The Benefits of Slow Breathing

There are all manner of purported hiccup “cures,” which include everything from chewing on a lemon, inhaling pepper, or, our dog’s favorite, eating a spoonful of peanut butter. In my video How to Strengthen the Mind-Body Connection, I talk about the technique I’m excited to try the next time I get hiccups: “supra-supramaximal inspiration,” where you take a very deep breath, hold for ten seconds, then, without exhaling, breathe in even more and hold for another five seconds, and then take one final, tiny breath in and hold for five last seconds to achieve “an immediate and permanent termination to hiccups…”

When I was a kid, I taught myself to control my own hiccups using slow-paced breathing, and, as an adult, was so excited to see there was finally a case report written up on it.

There’s a nerve—the vagus nerve—that goes directly from our brain, to our chest, and to our stomach, connecting our brain back and forth to our heart and our gut, and even to our immune system. The vagus nerve is like the “‘hard-wired’ connection” that allows our brain to turn down inflammation within our body. When you hear about the mind-body connection, that’s what the vagus nerve is and does. “There has been increasing interest in treating a wide range of disorders with implanted pacemaker-like devices for stimulating the vagal afferent [vagus nerve] pathways,” but certain Eastern traditions like Yoga, QiGong, and Zen figured a way to do it without having electrodes implanted into your body.  

“A healthy heart is not a metronome,” as a study titled exactly that explains. “Your heart rate goes up and down with your breathing. When you breathe in, your heart rate tends to go up. When you breathe out, your heart rate tends to go down.” Test this out on yourself right now by feeling your pulse change as you breathe in and out.

Isn’t that remarkable?

That heart-rate variability is a measure of vagal tone—the activity of your vagus nerve. Next time you’re bored, try to make your heart rate speed up and slow down as much as possible within each breath. This can be done because there’s an entirely other oscillating cycle going on at the same time, as you can see at 2:08 in my video, which is the speeding up and then slowing down of your heart rate, based on moment-to-moment changes in your blood pressure. And, as any physics student can tell you, “all oscillating feedback systems with a constant delay have the characteristic of resonance,” meaning you can boost the amplitude if you get the cycles in sync. It’s like pushing your kid on a swing: If you get the timing just right, you can boost them higher and higher. Similarly, if you breathe in and out at just the right frequency, you can force the cycles in sync and boost your heart rate variability, as you can see at 2:36 in my video.

And what’s the benefit again? According to the neurophysiologic model postulation it allows us to affect the function of our autonomic nervous system via vagal afferents to brainstem nuclei like the locus coeruleus, activating hypothalamic vigilance areas.

Huh?

In other words, it’s not just about curing hiccups. Practicing slow breathing a few minutes a day may have lasting beneficial effects on a number of medical and emotional disorders, including asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and depression. In the United States, we’ve also put it to use to improve batting performance in baseball.

To date, most studies have lacked proper controls and have used fancy biofeedback machines to determine each person’s resonant frequency, but, for most people, it comes out to be about five and a half breaths per minute, which is a full breath in and out about every 11 seconds. You can see the graph at 3:34 in my video. When musicians were randomized into slow-breathing groups with or without biofeedback, slow breathing helped regardless. It’s the same with high blood pressure. As you can see at 3:52 in my video, you can use this technique to significantly drop your blood pressure within minutes. The hope is if you practice this a few minutes every day, you can have long-lasting effects the rest of the day breathing normally.

Practice what exactly? Slow breathing—taking five or six breaths per minute, split equally between breathing in and breathing out. So, that’s five seconds in, then five seconds out, all the while breathing “shallowly and naturally.” You don’t want to hyperventilate, so just take natural, shallow breaths, but be sure to simply breathe really slowly. Try it the next time you get hiccups. Works for me every time!


For more tips, watch my video on How to Stop Hiccups.

And, because slowing down our pulse in general may also have beneficial effects, I encourage you to check out:

Every time I’m amazed by ancient wisdom, I have to remind myself of the video I did on toxic heavy metals—Get the Lead Out. So, though traditional healing methods may offer a plethora of insights, they still need to be put to the test.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

A highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for heavy periods

Ginger is most famous for its role in preventing and alleviating nausea and vomiting. There are now so many studies that there are reviews of reviews. Just a half teaspoon of powdered ginger “is associated with a 5-fold likelihood of improvement” in morning sickness in early pregnancy. (See my video Natural Treatments for Morning Sickness for more on this.) Ginger has also been shown to help with motion sickness, improve postoperative nausea and vomiting, prevent antiretroviral-induced nausea and vomiting during HIV treatment, and was said to be a “miracle” against chemotherapy-induced vomiting.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of ginger for breast cancer chemotherapy, chemo-induced vomiting was relieved in all phases—the acute phase within 24 hours of the chemo, two to three days after, and even before chemo sessions with what’s known as anticipatory vomiting. (After a few chemo treatments, the body knows what’s coming and starts throwing up at just the thought of the next session.) Anticipatory nausea can’t seem to be controlled by drugs, even the fancy new ones that can cost 10,000 times more than ginger, which comes in at about two pennies per dose and may work even better in some ways.

Ginger can also help with pain. One-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger, which costs just one penny, was found to work as well as the migraine headache drug Imitrex, without the side effects. (See my video Ginger for Migraines for more.)

Speaking of pain, my video Ginger for Nausea, Menstrual Cramps, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome discusses that it may also be as effective as ibuprofen for alleviating menstrual cramps. Painful periods are exceedingly common and can sometimes cause severe suffering yet have been “virtually ignored” by pain management researchers and practitioners. Four randomized controlled trials, however, have been published on ginger for menstrual pain, and all four showed significant benefit when ginger was taken during the first few days of periods. Effective doses ranged from about a third of a teaspoon a day to a full teaspoon a day, but because they all seemed to work, one might as well start out with the penny-a-day dose.

