Based on recent research, it seems that there’s potential for breath-focused practices to help with ADHD, cognitive decline, and other ailments that affect our ability focus.
The Brain’s Response to Breath Practices
For thousands of years, Yogic masters and Buddhist sages have alleged that breathing practices, such as yogic panayama and meditation, can benefit the body and mind. They’ve claimed that breath work can increase our ability to focus, while calming the wondering mind. As well, practicing breath patterns can result in more positive emotions, decreasing our emotional reactivity.
Now, neuroscientists from Trinity College Dublin were able to show exactly how and why breathing patterns affect our attention span. Moreover, this new research shows that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to boost overall brain health.
Trinity College Dublin reports:
The research shows for the first time that breathing — a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices — directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.
This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser. The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, explains further:
Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made.
Melnychuk went on to say that with too much naradrenaline we can’t focus. When we have too little, we feel sluggish, and also can’t focus. Yet, it appears that during a practice of controlled breathing, we’re more likely to find a sweet spot of noradrenaline. Here, we find more sable emotions, clear thinking and sharp memory. Melnychuk continues:
This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.
Could Breath Work Help with ADHD?
Although many believe that ADHD is not a valid medical diagnosis, it is inarguable that many children suffer from behavioral issues and have difficulty focusing. Moreover, struggles due to lack of attention often carry into adulthood.
We desperately need alternative treatments to help with ADHD and other mental disorders. Many psychotropic drugs are often effective only for a short period, or require periodic increases in dosage. For example, drugs used to treat ADHD have yet to demonstrate long-term effectiveness. Studies have shown that short-term 4 to 6 week results are common.
It appears that Melnychuk et. al. research shows that breath practices are a potential non-pharmacological treatment for attention-compromised conditions like ADHD. Therefore, additional research in this field may spur the development of effective alternative treatments.
Breath Practices and Brain Health
Furthermore, it appears that controlled breathing could be the reason for the many cognitive benefits of meditation. Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study, states:
Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this – using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”
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