Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing

Erik Peper, Lauren Mason and Cindy Huey

After having constant abdominal pain, severe cramps, and losing 15 pounds from IBS, I found myself in the hospital bed where all the doctors could offer me was morphine to reduce the pain. I searched on my smart phone for other options. I saw that abdominal breathing could help. I put my hands on my stomach and tried to expand it while I inhaled. All that happened was that my chest expanded and my stomach did not move.  I practiced and practiced and finally, I could breathe lower. Within a few hours, my pain was reduced. I continued breathing this way many times. Now, two years later, I no longer have IBS and have regained 20 pounds.

                        –                       21-year old woman who previously had severe IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) affects between 7% to 21% of the general population and is a chronic condition. The symptoms usually include abdominal cramping, discomfort or pain, bloating, loose or frequent stools and constipation and can significantly reduce the quality of life (Chey et al, 2015). A precursor of IBS in children is called recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) which affects between 0.3 to 19% of school children (Chitkara et al, 2005).  Both IBS and RAP appear to be functional illnesses, as no organic causes have been identified to explain the symptoms. In the USA, this results in more than 3.1 physician visits and 5.9 million prescriptions written annually. The total direct and indirect cost of these services exceeds $20 billion (Chey et al, 2015).  Multiple factors may contribute to IBS, such as genetics, food allergies, previous treatment with antibiotics, severity of infection, psychological status and stress. More recently, changes in the intestinal and colonic microbiome resulting in small intestine bacterial overgrowth are suggested as another risk factor (Dupont, 2014).

Generally, standard medical treatments (reassurance, dietary manipulation and of pharmacological therapy) are often ineffective in reducing abdominal IBS and other abdominal symptoms (Chey et al, 2015), while complementary and alternative approaches such as relaxation and cognitive therapy are more effective than traditional medical treatment (Vlieger et, 2008).  More recently, heart rate variability training to enhance sympathetic/ parasympathetic balance appears to be a successful strategy to treat functional abdominal pain (FAB) in children (Sowder et al, 2010). Sympathetic/parasympathetic balance can be enhanced by increasing heart rate variability (HRV), which occurs when a person breathes at their resonant frequency which is usually between 5-7 breaths per minute.  For most people, it means breathing much slower, as slow abdominal breathing appears to be a self-control strategy to reduce symptoms of IBS, RAP and FAP.

This article describes how a young woman healed herself from IBS with slow abdominal breathing without any therapeutic coaching, reviews how slower diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal breathing) may reduce symptoms of IBS, explores the possibility that breathing is more than increasing sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, and suggests some self-care strategies to reduce the symptoms of IBS.

Healing IBS-a case report

After being diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome her Junior year of high school, doctors told Cindy her condition was incurable and could only be managed at best, although she would have it throughout her entire life. With adverse symptoms including excessive weight loss and depression, Cindy underwent monthly hospital visits and countless tests, all which resulted in doctors informing her that her physical and psychological symptoms were due to her untreatable condition known as IBS, of which no one had ever been cured. When doctors offered her what they believed to be the best option: morphine, something Cindy describes now as a “band-aid,” she was left feeling discouraged. Hopeless and alone in her hospital bed, she decided to take matters into her own hands and began to pursue other options. From her cell phone, Cindy discovered something called “diaphragmatic breathing,” a technique which involved breathing through the stomach. This strategy could help to bring warmth to the abdominal region by increasing blood flow throughout abdomen, thereby relieving discomfort of the bowel. Although suspicious of the scientific support behind this method, previous attempts at traditional western treatment had provided no benefit to recovery; therefore, she found no harm in trying. Lying back flat against the hospital bed, she relaxed her body completely, and began to breathe. Immediately, Cindy became aware that she took her breath in her chest, rather than her stomach. Pushing out all of her air, she tried again, this time gasping with inhalation. Delighted, she watched as air flooded into her stomach, causing it to rise beneath her hands, while her chest remained still. Over time, Cindy began to develop more awareness and control over her newfound strategy. While practicing, she could feel her stomach and abdomen becoming warmer. Cindy shares that for the first time in years, she felt relief from pain, causing her to cry from happiness. Later that day, she was released from the hospital, after denying any more pain medication from doctors.

