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Breathing for a Better Gut: The Biology and Benefits of Belly Breathing

by Ryan Jennings on April 14, 2022

About the author: Matthew Goodman, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY32423) and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. He has worked at the intersection of mental and physical health for 8+ years. Dr. Goodman is the author of “Simple Stress-Reduction: Easy and Effective Practices for Kids, Teens, and Adults.You can follow him on IG at @matthewgoodmanphd.

The art and science of treating the mind and body as “one” is as old as healing traditions themselves; ancient healing modalities targeted the mind as a means of mending the body, and vice versa. This approach has again gained esteem as modern medical practitioners, and the patients they serve, gravitate towards complementary and alternative approaches to health.

The notion of a mind-body connection is once again conventionally recognized. However, many of us don’t appreciate this is literally the case; beyond the poetic utility of describing this relationship exists a very real—physical—biological—hardwired (you get the point J), and beautifully complex, connection between the brain and bodily organs. Understanding the biology of this relationship unveils important insights about healing illness.

This article focuses specifically on the brain-gut connection. I will first explain the biological underpinnings of this relationship. I will then teach you a very simple, yet powerful, breathing practice that can aid gut abnormalities such as IBS, acid reflux, nausea/vomiting, and other mind-body related symptoms.

The “Los Vagus” Nerve

When I tell my patients about the vagus nerve—a bundle fibers emanating from the brain stem and connecting to the heart, gut, and other visceral organs—they will sometimes reply with, “vagus… hm… you mean like, Los Vegas?” Clearly, I am not trying to start a conversation about Sin City. But surprisingly, the vagus nerve and Los Vegas do have a couple things in common. Both are a wonderfully dense hub of information exchange. And both are responsible for making people pass out. The vagus nerve is what goes “offline” for some people when they see blood, spiders, or experience an intense trauma, leading to a drastic drop in blood pressure and temporary unconsciousness (also known as “vasovagal syncope”). 

The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (the two branches of the autonomic nervous system). The sympathetic is also referred to as the “fight or flight” system; it is responsible for preparing you to “fight” or “flee” by increased heart rate, respiration, muscle contractions, dilating pupils, and so on. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest, digest, and heal” part of the body; it generates a feeling of calm, safety, and recovery by slowing heart rate and respiration, stimulating healing processes (e.g., anti-inflammatory cytokines), and opening us up for emotional connection. A healthy nervous system balances sympathetic and parasympathetic activity at appropriate times. However, if we spend too much time in sympathetic—which can be activated even by psychological stressors, such as worry—this creates “wear and tear” on our body, and can eventually lead to illness.

Importantly, the sympathetic (stress) nervous system shuts down digestion. It prohibits healthy GI activity like muscle contractions (“peristalsis”) and pH and microbiome balance because, well, who needs these things when we’re fighting a tiger? The problem is that we’re no longer fending off wild beats—but in our minds, today, we are waging war against thousands of imaginal threats (“I cannot believe Sharon called me a liar today!”).

The parasympathetic (relaxation) nervous system stimulates digestion and healthy GI function. When we’re relaxed, our body is able to do what it’s supposed to. This is why many people with GI issues, like IBS for example, will report “flare ups” when stressed.

Belly Breathing is Key

The quickest and most efficient way to stimulate parasympathetic (relaxation) activity is through diaphragmatic breathing. This is also called “belly breathing.” I may be biased (I truly love this practice), but my personal and clinical experience suggests belly breathing provides the “biggest bang for your buck”—it’s works really well in a relatively short period of time.

I won’t get into the biological mechanics of why and how belly breathing triggers parasympathetic activity, other than to say that it stimulates healthy vagal nerve functioning. Diaphragmatic breathing increases “vagal tone,” which translates to more parasympathetic activation. 

When I teach this practice to my patients, I get to observe their bellies grumbling (indicative of digestion being stimulated) and other indicators of relaxation. Sometimes they will fall asleep (this can be a great practice before bed). In both cases, something they’ve been deprived of (due to stress or other factors) finally kicks into gear. It’s always rewarding to see.  

Here is how you practice (follow the steps below, or watch the video). I recommend practicing for 10-20 minutes per day. People who dedicate at least 10 minutes per day show the best results (many people notice changes in their “baseline” after a few weeks). Still, this practice is helpful in the moment while you are experiencing GI discomfort (e.g., reflux, nausea, pain). I like practicing in the morning (first thing before you start your day), but find a time and place that works for you.

How to Practice Belly Breathing:

  1. Get comfortable in a sitting or lying position. If you are sitting, it might be helpful to slouch so that the diaphragm (belly) region is more open.
  2. Place one hand on your belly, and the other hand on your chest. Notice your natural breathing pattern.
  3. Now, see if you can breathe so that the hand on your belly goes up and down, instead of the hand on your chest. The belly inflates on the inhale (gets bigger, like a balloon) and deflates on the exhale.
  4. S-l-o-o-o-o-w the breath down. Count 4-5 seconds on the inhale, and 5-6 seconds on the exhale. Continue breathing like this for 10-20 minutes.