Breath is a powerful tool for your wellbeing, and possibly for your fertility, too.
Air is essential to life, and from our very first wail—and intake of air—as newborns, our breathing is monitored and evaluated throughout our lives as a sign of health status. It’s a given that any physical exam will include a stethoscope on the chest, with the commands to “Breathe in,” “Hold it,” and then “Breathe out.”
“Each breath brings in oxygen that gets absorbed by red blood cells and toted around your body,” explains John Porcari, Ph.D., a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. “Every part of the body requires oxygen to function properly.” The blood also collects the toxic waste from your muscles and tissues, including carbon dioxide, which gets dumped in the lungs so it can be exhaled from the body.
But most of us think very little of our breathing, as long as our lungs seem to be working properly. And generally they work just fine without our having to think of them. Breathing happens automatically, like heartbeat or brain function. But unlike these other two vital functions, breathing is also under conscious command. And that’s where things get interesting.
There are reasons why exercise instructors advise their students to inhale and exhale deeply during exertion, why breathing techniques can help women deal with childbirth and other pain, and why breathing is an essential part of yoga and other relaxation techniques. If you haven’t thought about your breathing much in the past, now--when you're trying to get pregnant--is a good time to start.
A “proper” breath takes in air through the nose, which filters and warms it before it reaches the lungs. The lungs expand with the breath, and your chest and belly expand at the same time. When air is released during exhalation, the chest and abdomen contract a bit.
Even if you sometimes deviate from this model breathing—you have to breathe through your mouth because your nose is stuffed up, or you take shallow breaths or hyperventilate when you’re nervous—you’re unlikely to be seriously harmed. It’s only when breathing is chronically impaired, like from asthma, cigarette smoking, or exposure to other toxins such as asbestos, that real damage can occur. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore how you breathe. People who tend to breathe shallowly, for instance, may often feel fatigued. “Deep breathing supplies the cells with more oxygen and can help prevent fatigue or re-energize the body,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. A yawn may be a physiological response to fatigue and shallow breathing.
Breathing keeps us alive, but there are additional benefits, too. In exercise, your breathing technique can help or hinder your workouts. For example, in strengthening exercises, it’s natural to want to inhale and hold the breath briefly to stabilize the center of the body. But holding the breath that way can increase blood pressure. Instead, be sure to exhale with each exertion (such as lifting a weight or stepping up), inhaling in between. And during stretching exercises, instructors generally recommend that you “inhale before the stretch and then exhale when you execute the stretch to create more room,” says Olson.
Breathing’s benefits in pain management are best known through the Lamaze technique, in which birthing mothers use specific breathing exercises to manage labor and delivery. “Lamaze breathing provides extra oxygen to those tissues that are in pain and cramping,” says Olson. “It helps lessen the pain, keep you as relaxed as possible, and focus your attention so you can push effectively.”
The power of the breath to energize, focus, and ameliorate pain has been explored in many cultures for thousands of years. In yoga, working with the breath is called pranayama, or controlling the prana, which is the life force. There are numerous forms of breathing used for different purposes: the soothing three-part breath that fills the lungs, belly, and entire torso; the awareness-inducing ocean-sounding breath; and the energizing and dramatic breath of fire.
Breathing and Fertility
Because breathing is vital to every life force, it’s easy to make the leap that it must be crucial for fertility, too. But be wary of outrageous, disturbing, or possibly even plausible claims you may find online (or elsewhere) linking breathing to fertility. For instance, one old article claims you can catch infertility by sharing the air of other couples struggling to conceive. Other claims are more intriguing but still unproven, such as techniques that promise to promote implantation by “oxygenating the placenta.”
As compelling as some of these promises may sound, medical experts warn that you can’t pin your hopes for conception on breathing practices. “I haven’t seen any data to support the use of breathing techniques for fertility,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF and co-author of Conquering Infertility (Penguin, 2004).
To find a link, you have to add a middle step: “There is data to show that stress can decrease fertility, and de-stressing can help increase fertility rates,” Domar says. “Relaxation techniques, such as a 20-minute meditation, and simple breathing techniques, such as a 20-second mini-meditation, can both work,” she explains. In other words, relaxation might help improve fertility . . . and breathing exercises can help you relax. (To try one of Domar’s 20-second breathing exercises, see the box below.)
Domar promotes breathing exercises to help keep women stay calm while they’re trying to conceive (and especially while they’re undergoing fertility treatments), but she warns against placing too much emphasis on these exercises alone. “If you are stressed and having difficulty getting pregnant, then it’s time to move on to more complex stress-reduction techniques than a 20-second breathing technique,” she says.
Twenty Seconds to Relaxation
There is some research showing that stress management can improve conception success, and studies show that even quick breathing techniques can help you regain your equilibrium. There’s no downside to trying these techniques; they’re free, easy, and will help you feel better and more relaxed. Domar’s clinic uses several, including this one:
Close your eyes. Inhale deeply. Say the number 10 to yourself. Exhale.
Keeping your eyes closed, inahle deeply again. Now say the number 9 to yourself, then exhale.
Repeat this exercise, counting down from 10 to 0.
Try to keep your mind focused on the number you're thinking of, and clear of other thoughts.
Practice this technique whenever you can (in bed, in the shower, over breakfast, while commuting, at work, etc.). It will help you stay calm from the first day you decide you want a baby, through conception, morning sickness, the third-trimester indigestion, childbirth, and even parenting. The journey has just begun. Take it one breath at a time.
A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Conceive Magazine.
Related Topics: Boost Your Fertility; Fertility Health; Fertility Threats