Cindy continues to practice her diaphragmatic breathing as much as she can, anywhere at all, at the sign of pain or discomfort, as well as preventatively prior to what she anticipates will be a stressful situation. Since beginning her practice, Cindy says that her IBS is pretty much non-existent now. She no longer feels depressed about her situation due to her developed ability to manage her condition. Overall, she is much happier. Moreover, since this time two years ago, Cindy has gained approximately 20 pounds, which she attributes to eating a lot more. In regard to her success, she believes it was her drive, motivation, and willingness to dedicate herself fully to the breathing practice which allowed for her to develop skills and prosper. Although it was not natural for her to breathe in her stomach at first, a trait which she says she often recognizes in others, Cindy explains it was due to necessity which caused her to shift her previously-ingrained way of breathing. Upon publicly sharing her story with others for the first time, Cindy reflects on her past, revealing that she experienced shame for a long time as she felt that she had a weird condition, related to abnormal functions, which no one ever talks about. On the experience of speaking out, she affirms that it was very empowering, and hopes to encourage others coping with a situation similar to hers that there is in fact hope for the future. Cindy continues to feel empowered, confident, and happy after taking control of her own body, and acknowledges that her condition is a part of her, something of which she is proud.

Watch the in-depth interview with Cindy Huey in which she describes her experience of discovering diaphragmatic breathing and how she used this to heal herself of IBS

Video 1. Interview with Cindy Huey describing how she healed herself from IBS.

Background perspective

“Why should the body digest food or repair itself, when it will be someone else’s lunch”         (paraphrased from Sapolsky (2004), Why zebras do not get ulcers).

From an evolutionary perspective, we were prey and needed to be on guard (vigilant) to the presence of predators. In the long forgotten past, the predators were tigers, snakes, and the carnivore for whom we were food as well as other people. Today, the same physiological response pathways are still operating, except that the pathways are now more likely to be activated by time urgency, work and family conflict, negative mental rehearsal and self-judgment.  This is reflected in the common colloquial phrases: “It makes me sick to my stomach,” “I have no stomach for it,”  “He is gutless,” “It makes me queasy,” “Butterflies in my stomach,” “Don’t get your bowels in uproar,” “Gut feelings’, or “Scared shitless.”

Whether conscious or unconscious, when threatened, our body reacts with a fight/flight/freeze response in which the blood flow is diverted from the abdomen to deep muscles used for propulsion. This results in peristalsis being reduced.  At the same time the abdomen tends to brace to protect it from injury. In almost all cases, the breathing patterns shift to thoracic breathing with limited abdominal movement. As the breathing pattern is predominantly in the chest, the person increases the risk of hyperventilation because the body is ready to run or fight.

In our clinical observations, people with IBS, small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), abdominal discomfort, anxiety and panic, and abdominal pain tend to breathe more in their chest, and when asked to take breathe, they tend to inhale in their upper chest with little or no abdominal displacement. Almost anyone who experiences abdominal pain tends to hold the abdomen rigid as if the splinting could reduce the pain. A similar phenomenon is observed with female students experiencing menstrual cramps. They tend to curl up to protect themselves and breathe shallowly in their chest instead of slowly in their abdomen, a body pattern which triggers a defense reaction and inhibits regeneration. If instead they breathe slowly and uncurl they report a significant decrease in discomfort (Gibney & Peper, 2003).

Paradoxically, this protective stance of bracing the abdomen and breathing shallowly in the chest increases breathing rate and reduces heart rate variability. It reduces and inhibits blood and lymph flow through the abdomen as the defensive posture evokes the physiology of fight/flight/freeze. The reduction in venous blood and lymph flow occurs because the ongoing compression and expansion in the abdomen is inhibited by the thoracic breathing and, moreover, the inhibition of diaphragmatic breathing. It also inhibits peristalsis and digestion. No wonder so many of the people with IBS report that they are reactive to some foods. If the GI track has reduced blood flow and reduced peristalsis, it may be less able to digest foods which would affect the bacteria in the small intestine and colon. We wonder if a risk factor that contributes to SIBO is chronic lack of abdominal movement and bracing.

Slow diaphragmatic abdominal breathing to establish health

“Digestion and regeneration occurs when the person feels safe.”

Effortless, slow diaphragmatic breathing occurs when the diaphragm descends and pushes the abdominal content downward during inhalation, which causes the abdomen to become bigger.   As the abdomen expands, the pelvic floor relaxes and descends. During exhalation, the pelvic floor muscles tighten slightly, lifting the pelvic floor and the transverse and oblique abdominal muscles contract and push the abdominal content upward against the diaphragm, allowing the diaphragm to relax and go upward, pushing the air out. The following video, 3D view of the diaphragm, from www.3D-Yoga.com by illustrates the movement of the diaphragm.

Video 2.  3D view of diaphragm by sohambliss  from www.3D-Yoga.com,

This expansion and constriction of the abdomen occurs most easily if the person is extended, whether sitting or standing erect or lying down, and the waist is not constricted. If the arches forward in a protected pattern and the spine is flexed in a c shape, it would compress the abdomen; instead, the body is long and the abdomen can move and expand during inhalation as the diaphragm descends (see figure 1). If the person holds their abdomen tight or it is constricted by clothing or a belt, it cannot expand during inhalation. Abdominal breathing occurs more easily when the person feels safe and expanded versus unsafe or fearful and collapsed or constricted.

Figure 1.  Erect versus collapsed posture note that there is less space for the abdomen to expand in the protective collapsed position. Reproduced by permission from:  Clinical Somatics (http://www.clinicalsomatics.ie/

When a person breathes slower and lower it encourages blood and lymph flow through the abdomen. As the person continues to practice slower, lower breathing, it reduces the arousal and vigilance. This is the opposite state of the flight, fight, freeze response so that blood flow is increased in abdomen, and peristalsis re-occurs.  When the person practices slow exhalation and breathing and they slightly tighten the oblique and transverse abdominal muscles as well as the pelvic floor and allow these muscles to relax during inhalation. When they breathe in this pattern effortless they, they often will experience an increase in abdominal warmth and an initiation of abdominal sounds (stomach rumble or borborygmus) which indicates that peristalsis has begun to move food through the intestines (Peper et al., 2016).  For a detailed description see https://peperperspective.com/2016/04/26/allow-natural-breathing-with-abdominal-muscle-biofeedback-1-2/

What can you do to reduce IBS

There are many factors that cause and effect IBS, some of which we have control over and some which are our out of our control, such as genetics. The purpose of proposed suggestions is to focus on those things over which you have control and reduce risk factors that negatively affect the gastrointestinal track. Generally, begin by integrating self-healing strategies that promote health which have no negative side effects before agreeing to do more aggressive pharmaceutical or even surgical interventions which could have negative side effects. Along the way, work collaboratively with your health care provider. Experiment with the following:

  • Avoid food and drinks that may irritate the gastrointestinal tract. These include coffee, hot spices, dairy products, wheat and many others.  If you are not sure whether you are reacting to a food or drink, keep a detailed log of what you eat and drink and how you feel. Do self-experimentation by eating or drinking the specific food by itself as the first food in the morning.  Then observe how you feel in the next two hours. If possible, eat only organic foods that have not been contaminated by herbicides and pesticides (see: https://peperperspective.com/2015/01/11/are-herbicides-a-cause-for-allergies-immune-incompetence-and-adhd/).
  • Identify and resolve stressors, conflicts and problems that negatively affect you and drain your energy. Keep a log to identify situations that drain or increase your subjective energy. Then do problem solving to reduce those situations that drain your energy and increase those situations that increase your energy. For a detailed description of the practice see https://peperperspective.com/2012/12/09/increase-energy-gains-decrease-energy-drains/

Often the most challenging situations that we cannot stomach are those where we feel defeated, helpless, hopeless and powerless or situations where we feel threatened– we do not feel safe. Reach out to other both friends and social services to explore how these situations can be resolved.  In some cases, there is nothing that can be done except to accept what is and go on.

  • Feel safe. As long as we feel unsafe, we have to be vigilant and are stressed which affects the GI track.  Explore the following:
    • What does safety mean for you?
    • What causes you to feel unsafe from the past or the present?
    • What do you need to feel safe?
    • Who can offer support that you feel safe?

Reflect on these questions and then explore and implement ways by which you can create feeling more safe.

  • Take breaks to regenerate. During the day, at work and at home, monitor yourself. Are you pushing yourself to complete tasks. In a 24/7 world with many ongoing responsibilities, we are unknowingly vigilant and do not allow ourselves to rest and relax to regenerate.  Do not wait till you feel tired or exhausted.  Stop earlier and take a short break.  The break can be a short walk, a cup of tea or soup, or looking outside at a tree.  During this break, think about positive events that have happened or people who love you and for whom you feel love.  When you smile and think of someone who loves you, such as a grandparent, you may relax and for that moment as you feel safe which allows regeneration to begin.
  • Observe how you inhale. Take a deep breath. If you feel you are moving upward and becoming a little bit taller, your breathing is wrong. Put one hand on your lower abdomen and the other on your chest and take a deep breath. If you observe your chest lifted upward and stomach did not expand, your breathing is wrong. You are not breathing diaphragmatically. Watch the following video, The correct way to breathe in, on how to observe your breathing and how to breathe diaphragmatically.  

 

  • Learn diaphragmatic breathing. Take time to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Practice while lying down and sitting or standing.  Let the breathing rate slow down to about six breaths per minute.  Exhale to the count of four and then let it trail off for two more counts, and inhale to the count of three and let it trail for another count. Practice this sitting and lying down (for more details on breathing see:  https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/11/a-breath-of-fresh-air-improve-health-with-breathing/.
    • Sitting position. Exhale by feeling your abdomen coming inward slightly for the count of four and trailing off for the count of two, then allow the lower ribs to widen, abdomen expand–the whole a trunk expands–as you inhale while the shoulders stay relaxed for a count of three. Allow it to trail off for one more count before you again begin to exhale. Be gentle, do not rush or force yourself. Practice this slower breathing for five minutes. Focus more on the exhalation and allowing the air to just flow in.  Give yourself time during the transition between inhalation and exhalation.
    • Lying down position. While lying on your back, place a two to five-pound weight such as a bag of rice on your stomach as shown in Figure 2.

Fig 12.5

Figure 2. Lying down and practicing breathing with two to five-pound weight on stomach (reproduced by permission from Gorter and Peper, 2011.

As you inhale push the weight upward and also feel your lower ribs widen. Then allow exhalation to occur by the weight pushing the abdominal content down which pushes the diaphragm upward. This causing the breath to flow out. As you exhale, imagine the air flowing out through your legs as if there were straws inside your legs.  When your attention wanders, smile and bring it back to imagining the air flowing down your legs during exhalation. Practice this for twenty minutes.  Many people report that during the practice the gurgling in their abdomen occurs which is a sign that peristalsis and healing is returning.

  • Observe and change your breathing during the day. Observe your breathing pattern during the day. Each time you hold your breath, gasp or breathe in your chest, interrupt the pattern and substitute slow diaphragmatic breathing for the next five breaths. Do this the whole day long. Many people observe that when they think of stressor or are worried, they hold their breath or shallow breathe in the chest. If this occurs, acknowledge the worry and focus on changing your breathing.  This does not mean that you dismiss the concern, instead for this moment you focus on breathing and then explore ways to solve the problem.

If you observed that under specific circumstance you held your breath or breathed shallowly in your chest, then whenever you anticipate that the same event will occur again, begin to breathe diaphragmatically. To do this consistently is very challenging and most people report that initially they only seem to breathe incorrectly.  It takes practice, practice and practice—mindful practice– to change.  Yet those who continue to practice often report a decrease in symptoms and feel more energy and improved quality of life.

Summary

Changing habitual health behaviors such as diet and breathing can be remarkably challenging; however, it is possible.  Give yourself enough time, and practice it many times until it becomes automatic.  It is no different from learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a sport.  Initially, it feels impossible, and with lot of practice it becomes more and more automatic. We continue to be impressed that healing is possible.  Among our students at San Francisco State University, who practice their self-healing skills for five weeks, approximately 80% report a significant improvement in their health (Peper et al., 2014).

References

Chey, W. D., Kurlander, J., & Eswaran, S. (2015). Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review. Jama313(9), 949-958.

Chitkara, D. K., Rawat, D. J., & Talley, N. J. (2005). The epidemiology of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in Western countries: a systematic review. American journal of Gastroenterology100(8), 1868-1875.

Dupont, H. L. (2014). Review article: evidence for the role of gut microbiota in irritable bowel syndrome and its potential influence on therapeutic targets. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics39(10), 1033-1042.

Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.

Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer-A NonToxic Approach to Treatment. Berkeley: North Atlantic.

Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49.

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Owl Books

Sowder, E., Gevirtz, R., Shapiro, W., & Ebert, C. (2010). Restoration of vagal tone: a possible mechanism for functional abdominal pain. Applied psychophysiology and biofeedback35(3), 199-206.

Vlieger, A. M., Blink, M., Tromp, E., & Benninga, M. A. (2008). Use of complementary and alternative medicine by pediatric patients with functional and organic gastrointestinal diseases: results from a multicenter surveyPediatrics122(2), e446-e451.


Reduce hot flashes and premenstrual symptoms with breathing

After the first week to my astonishment, I have fewer hot flashes and they bother me less. Each time I feel the warmth coming, I breathe out slowly and gently. To my surprise they are less intense and are much less frequent. I keep breathing slowly throughout the day. This is quite a surprise because I was referred for biofeedback training because of headaches that occurred after getting a large electrical shock. After 5 sessions my headaches have decreased and I can control them, and my hot flashes have decreased from 3-4 per day to 1-2 per week.                           -50 year old client

After students in my Holistic Health class at San Francisco State University practiced slower diaphragmatic breathing and begun to change their dysfunctional shallow breathing, gasping, sighing, and breath holding to diaphragmatic breathing. A number of the older female students students reported that their hot flashes decreased.  Some of  the younger female students reported  that their  menstrual cramps and discomfort were reduced by 80 to 90%  when they laid down and breathed slower and lower into their abdomen.

HF slidesThe recent  study in JAMA reported that many women continue to experience menopausal triggered hot flashes for up to  14 years. Although the article described the frequency and possible factors that were associated with the prolonged hot flashes, it did not offer helpful solutions.

