The Sigh-ence of Breathing

Guest Author: Samuel Whiting


Breathing is one of the most fascinating behaviors controlled by the nervous system from regulation of gas exchange essential for life to complex and still unknown brain networks responsible for modulation of almost every human function including metabolic rate, vocalization, emotions, cognition, posture, sleep-wake state, anxiety, panic, focus, stress regulation and beyond.

We often associate a sigh as an expression of sadness, relief, or exhaustion; however, the latest scientific research has found that a sigh also occurs spontaneously to ensure that the alveoli in the lungs reinflate to enhance gas exchange and preserve lung integrity by reinflating collapsed alveoli.

The science of a sigh was discovered by Jack Feldman and colleagues and is distinctly controlled by bombesin-like neuropeptide pathways which signal to breathing control centers in the brain stem. These neurons were found to comprise the core control circuit for sighing and integrating brain regions responsible for monitoring physiological and perhaps emotional states.

The research highlights that in excitation of these neurons and subsequent secretion of bombesin like neuropeptides activates neurons in the preBotC, the brain stem region responsible for driving inspiration, to initiate sighs by altered neuronal activity which converts normal breathing rhythms into sighs, resulting in a double-sized breath.

In discovering the signaling circuitry for sighing and identifying its role in the re-expansion of alveoli to promote lung integrity, research now looks to investigate psychological benefits to better understand the full neural circuit, its properties, and the influence that sighing has on normal breathing and nervous system states. From this perspective, we consider breath as a behavior, which is labile, interconnected, and a bi-lateral biological function meaning that state of being can influence breathing behavior and state of breathing can influence the state of being.

The bombesin neuropeptide pathways suggest potential pharmacologic approaches for controlling excessive sighing (or overbreathing), which is known to cause a cascade of symptoms including anxiety, hypertension, and metabolic dysfunction and beyond by inducing sighs in individuals that cannot breathe deeply on their own. This raises an additional consideration to the potential role that daily breathing practice has on mitigating these issues through building a robust toolkit for physiological and psychological self-regulation in real-time.

As we know, sighs play an important role in biological function. Furthermore, a 2020 paper suggests that sighs can become learned behaviors via operant learning for the rewarding effects that a sigh potentially reinforces in situations that require physiological and or psychological regulation. The findings point towards further exploration of learned breath behaviors, maladaptive plasticity, respiratory dysregulation, and how breath practice can serve as a noninvasive amelioration of psychophysiological symptoms for general health and wellbeing.

And finally, a new report that just came out last week observed that our visual environment of reading affects sigh generation but not normal breathing. These findings suggest that reading on a smartphone may cause inhibition of sighs due to sustained task attention and acute cognitive load in retinal ganglion cells (ipRGC) from blue light exposure which causes overactivity of the prefrontal cortex. The results of lower cognitive performance while reading on a smartphone versus a paper medium supported these findings.

Solutions to help regulate in real-time:

  1. Long-form reading on larger screens or paper/books

  2. Deliberately sigh every 2-4 minutes

  3. Take a break from screen time, go outside and if possible, shift into panoramic vision and optic flow states 2-3x per day or every 45 minutes during work hours.

* Thanks for the first two Dr. Andrew Huberman


Source: Our Breath Collective