As a side benefit, ginger can dramatically reduce heavy flow, which is one of the most common gynecological problems for young women. We know there are pro-inflammatory foods that may contribute to heavy menstrual bleeding, so how about trying an anti-inflammatory food like ginger? Heavy menstrual bleeding is defined as more than a third of a cup (80 milliliters), but all the study subjects started out much higher than that. Just an eighth teaspoon of powdered ginger three times a day starting the day before their period cut their flow in half, and it seemed to work better each month they tried it, providing a highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for menstrual blood loss and pain.

So, ginger works for migraines and menstrual cramps, but just because it may be effective for many types of pain doesn’t mean it’s necessarily efficacious for all pain. For example, what about intestinal cramps? Is ginger effective for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? The answer is yes, dropping IBS severity by more than 25 percent. But, so did the placebo. So, the real answer is no—it is not effective for the treatment of IBS, yet “[g]inger is one of the most commonly used herbal medicines for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Silly people, don’t they know it doesn’t work any better than a sugar pill? Or, from another perspective, are they smart for using something that offers relief 53 percent of the time and doesn’t risk the adverse effects of some of the drugs with which doctors may harm one person for every three they help?


If placebos are so safe and effective, should doctors prescribe them? I discuss the pros and cons in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?.

What does work for IBS? See my videos:

What else can women do to make their periods more tolerable? See:

For more on ginger, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

A Dietary Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic, episodic intestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. It affects 1 in 7 Americans, although most go undiagnosed. IBS can have a substantial impact on well-being and health, but doctors underestimate the impact the disease can have, particularly the pain and discomfort. Using some measures, the health-related quality of life of irritable bowel sufferers can rival that of sufferers of much more serious disorders, such as diabetes, kidney failure, and inflammatory bowel diseases. The first step toward successful treatment is for doctors to acknowledge the condition and not just dismiss the patient as just hysterical or something.

Another reason sufferers often don’t seek medical care may be the lack of effectiveness of the available treatments. There is a huge unmet therapeutic need. Since IBS has no cure, treatment is targeted to alleviate the symptoms. Typical antispasmodic drugs can cause side effects, including dry mouth, dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, and fall risk. New drugs now on the market, like Lubiprostone and Linaclotide, can cost up to $3,000 a year and can cause as side effects many of symptoms we’re trying to treat.

Antidepressants are commonly given but may take weeks or even months to start helping. Prozac or Celexa take 4 to 6 weeks to help, and Paxil can take up to 12 weeks. They also have their own array of side effects, including sexual dysfunction in over 70% of the people who take these drugs.

There’s got to be a better way.

Acupuncture works, but not better than placebo. Placebo acupuncture? That’s where you poke people with a fake needle away from any known acupuncture points. Yet that worked just as well as real acupuncture, showing the power of the placebo effect.

I’ve talked about the ethics of so many doctors who effectively pass off sugar pills as effective drugs, arguing that the ends justify their means. There’s actually a way to harness the placebo effect without lying to patients, though. We tell them it’s a sugar pill. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome were randomized to either get nothing or a prescription medicine bottle of placebo pills with a label clearly marked “placebo pills” “take 2 pills twice daily.” I kid you not.

Lo and behold, it worked! That’s how powerful the placebo effect can be for irritable bowel. They conclude that for some disorders it may be appropriate for clinicians to recommend that patients try an inexpensive and safe placebo. Indeed, sugar pills probably won’t cost $3,000 a year. But is there a safe alternative that actually works?

As you can see in my video, Peppermint Oil for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, nine randomized placebo-controlled studies have indeed found peppermint oil to be a safe and effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. A few adverse events were reported, but were mild and transient in nature, such as a peppermint taste, peppermint smell, and a cooling sensation around one’s bottom on the way out. In contrast, in some of the head-to-head peppermint versus drug studies, some of the drug side effects were so unbearable that patients had to drop out of the study. This suggests it might be a reasonable approach for clinicians to treat IBS patients with peppermint oil as a first-line therapy, before trying anything else.

The longest trial only lasted 12 weeks, so we don’t yet know about long-term efficacy. The benefits may last at least a month after stopping, though, perhaps due to lasting changes in our gut flora.

The studies used peppermint oil capsules so researchers could match them with placebo pills. What about peppermint tea? It’s never been tested, but one might assume it wouldn’t be concentrated enough. However, a quarter cup of fresh peppermint leaves has as much peppermint oil as some of the capsule doses used in the studies. One could easily blend it into a smoothie or with frozen berries to make something like my pink juice recipe. You can grow mint right on your window sill.

We doctors need effective treatments that “are cheap, safe, and readily available. This is particularly relevant at the present time as newer and more expensive drugs have either failed to show efficacy or been withdrawn from the market owing to concerns about serious adverse events.” Just like it may be a good idea to only eat foods with ingredients you can pronounce, it may be better to try some mint before novel pharmacological approaches, such the new dual mu-opioid agonist delta-antagonist drug with a name like JNJ-27018966.

I have some other mint videos: Enhancing Athletic Performance With Peppermint and Peppermint Aromatherapy for Nausea. Lemon balm is also in the mint family, so check out Reducing Radiation Damage With Ginger & Lemon Balm and Best Aromatherapy Herb for Alzheimer’s.

You can also sprinkle dried mint on various dishes. See Antioxidants in a Pinch.

What else might work for IBS? See Kiwifruit for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.

Irritable bowel symptoms can overlap with problems with gluten, so make sure your physician rules out celiac disease. These may be helpful:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: