES INDICATE that as many as 60-90% of visits to "health care professionals" are for stress-related conditions, which represents a lot of pain and plenty of dollars.
One of the major changes has been the acceptance by the medical profession that conditions like ulcers and heart disease are stress-related. Of course every doctor's wife knew it, granny knew it, the doctor knew it, but because it was not actually "proven," publicly, it was accepted as only "anecdotal" evidence.
One reason for this is a one-sided attitude to stress. When an animal is about to become another animal's breakfast both animals are "stressed." One or both may survive the encounter, but either way, the episode will be fairly brief. And once over, there will be no time to think back over it...day dreaming is no way to avoid being your neighbor's next meal. Alertness is key.
By contrast, when the boss has insulted us in the morning, we too are stressed, but allow the episode to, sometimes literally, eat our heart out all day long.
During brief, acute stress, or drawn out, chronic stress, two fundamental kinds of change happen. One is basically chemical: adrenaline and other chemicals pour out into the body's system to give the animal the best chance of survival. The range of chemical changes that occur with stress is vast. Hormone levels change, the immune system is affected, the nervous system is affected, and so on.
The other fundamental change is in the breathing.
While much is known about the chemical changes in stress, very little is known about the breathing changes. Which is surprising, because while chemical studies are complicated, expensive, and often painful for the patient, examining the breathing could hardly be easier.
And these chemical changes that are measured lie almost completely outside the conscious domain. Do any of us have any idea what our current cortisol levels might be? So, even if abnormalities are found, there is not much the patient can do about them.
Breathing can either be spontaneous and natural, an organic response to the moment, or it can be habitual, mechanical and reactive ? the result of a life-time's emotional experiences, laid down like rings on a tree.
Watching the breath was Gautama the Buddha's basic insistence, en route to meditation, to consciousness. That was twenty-five centuries ago, so the East has had a little more experience of breath than has Western science. It is no surprise to discover that every Eastern health care approach places breath at center stage. In their view, if the body chemistry is disturbed, then the breathing cannot be natural, and if the breathing is natural, then the body chemistry will be fine.
It follows that if these detrimental breathing habits can be unlearned, the result will be curative. By contrast the most successful treatments for stress-related diseases that have emerged from the purely chemical approach have been largely symptomatic. That is, they tend to suppress the symptoms, without necessarily touching the root cause ? perhaps switching off the warning pain, without understanding what the warning is about.
Of course the other thing about breath therapy, as opposed to chemical therapy, is that it is simple and can be made available very inexpensively. Natural breathing is the essence of meditation, so it is no harder than that.
One of the major difficulties for the Western mind was the lack of "objective" data on this subject, but this is changing; research has demonstrated that the breathing naturally increases when the organism is stressed. When stress becomes chronic as so often happens with human beings, this chronic increase in breathing causes an inappropriate loss of carbon dioxide from the body. As this is drawn from carbonic acid, this excessive breathing causes in turn an excessive loss of acid. Now the body happens to be very particular about the acid-base balance, called the pH level. It will even tolerate cerebral anoxia rather than a change in pH. That means the body is serious about this.
So, with all this excessive loss of acid happening through the breath, the body compensates by peeing out extra alkali. To cut a long story short, this prolonged loss of alkali reduces the body's alkaline reserves, which in turn, is where the acids we produce when we exercise are buffered and stored, for recycling later.
In short, the more stressed we are, the more we breathe, the more acid we lose, and the more alkali we excrete. With such a loss of alkali, our ability to buffer lactic acid when we exercise is reduced, so that with very little exercise our legs hurt and our breathing becomes labored. In short we feel exhausted.
So, your typical heart attack patient is not struck "out of the blue" by some mysterious "heart attack" as is often suggested. Actually he is chronically stressed, chronically over-breathes, depletes his alkaline buffers, and becomes increasingly tired. His memory suffers, his concentration is reduced, his energy is very poor...but he keeps going, finally stopping only when his heart threatens to, or actually does, go on strike.
Suddenly it becomes so clear why "rest" has been the mainstay of Western medicine for millennia. If our heart attack friend would only stop and actually rest....
If rest is an essential ingredient in healing, a lack of rest is obviously going to be an essential ingredient of ill health. Or to put it another way, tiredness almost certainly precedes all diseases. And if breathing stressfully can cause tiredness, then we have a clear ? and remediable ? connection between stress and ill health.
More importantly, what is totally new is the ability to measure "fatigability" by measuring on an exercise bike how much work the individual can do before he goes acidotic ? which triggers an increase in breathing which is easily seen and measured.
For the first time it is possible to actually see how far down the exhaustion slope en route to ill-health the patient has reached ? and repeat tests show how fast he or she is moving on that slope, and in which direction.
This particular understanding goes further than the connection between breath, rest, and ill health. Awareness of the breath is one of the essential elements of meditation, which may be one of the ways meditation is so beneficial to health. If we call meditation "living restfully" then the circle becomes complete and the best of Western medicine can finally meet the best of Eastern medicine.