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From a burning sensation in your chest to a sour taste in your mouth, 15 million Americans feel these symptoms of acid reflux every single day. Yet there’s a tool that you have with you right now that can use to help manage these symptoms. That tool is your breath. If breathing too quickly or too shallowly raise the risks of acid reflux, abdominal breathing (also known as deep belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) may be the answer.
Your lower esophageal sphincter (LES) keeps food from traveling up from your stomach into your esophagus. When you have acid reflux, that’s often because this sphincter couldn’t do its job correctly. However, what many people don’t realize is that your esophagus traverses your diaphragm, an incredibly powerful muscle that draws air into your lungs.
Research suggests that how you use your diaphragm while breathing may influence your LES, which in turn may affect your acid reflux symptoms.
For example, the American Journal of Physiology shared research that linked hyperventilation or incomplete exhalation with reduced motor function in your esophagus. And a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Gastroenterology found that a diaphragm that was too tight caused the LES to relax too much, making it less effective.
As its name implies, abdominal or belly breathing opens your abdomen. This expansion lets your diaphragm move more. With belly breathing, that diaphragm can travel up and tighten harder on your lungs so you exhale more air out. It also allows the diaphragm to expand deeper into your belly to help you inhale more.
In a randomized, controlled study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers studied patients over the course of nine months. The researchers concluded that proper breathing “can improve GERD” and that “this non-pharmacological lifestyle intervention could help to reduce the disease burden of GERD.”
To practice the easiest form of belly breathing consciously, lie down in a comfortable spot and let your breath move naturally. Many people find that their chest rises and falls. What you will want to do is move that breath down into your belly.
Place a hand just under your ribs and another hand on your chest. Take a long, slow breath in through your nose and focus on feeling your stomach expand. The hand under your rib cage should rise while the hand on your chest shouldn’t move at all.
As you exhale, focus on tightening your abdominal muscles and pulling them in toward your spine. The hand under your rib cage should drop while the hand on your chest shouldn’t move.
While many people find it easier to practice while lying on the ground, once you’ve gotten used to belly breathing you can do it while standing or while sitting. Remember: These are practices that are to be done away from mealtimes. They are meant to gradually train your body to get used to engaging the diaphragm even while breathing unconsciously. None of these focused practices are to be done on a full stomach.
Slightly more elaborate dDiaphragmatic breathing practices are is also found in many meditative and yogic traditions. In Kapalbhati Pranayama, belly breathing is done in a lotus position 20 times. In Bhastrika (bellows breath), belly breaths are down forcefully every second for 10 breaths, 20 breaths and 30 breaths with a 30-second break between each set. And in Anulom-Vilom Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing exercise), belly breaths are done for five minutes as you inhale through the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Once again, please note that these are just different ways to train your body to do automatic, unconscious belly breathing all the time. These strenuous practices are not meant to be done after meals as they can even result in acid reflux getting worse. Do these practices away from meals, to get your diaphragm engaged and moving. During and after a meal, just pay conscious attention, to ensure that your belly goes in and out, as you breathe in and out gently.
Whatever form of belly breath you choose to train your body with, take care of your breath. Avoid smoking. Install an air filter in your home. Do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day. These simple self-care strategies can help you to strengthen your breath so you can better face health challenges like acid reflux.
Editor’s Note: While research suggests belly breathing helps, everyone is different and breathing exercises alone may not be adequate in your specific scenario. Please consult a functional medicine practitioner for specialized advice if symptoms persist.