Research suggests that breathing slowly-- fewer than 10 breaths a minute--for just a few minutes a day is enough to help nudge down high blood pressure. A scientist at the National Institutes of Health thinks how we breathe may hold a key to how the body regulates blood pressure — and that it has less to do with relaxation than with breaking down all that salt most of us eat.
Dr. David Anderson heads research into behavior and hypertension at the NIH’s National Institute on Aging. With the help of a special gadget, he trains volunteers with hypertension to slow-breathe, and the work could shed new light on the intersection between hypertension, stress and diet.
An estimated 65 million Americans have high blood pressure, putting them at increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage, blindness and dementia. Many don’t know it. Hypertension is often called the silent killer, because patients may notice no symptoms until it already has done serious damage.
When under chronic stress, people tend to take shallow breaths and unconsciously hold them, what Anderson calls inhibitory breathing. Holding a breath diverts more blood to the brain to increase alertness — good if the boss is yelling — but it knocks off kilter the blood’s chemical balance. More acidic blood in turn makes the kidneys less efficient at pumping out sodium.
In animals, Anderson’s experiments have shown that inhibitory breathing delays salt excretion enough to raise blood pressure. Now he’s testing if better breathing helps people reverse that effect.
Meanwhile, health authorities recommend that everyone take simple steps to lower blood pressure: by dropping a few pounds, taking a walk or getting physical activity, and eating less sodium — no more than 2,300 milligrams a day — and more fruits and vegetables.