This simple breathing exercise could reduce stress during the pandemic

We’re all probably doing plenty of things to try to reduce anxiety during the pandemic. We exercise, make bread, trawl the internet, maybe eat more than we should (like we did when we were college freshmen), and maybe drink more than we should (like we did before college midterms or finals). The one thing few of us might have considered is to stop, pause, and just breathe.

But the kind of breathing we’re talking about isn’t just inhaling and exhaling. Louis J. Ignarro, Ph.D., who won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his work in medicine, suggests the best way to free your body of the stress caused during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown is to breathe more purposefully — inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth (via Forbes).

This breathing technique helps your body produce more of a gaseous molecule called nitric oxide, which our arteries need to regulate our bodies’ cardiovascular function. Ignarro says nitric oxide (or NO) relaxes the muscles around the arteries, allowing the arteries to widen even more. The simple action of introducing NO into our system allows our blood pressure to drop, and increases blood flow to our organs.

It is critical to breathe through your nose and exhale through your mouth

Do we really need to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth? Ignarro says yes, because the cells and tissues in your nose are what produces nitric oxide. So if we inhale through the nose, the NO gets pushed into our lungs, and boosts oxygen delivery to different parts of our bodies. The simple process actually results in relaxing our blood vessels and muscle tissue — especially when we are stressed. Exhaling through the nose is seen as wasteful because you’d be taking NO away from the lungs where it is needed, so its best to exhale through the mouth.

The Nobel prize winner explains that using this breathing style not only makes you feel better, it actually gives your lungs a boost. “The NO produced by our own cells can interact with molecules in invading cells such as bacteria, parasites and viruses to kill them or inhibit their replication or spread,” he says (via Forbes).

Nitric oxide is being tested as a possible treatment for COVID-19

Ignarro’s work with NO has paved the way for doctors to see whether inhaling nitric oxide can not only help treat patients with the coronavirus, but actually keep people from getting the virus, too. Nitric oxide is used at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for respiratory and cardiac problems, where doctors say NO helps people who suffer from respiratory failure, and has antiviral effects. 

“At the time they used it they weren’t sure exactly why it was beneficial. But since then there’s been a lot of bench laboratory studies looking at its effect on viruses, bacteria, etc.,” the hospital’s director of respiratory care at MGH, Robert Kacmarek tells WBUR. “That’s the reason we’re doing these studies, because we believe that the combined effect of improving oxygenation — because all of these patients have oxygenation problems — and the potential antiviral effect of the drug may change the course of the disease in an individual.” The studies are promising because doctors have used NO once before, during the 2003 SARS epidemic, and there is some evidence the gas can destroy or inactivate viruses. The virus that causes SARs is similar to the one that is causing COVID-19.

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