Yet, there is hope besides hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women who suffer from hot flashes during menopause. The general accepted hypothesis that the drop in estrogen triggers hot flashes is incomplete.  If lowering of estrogen was the main culprit then all older post-menopausal women should have more and more hot flashes–they do not!  And, all women going through menopause should suffer; however, 20% of women go through menopause without much discomfort and very few hot flashes.

Another understanding of the dynamics of hot flashes is that the decrease in estrogen  accentuates the sympathetic/ parasympathetic imbalances that probably already existed.  Then any increase in sympathetic activation can trigger a hot flash. In many cases the triggers are events and thoughts that trigger a stress response, emotional responses such as anger, anxiety, or worry, increase caffeine intake and especially shallow chest breathing punctuated with sighs. Approximately 80% of American women tend to breathe thoracically  often punctuated with sighs and these women are more likely to experience hot flashes.  On the other hand, the 20% of women who habitually breathe diaphragmatically tend to have fewer and less intense hot flashes and often go through menopause without any discomfort.  In the superb study Drs. Freedman and Woodward (1992), taught women  who experience hot flashes to breathe  slowly and diaphragmatically which increased their heart rate variability as an indicator of sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and most importantly it reduced the the frequency and intensity of hot flashes by 50%.

Test  the breathing connection if you experience hot flashes

Take a breath into your chest and rapidly exhale with a sigh. Repeat this quickly five times.  In most cases, one minute later you will experience the beginning sensations of a hot flash.   Similarly, when you practice slow diaphragmatic breathing throughout the day and interrupt every gasp, breath holding moment, sigh or shallow chest breathing with slower diaphragmatic breathing, you will experience a significant reduction in hot flashes.

Although this breathing approach has been well documented, many people are unaware of this simple behavioral approach unlike the common recommendation for the hormone replacement therapies (HRT) to ameliorate menopausal symptoms. This is not surprising since pharmaceutical companies spent  nearly five billion dollars per year  in direct to consumer advertising for drugs and very little money is spent on advertising behavioral treatments. There is no profit for pharmaceutical companies teaching effortless diaphragmatic breathing unlike prescribing HRTs. In addition, teaching and practicing diaphragmatic breathing takes skill training and practice time–time which is not reimbursable by third party payers.

For more information, research data and breathing skills to reduce hot flash intensity,  see our article which is reprinted below.

Gibney, H.K. & Peper, E. (2003). Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings. Biofeedback, 31(3), 20-24.

Taking control: Strategies to reduce hot flashes and premenstrual mood swings*

Erik Peper, Ph.D**., and Katherine H. Gibney

San Francisco State University

After the first week to my astonishment, I have fewer hot flashes and they bother me less. Each time I feel the warmth coming, I breathe out slowly and gently. To my surprise they are less intense and are much less frequent. I keep breathing slowly throughout the day. This is quite a surprise because I was referred for biofeedback training because of headaches that occurred after getting a large electrical shock. After 5 sessions my headaches have decreased and I can control them, and my hot flashes have decreased from 3-4 per day to 1-2 per week.    -50 year old client

For the first time in years, I experienced control over my premenstrual mood swings. Each time I could feel myself reacting, I relaxed, did my autogenic training and breathing. I exhaled. It brought me back to center and calmness.    -26 year old student

Abstract

Women have been troubled by hot flashes and premenstrual syndrome for ages. Hormone replacement therapy, historically the most common treatment for hot flashes, and other pharmacological approaches for pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) appear now to be harmful and may not produce significant benefits. This paper reports on a model treatment approach based upon the early research of Freedman & Woodward to reduce hot flashes and PMS using biofeedback training of diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation, and respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Successful symptom reduction is contingent upon lowering sympathetic arousal utilizing slow breathing in response to stressors and somatic changes. We strongly recommend that effortless diaphragmatic breathing be taught as the first step to reduce hot flashes and PMS symptoms.

A long and uncomfortable history

Women have been troubled by hot flashes and premenstrual syndrome for ages. Hot flashes often result in red faces, sweating bodies, and noticeable and embarrassing discomfort. They come in the middle of meetings, in the middle of the night, and in the middle of romantic interludes. Premenstrual syndrome also arrives without notice, bringing such symptoms as severe mood swings, anger, crying, and depression.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was the most common treatment for hot flashes for decades. However, recent randomized controlled trials show that the benefits of HRT are less than previously thought and the risks—especially of invasive breast cancer, coronary artery disease, dementia, stroke and venous thromboembolism—are greater (Humphries & Gill, 2003; Shumaker, et al, 2003; Wassertheil-Smoller, et al, 2003). In addition, there is no evidence of increased quality of life improvements (general health, vitality, mental health, depressive symptoms, or sexual satisfaction) as claimed for HRT (Hays et al, 2003).

