When you think of the most important muscle of your body, what comes to mind? Is it your legs, allowing you to walk, run, sit, and more? How about your heart, tirelessly pumping blood and oxygen throughout your system? These are, of course, vital muscles. But if you ask me, there’s one that’s even more essential: the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is vital for breathing, an unconscious action that our bodies are constantly performing. However, there’s a good chance that the way you’re breathing could be maximized, benefiting your health across the board. We breathe between 18,000 and 22,000 times a day, so this is an important muscle to ensure is efficient. Especially in this cold and flu season, it’s important to be able to restore rib cage 3D movements and your lung capacity following an illness, to help reduce shortness of breath sensations.
In this guide, I’ll go over the physiology of the diaphragm and ribcage, the three zones of respiration, how to improve 3-dimensional ribcage expansion for your breath, and how mindfulness of the bodily process of breathing can lead to a healthier life for you overall. Let’s take a look.
Understanding the physiology of the diaphragm
The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits just underneath your lungs. Its main role is respiration, or breathing, by flexing to control the intake of air into your lungs. The diaphragm contracts and flattens, allowing your lungs to fill with oxygen or inhale. Then, the diaphragm relaxes and domes, allowing the lungs to deflate and exhale. Lungs aren’t capable of any of these motions on their own, meaning respiration would be impossible without the diaphragm.
You can think of the diaphragm as your body’s midpoint, a central spot for multiple biological processes to cross paths. The diaphragm is intersected by the esophagus (which connects your throat to your stomach), the vena cava (a major vein that carries oxygen-poor blood to the heart from the rest of the body), and the aorta (an artery that supplies oxygen rich blood to the rest of the body.)
There are several other key functions of a healthy, functioning diaphragm, including:
- Balance – Asymmetrical, imbalanced breathing can actually have an impact on your balance. When your diaphragm is properly engaged, however, you’ll find it easier to stay steady on your feet.
- Circulation – In addition to helping your lungs pump oxygen into your blood, the diaphragm aids in circulation by moving blood throughout the chest via the surrounding blood vessels. Your diaphragm is also the platform that your heart sits on top of.
- Digestion – Because the esophagus passes through the diaphragm on its way from the mouth to the stomach and intestines, the diaphragm has an impact on digestion as well. It plays a role in stopping acid from rising up the esophagus and helps to move food toward the stomach with its rhythmic motion.
- Detoxification – Your diaphragm is an essential part of your body’s natural, built-in detox process. The pumping of a healthy diaphragm is how your body expels excess hormones and chemicals from the body, keeping your levels at a natural stasis.
- Emotional response – Breathing is an essential element of a healthy nervous system, which is responsible for all sensations you feel—including emotional responses. Your diaphragm keeps the nervous system working optimally, which will in turn allow you to regulate emotions more effectively.
- Stress response – Finally, your diaphragm plays a role in your natural stress response via the vagus nerve. This nerve is directly stimulated by the diaphragm and is responsible for your parasympathetic response to stress. When your diaphragm is working effectively, you’ll be able to better control the involuntary physical feelings of stress in the body.
The diaphragm, breathing, and posture
Odds are, you’ve already heard of the many, many benefits of good posture. But did you know that it can help your breathing as well?
Because the diaphragm requires space to expand and contract fully, better posture improves its function, and can therefore improve the quality of your breathing. If your diaphragm isn’t working efficiently, it can slow down countless other processes in the body.
One reason for this link between posture and breathing lies in the spine, which is connected to the diaphragm at two points in the lumbar region (lower back). When the spine is bent over in this area, it constricts the space, stopping the diaphragm from fully expanding, or conversely, if the ribcage is too arched backwards, it flattens the dome-shape of the diaphragm, affecting its ability to contract. This means that your lungs won’t be able to fill completely, leading to problems in all of the systems we outlined earlier.
One of the best, simplest things you can do for your health is to work on a good neutral posture while sitting and standing. By keeping your shoulders forward and your spine straight and aligned, you’ll give your diaphragm the space and length it needs to move fully, providing more oxygen to the body and benefiting your systems across the board.
