Just breathe

Posted by on Dec 3, 2012 in hot flash, mind-body therapy | 0 comments

Want to reduce the frequency of your flashes?

Just breathe.

I’m serious. Just as serious as Mayo Clinic researchers who recently published a study about paced breathing in the online version of Menopause. If you are unfamiliar with the term, paced breathing refers to slow, deep breathing from the diaphragm.

Although experts are still unclear as to the underlying cause of hot flashes, they believe that they are related to a dysfunction in a process called ‘thermoregulation;’ this is the ability to keep our body temperature in a steady state, even when the environment changes. A decrease in estrogen levels, coupled with increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (which assists in controlling the body’s functions and the fight or flight mechanism) narrows the natural comfort zone and tolerance for temperature fluctuations. Voila! A flash is believed to be born.

So where does paced breathing fit in? Here’s the interesting part: paced breathing decreases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. So, when the nervous system goes into overdrive, paced breathing can theoretically calm the waters. However, as we go through our busy lives, is regular paced breathing even feasible?

To find out, 105 women were provided with either audio recordings of chimes that paced their breathing or were asked to simply breathe normally. All of the women reported having at least 14 or more hot flashes a week, and they also a history of breast cancer. Women assigned to paced breathing were asked to use their audio recordings either once or twice a day and practice taking 6 breaths per minute for 15 minutes. The other women practiced regular breathing (14 breaths per minute) for 10 minutes a day. All of the women kept a daily hot flash diary.

Over nine weeks, women who practiced paced breathing twice a day reported reductions in daily hot flashes by 52%. Paced breathing practiced once a day reduced hot flashes by 42%. What’s more, women who didn’t slow their breathing deliberately but simply focused on it 10 minutes a day reduced the frequency of their hot flashes by 46%; this suggest that focusing can help alleviate symptoms and that some sort of placebo effect is at play. Still, other studies have similarly reported reductions in hot flash frequency by as much as 50% using progressive muscle relaxation which also has a positive effect on the nervous system. In fact, I just wrote about relaxation and flashes last week.

Most of the women found it challenging to fit 30 minutes of paced breathing into their day, which suggests that perhaps intensifying the effort once a day can provide the same beneficial results. For the most part, there was some initial dizziness but it was mostly mild and likely the result of significantly slowing breathing; more practice would probably help to ameliorate this effect.

It seems to me that it is possible to move away from drugs and towards the body and mind to balance our internal thermostats. The bottom line appears to be that a bit of effort can potentially a long way towards solving a problem that has long eluded the medical community.

Just breathe.

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