“As a result of recent studies, we know that hormone therapy should not be used to prevent heart disease. These studies also report an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, blood clots, and dementia…”  -Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (2003)

Because of the increased long-term risk and lack of benefit, many physicians are weaning women off HRT at a time when the largest population of maturing women in history (‘baby boomers’) is entering menopausal years. The desire to find a reliable remedy for hot flashes is on the front burner of many researchers’ minds, not to mention the minds of women suffering from these ‘uncontrollable’ power surges. Yet, many women are becoming increasingly leery of the view that menopause is an illness. There is a rising demand to find a natural remedy for this natural stage in women’s health and development.

For younger women a similar dilemma occurs when they seek treatment of discomfort associated with their menstrual cycle. Is premenstrual syndrome (PMS) just a natural variation in energy and mood levels? Or, are women expected to adapt to a masculine based environment that requires them to override the natural tendency to perform in rhythm with their own psychophysiological states? Instead of perceiving menstruation as a natural occurrence in which one has different moods and/or energy levels, women in our society are required to perform at the status quo, which may contribute to PMS. The feelings and mood changes are quickly labeled as pathology that can only be treated with medication.

Traditionally, premenstrual syndrome is treated with pharmaceuticals, such as birth control pills or Danazol. Although medications may alleviate some symptoms, many women experience unpleasant side effects, such as bloating or acne, and still experience a variety of PMS symptoms. Many cannot tolerate the medications. Thus, millions of women (and families) suffer monthly bouts of ‘uncontrollable’ PMS symptoms

For both hot flashes and PMS the biomedical model tends to frame the symptoms as a “structural biological problem.” Namely, the pathology occurs because the body is either lacking in, or has an excess of, some hormone. All that needs to be done is either augment or suppress hormones/symptoms with some form of drug. Recently, for example, medicine has turned to antidepressant medications to address menopausal hot flashes (Stearns, Beebe, Iyengar, & Dube, 2003).

The biomedical model, however, is only one perspective. The opposite perspective is that the dysfunction occurs because of how we use ourselves. Use in this sense means our thoughts, emotions and body patterns. As we use ourselves, we change our physiology and, thereby, may affect and slowly change the predisposing and maintaining factors that contribute to our dysfunction. By changing our use, we may reduce the constraints that limit the expression of the self-healing potential that is intrinsic in each person.

The intrinsic power of self-healing is easily observed when we cut our finger. Without the individual having to do anything, the small cut bleeds, clotting begin and tissue healing is activated. Obviously, we can interfere with the healing process, such as when we scrape the scab, rub dirt in the wound, reduce blood flow to the tissue or feel anxious or afraid. Conversely, cleaning the wound, increasing blood flow to the area, and feeling “safe” and relaxed can promote healing. Healing is a dynamic process in which both structure and use continuously affect each other. It is highly likely that menopausal hot flashes and PMS mood swings are equally an interaction of the biological structure (hormone levels) and the use factor (sympathetic/parasympathetic activation).

Uncontrollable or overly aroused?

Are the hot flashes and PMS mood swings really ‘uncontrollable?’ From a physiological perspective, hot flashes are increased by sympathetic arousal. When the sympathetic system is activated, whether by medication or by emotions, hot flashes increase and similarly, when sympathetic activity decreases hot flashes decrease. Equally, PMS, with its strong mood swings, is aggravated by sympathetic arousal. There are many self-management approaches that can be mastered to change and reduce sympathetic arousal, such as breathing, meditation, behavioral cognitive therapy, and relaxation.

Breathing patterns are closely associated with hot flashes. During sleep, a sigh generally occurs one minute before a hot flash as reported by Freedman and Woodward (1992). Women who habitually breathe thoracically (in the chest) report much more discomfort and hot flashes than women who habitually breathe diaphragmatically. Freedman, Woodward, Brown, Javaid, and Pandey (1995) and Freedman and Woodward (1992) found that hot flash rates during menopause decreased in women who practiced slower breathing for two weeks. In their studies, the control groups received alpha electroencephalographic feedback and did not benefit from a reduction of hot flashes. Those who received training in paced breathing reduced the frequency of their hot flashes by 50% when they practiced slower breathing. This data suggest that the slower breathing has a significant effect on the sympathetic and parasympathetic balance.

Women with PMS appear similarly able to reduce their discomfort. An early study utilizing Autogenic Training (AT) combined with an emphasis on warming the lower abdomen resulted in women noting improvement in dysfunctional bleeding (Luthe & Schultz, 1969, pp. 144-148). Using a similar approach, Mathew, Claghorn, Largen, and Dobbins (1979) and Dewit (1981) found that biofeedback temperature training was helpful in reducing PMS symptoms.. A later study by Goodale, Domar, and Benson (1990) found that women with severe PMS symptoms who practiced the relaxation response reported a 58% improvement in overall symptomatology as compared to a 27.2% improvement for the reading control group and a 17.0% improvement for the charting group.