With that said, posture isn’t the only method to a healthy, functioning diaphragm. Let’s take a look at an essential practice known as breath control.
Breath Control: How to Breathe in 3D
For most of us, the act of breathing is taken for granted. Because our bodies (thankfully) perform this action automatically, we don’t often think about how we’re breathing. However, with some basic knowledge and mindfulness, you can start breathing with intention, benefitting your entire body.
As you know, the lungs are surrounded by your ribcage—a three-dimensional cavity with room for them to expand fully. What you might not know, however, is the chest is not the only place you can direct your breath to. There are actually three zones of the body for breath to go to, each of which has a different function:
Zone 1: Abdominal
Have you ever noticed the way a baby breathes while they’re asleep? It’s common to see an infant’s belly rise and fall as they breathe, indicating that they’re unconsciously directing their breath into the abdominal respiratory zone. This is the most calming, relaxing zone to place your breath, as it allows your diaphragm the greatest amount of space to expand and contract.
If the muscles in the abdominal area are tense or stiff from scar tissue, or if your digestive organs are bloated and taking up excess space in your abdomen, it will be much harder to direct your breath to this zone. If this happens, the breath only makes it as far as the zone above it.
Zone 2: Thoracic
The thoracic (chest) respiratory zone is the one used for more strenuous activity, such as cardio, heavy lifting, or other exercises. It’s primarily controlled by the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, which exist between your ribs, spreading the ribcage to accommodate your expanding lungs.
The thoracic zone strikes a balance between deep breathing and fast respiration, providing your body with the elevated levels of oxygen needed for physical tasks. However, if your intercostal muscles are tense or restricted, your thoracic zone won’t be able to expand fully forwards, sideways and backwards in a full 3D effect. Also, if the large back paraspinal muscles (running vertically beside the spine) are too tight or holding tension, it can limit the back body expansion required of the diaphragm. This forces your breath to occur in the third and final respiratory zone.
Zone 3: Clavicular
The clavicular zone is named after the clavicle, or collarbone, indicating its position in the area between your throat and chest. This is your body’s zone of choice for high-stress, emergency situations. If you’ve ever noticed someone’s shoulders heaving up and down as they gasp for air, it’s because they were breathing into the clavicular zone.
This zone of respiration is reserved for emergency oxygen supply in highly stressful situations. However, it’s not sustainable and won’t provide enough air to the lungs for long periods. It’s common to see clavicular breathing in people who are experiencing intense anxiety, panic attacks, shock, asthma attacks, and other high-stress situations. Excessive use of these neck muscles or accessory breathing muscles with everyday activities can also make the body think you are in a fight or flight or sympathetic response, thereby increasing stress levels.
Ideally, you should be breathing from the abdominal and thoracic respiratory zones at all times. Not only will this provide your body with more oxygen for the many systems that need it, but it will also help keep your feelings of stress at a manageable level, thanks to the vagus nerve and its connection to your nervous system.
However, simply knowing about the zones of breathing isn’t enough to break old habits and change the way you perform such an automatic action. That’s where breathwork comes in.
Breathe Easy with ProActive Pilates
For such a seemingly simple action, we can actually gain huge control over our bodies by simply being mindful of our breathing. Switching your breathing instincts to benefit circulation, digestion, and stress response is important, but it’s not something that can be transformed overnight.
Through my work as a physiotherapist, I’ve been able to help countless clients become mindful of their bodies, posture and their breathing, offering them greater control of this essential process. Through careful physical guidance, I can help you learn about the different zones of respiration, putting you on the path toward controlled, mindful breathing. I’ll also work with you to lengthen or release tension in the various muscle groups in your abdominals, back, chest, and neck, allowing each zone the space and mobility it needs to work optimally.
As your breathing expert, I’m here to help you make the most of this seemingly basic process. With time and practice, each breath will feel fuller, providing the body with ample oxygen, circulating blood, digesting food, and taking control of your emotional regulation and stress response.
If you’re curious to learn more about the link between breathing, posture, and the diaphragm, or if you’re ready to experience the transformative effects of 3D ribcage expansion for yourself, I’m here to help. Don’t hesitate to book your initial consultation.