Blood pressure medications are life-saving drugs. For women on prescriptions, they keep systolic (top) and diastolic (bottom) numbers within a safe range, preventing heart attacks and heart failure. The down side, though, is that many come with significant side effects, from dizziness to a hacking dry cough. Sometimes, managing the symptoms of an illness with medications that have severe side effects feels like swapping six of one for a half dozen of the other.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a treatment that lowered blood pressure naturally? That’s the goal with breath training — a strengthening exercise that, according to new research, may be as effective as medication at lowering blood pressure.
What is breath training?
Described as “strength training for your breathing muscles,” breath training is any breathing exercise that makes your diaphragm and other respiratory muscles work harder than they do at rest. It sounds challenging, but it’s safe (for most people) and doesn’t cause much discomfort. Pulmonologists often prescribe these exercises for their asthmatic patients, and voice teachers use them as a tool for strengthening their students’ respiratory muscles.
The new research refers to breath training as inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST), a technique that uses a hand-held device to create resistance when a patient breathes in.
What was the study?
IMST is a well-established technique; scientific and medical communities have known for some time that strengthening breathing muscles can improve cardiovascular health. However, the idea that just five minutes of daily IMST can lower BP is relatively new.
To find out whether five minutes of high-intensity IMST is enough to lower blood pressure, the researchers collected data from five studies on breath training. In all five studies, one group of participants received true breath training, while a control group received “sham” training.
In four of the studies, participants in the breath training groups used a device called a “pressure transducer.” (Think of the pressure transducer as a hand-held mouthpiece that sucks air as you try to suck in.) In the fifth study, participants used a small device called a Powerbreathe. The Powerbreathe works differently; the user has to breathe in forcefully enough to open a valve, which releases the air inside the device. Once the person breathe out, it resets.
Why is this research important?
Each study was six weeks long, and each day, the participants completed 30 breathing repetitions using the devices. (They could take breaks after every set of six breaths.) Once a week, the study authors increased the resistance on the devices to account for improvements.
The results? In one to two weeks, every participant using the breathing devices saw improvements in their BP readings — this was true across all five studies. After six weeks, they experienced impressive drops in BP.
“We found that doing 30 breaths per day for six weeks lowers systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury,” Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and researcher for the Powerbreathe study, told NPR. According to Craighead, that’s about the same benefit you would see from walking, running, or cycling. Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic, added, “That’s the type of reduction you see with a blood pressure drug.”
Does this study prove that breath training lowers BP?
Like all studies, this one has limitations. Its authors made sure that every participant’s breathing device was set to the same resistance level and that all participants completed the training. However, the authors could not control the participants’ diets or lifestyle habits, which can have a dramatic effect on blood pressure. (What if the people whose BP improved with breath training also began exercising more and eating less sodium?)
Additionally, the authors admit that mature adults tend to have higher systolic blood pressure (the top number) than young adults. In the study, mature adults experienced the most impressive drop in BP. This implies that mature adults naturally have a bigger range to drop, so younger adults shouldn’t expect the same results from using a breath training device.
Still, a breath training tool like Powerbreathe is a great option for someone with high blood pressure who can’t do aerobic exercise. It’s sold online and in stores (Buy from Amazon, $69.90), but it may not be HSA eligible. If you’re not ready to pay for it, practice diaphragmatic breathing (slow, deep breaths that focus on expanding the rib cage and belly) instead. Follow along with this video for five minutes each day.
Bottom line? Breath training is not a replacement for a prescription, but it’s a relaxing and natural way to reduce BP. Talk to your doctor about whether the Powerbreathe is a good idea for you. If you get the go ahead and notice that the device is helping, have another conversation with your doctor about reducing your BP medication. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is an excellent option, too. (Click through to see how lowering your morning cortisol levels can reduce your blood pressure.)
Don’t give up on the holistic approach to your cardiovascular health — it might be the key to lowering your blood pressure for good.