Teaching control and achieving results

Teaching women to breathe effortlessly can lead to positive results and an enhanced sense of control. By effortless breathing, the authors refer to their approach to breath training, which involves a slow, comfortable respiration, larger volume of air exchange, and a reliance upon action of the muscles of the diaphragm rather than the chest (Peper, 1990). For more instructions see  the recent blog, A breath of fresh air: Improve health with breathing.

Slowing breathing helps to limit the sighs common to rapid thoracic breathing—sighs that often precede menopausal hot flashes. Effortless breathing is associated with stress reduction—stress and mood swings are common concerns of women suffering from PMS. In a pilot study Bier, Kazarian, Peper, and Gibney (2003) at San Francisco State University (SFSU) observed that when the subject practiced diaphragmatic breathing throughout the month, combined with Autogenic Training, her premenstrual psychological symptoms (anger, depressed mood, crying) and premenstrual responses to stressors were significantly reduced as shown in Figure 1.

Presentation1

Figure 1. Student’s Individual Subjective Rating in Response to PMS Symptoms.

In another pilot study at SFSU, Frobish, Peper, and Gibney (2003) trained a volunteer who suffered from frequent hot flashes to breathe diaphragmatically. The training goals included modifying breathing patterns, producing a Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA), and peripheral hand warming. RSA refers to a pattern of slow, regular breathing during which variations in heart rate enter into a synchrony with the respiration. Each inspiration is accompanied by an increase in heart rate, and each expiration is accompanied by a decrease in heart rate (with some phase differences depending on the rate of breathing). The presence of the RSA pattern is an indication of optimal balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity.

During the 11-day study period, the subject charted the occurrence of hot flashes and noted a significant decrease by day 5. However, on the evening of day 7 she sprained her ankle and experienced a dramatic increase in hot flashes on day 8. Once the subject recognized her stress response, she focused more on breathing and was able to reduce the flashes as shown in Figure 2. Presentation2

Figure 2. Subjective rating of intensity, frequency and bothersomeness of hot flashes. The increase in hot flashes coincided with increased frustration about an ankle injury.

Our clinical experience confirms the SFSU pilot studies and the previously referenced research by Freedman and Woodward (1992) and Freedman et al. (1995). When arousal is lowered and breathing is effortless, women are better able to cope with stress and report a reduction in symptoms. Habitual rapid thoracic breathing tends to increase arousal while slower breathing, especially slower exhalation, tends to relax and reduce arousal.   Learning and then applying effortless breathing reduces excessive sympathetic arousal. It also interrupts the cycle of cognitive activation, anxiety, and somatic arousal. The anticipation and frustration at having hot flashes becomes the cue to shift attention and “breathe slower and lower.” This process stops the cognitively mediated self-activation.

Successful self-regulation and the return to health begin with cognitive reframing: We are not only a genetic biological fixed (deficient) structure but also a dynamic changing system in which all parts (thoughts, emotions, behavior, diet, stress, and physiology) affect and are effected by each other. Within this dynamic changing system, there is an opportunity to implement and practice behaviors and life patterns that promote health.

Learning Diaphragmatic Breathing with and without Biofeedback

Although there are many strategies to modify respiration, biofeedback monitoring combined with respiration training is very useful as it provides real-time feedback. Chest and abdominal movement are recorded with strain gauges and heart rate can be monitored either by an electrocardiogram (EKG) or by a photoplethysmograph sensor on a finger or thumb. Peripheral temperature and electrodermal activity (EDA) biofeedback are also helpful in training. The training focuses on teaching effortless diaphragmatic breathing and encouraging the participant to practice many times during the day, especially when becoming aware of the first sensations of discomfort.

Learning and integrating effortless diaphragmatic breathing into daily life is one of the biofeedback strategies that has been successfully used as a primary or adjunctive/complementary tool for the reversal of disorders such as hypertension, migraine headaches, repetitive strain injury, pain, asthma and anxiety (Schwartz & Andrasik, 2003), as well as hot flashes and PMS.

The biofeedback monitoring provides the trainer with a valuable tool to:

  1. Observe & identify: Dysfunctional rapid thoracic breathing patterns, especially in response to stressors, are clearly displayed in real-time feedback.
  2. Demonstrate & train: The physiological feedback display helps the person see that she is breathing rapidly and shallowly in her chest with episodic sighs. Coaching with feedback helps her to change her breathing pattern to one that promotes a more balanced homeostasis.
  3. Motivate, persuade and change beliefs: The person observes her breathing patterns change concurrently with a felt shift in physiology, such as a decrease in irritability, or an increase in peripheral temperature, or a reduction in the incidence of hot flushes. Thus, she has a confirmation of the importance of breathing diaphragmatically.

In addition, we suggest exercises that integrate verbal and kinesthetic instructions, such as the following: “Exhale gently,” and “Breathe down your leg with a partner.”

Exhale Gently:

Imagine that you are holding a baby. Now with your shoulders relaxed, inhale gently so that your abdomen widens. Then as you exhale, purse your lips and very gently and softly blow over the baby’s hair. Allow your abdomen to narrow when exhaling. Blow so softly that the baby’s hair barely moves. At the same time, imagine that you can allow your breath to flow down and through your legs. Continue imagining that you are gently blowing on the baby’s hair while feeling your breath flowing down your legs. Keep blowing very softly and continuously.

Practice exhaling like this the moment that you feel any sensation associated with hot flashes or PMS symptoms. Smile sweetly as you exhale.

Breathe Down Your Legs with a Partner

Sit or lie comfortably with your feet a shoulder width apart. As you exhale softly whisper the sound “Haaaaa….” Or, very gently press your tongue to your pallet and exhale while making a very soft hissing sound.

Have your partner touch the side of your thighs. As you exhale have your partner stroke down your thighs to your feet and beyond, stroking in rhythm with your exhalation. Do not rush. Apply gentle pressure with the stroking. Do this for four or five breaths.

Now, continue breathing as you imagine your breath flowing through your legs and out your feet.

During the day remember the feeling of your breath flowing downward through your legs and out your feet as you exhale.

Learning Strategies in Biofeedback Assisted Breath Training

Common learning strategies that are associated with the more successful amelioration of hot flashes and PMS include:

  1. Master effortless diaphragmatic breathing, and concurrently increase respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Instead of breathing rapidly, such as at 18 breaths per minute, the person learns to breathe effortlessly and slowly (about 6 to 8 breaths per minute). This slower breathing and increased RSA is an indication of sympathetic-parasympathetic balance as shown in Figure 3.
  2. Practice slow effortless diaphragmatic breathing many times during the day and, especially in response to stressors.
  3. Use the physical or emotional sensations of a hot flash or mood alteration as the cue to exhale, let go of anxiety, breathe diaphragmatically and relax.
  4. Reframe thoughts by accepting the physiological processes of menstruation or menopause, and refocus the mind on positive thoughts, and breathing rhythmically.
  5. Change one’s lifestyle and allow personal schedules to flow in better balance with individual, dynamic energy levels. Presentation3Figure 3. Physiological Recordings of a Participant with PMS. This subject learned effortless diaphragmatic breathing by the fifth session and experienced a significant decrease in symptoms.

Generalizing skills and interrupting the pattern

The limits of self-regulation are unknown, often held back only by the practitioner’s and participant’s beliefs. Biofeedback is a powerful self-regulation tool for individuals to observe and modify their covert physiological reactions. Other skills that augment diaphragmatic breathing are Quieting Reflex (Stroebel, 1982), Autogenic Training (Schultz & Luthe, 1969), and mindfulness training (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). In all skill learning, generalization is a fundamental factor underlying successful training. Integrating the learned psychophysiological skills into daily life can significantly improve health—especially in anticipation of and response to stress. The anticipated stress can be a physical, cognitive or social trigger, or merely the felt onset of a symptom.

As the person learns and applies effortless breathing to daily activities, she becomes more aware of factors that affect her breathing. She also experiences an increased sense of control: She can now take action (a slow effortless breath) in moments when she previously felt powerless. The biofeedback-mastered skill interrupts the evoked frustrations and irritations associated with an embarrassing history of hot flashes or mood swings. Instead of continuing with the automatic self-talk, such as “Damn, I am getting hot, why doesn’t it just stop?” (language fueling sympathetic arousal), she can take a relaxing breath in response to the internal sensations, stop the escalating negative self-talk and allows more acceptance—a process reducing sympathetic arousal.

In summary, effortless breathing appears to be a non-invasive behavioral strategy to reduce hot flashes and PMS symptoms. Practicing effortless diaphragmatic breathing contributes to a sense of control, supports a healthier homeostasis, reduces symptoms, and avoids the negative drug side effects. We strongly recommend that effortless diaphragmatic breathing be taught as the first step to reduce hot flashes and PMS symptoms.

 I feel so much cooler. I can’t believe that my hand temperature went up. I actually feel calmer and can’t even feel the threat of a hot flash. Maybe this breathing does work!  –Menopausal patient after initial training in diaphragmatic breathing

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*We thank Candy Frobish, Mary Bier and Dalainya Kazarian for their helpful contributions to this research.

**For communications contact: Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Healing Studies, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132; Tel: (415) 338 7683; Email: epeper@sfsu.edu; website: http://www.biofeedbackhealth.org; blog: http://www.peperperspective.come