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What is Bone Breathing? (+2 guided exercises)

Could daily life itself, and the mess of madness that comes with it, be negatively affecting your bone health? 

Think about it. There are mounting deadlines at work. The balancing act of maintaining relationships. And the downright uncertainty of everything right now.

And that’s all before you turn on the news…

It can all get pretty stressful, right?

And studies reveal that chronic stress can chip away at your bone density.

But don’t worry, research shows deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress. So today I’m sharing a 2-minute deep breathing exercise called “bone breathing.”

I like to think of it as meditation for your bones.

But first, let’s take a look at the role stress plays in bone health and how deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress-related bone loss.

(Click here to jump straight to the exercises if you prefer)

How Does Stress Affect Bone Density?

Chronic stress causes accelerated bone loss and weaker bone quality. That’s because stress leads to hyperactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis.

It’s a complex system, but here’s the basic run down. The HPA axis represents the way the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands interact with each other. 

Your hypothalamus is located in your brain. And it activates the pituitary gland when triggered by stress. In turn, this bean-shaped gland stimulates the adrenal glands. 

And your adrenals release cortisol, a major stress hormone, into your bloodstream.

So more stress leads to more cortisol output. And overexposure to cortisol coupled with other stress hormones can disrupt many of your body’s processes, including bone formation

What’s more, chronic stress has been linked to increased systemic inflammation –– an underlying cause of bone loss. 

Inflammation over-activates osteoclast cells that break down bone. Plus, certain inflammatory cytokines can even cause cell death in osteoblasts, the cells that build bone!

In other words, chronic stress slows bone development while stimulating bone break down. This eventually leads to bone loss. 

So we know that stress plays a key role in bone health. And the results of a study involving 11,020 postmenopausal women help put it into real-life context.

After taking measurements of their bone mineral density (BMD) at the femoral neck, lumbar spine, and total hip, the subjects were monitored for six years. 

At the end of the study, results showed that high social stress was linked to decreased BMD. In fact, each point higher in social strain (measured with a self-reporting questionnaire) was associated with 0.082% greater loss of femoral neck BMD. 

It also showed a 0.108% greater loss of total hip BMD. And a 0.069% greater loss of lumbar spine BMD. That may not sound like a lot, but if you move a couple points up the “stress scale” the excess bone loss will start to add up!

But the good news is that lowering your stress levels can help reduce your risk of excess bone loss.

And a great option to lower stress is bone breathing exercises.

What is Bone Breathing?

If you do yoga, bone breathing won’t be completely new to you as this technique has roots in yogic procedures. 

But if it all sounds like Greek to you, that’s okay. This practice is very simple. 

Bone breathing involves focusing attention on various parts of the skeleton as you take slow, deep breaths. Easy, right?  

Ancient Taoist masters used to refer to the practice as bone marrow washing. 

It was their belief that guiding the breath through the bone marrow with attention created a positive flow of energy that “washed” the bones. 

Although no specific research has been done on the particular claims of bone washing, there’s a lot to support that deep breathing exercises can reduce stress. And as we know, less stress is good news for your bones.

(And we’ll get into the research on why shortly). 

With each deep, slow breath your body releases built-up stress. And as we covered, lowering stress can reduce excess bone loss.

For that reason, I’ve created two videos to show you how to do bone breathing correctly:

Tips: Try breathing with your eyes and mouth closed. Draw air in while slightly contracting your throat. You’ll notice with this contraction that your breath slows to a calming pace and creates an ocean-like sound.

Tips: Tailor this breathing technique to suit your body. Sit with a straight spine if lying down doesn’t work well for you. Breathe with your eyes closed. 

Can Bone Breathing Really Benefit Bones?

When you do bone breathing exercises, you’re putting your breath in the driver’s seat of your autonomic nervous system.

This system has two arms. And they both have control over the heart. 

The parasympathetic nervous system slows down the heart rate. While the sympathetic nervous system speeds it up.

Breathing exercises encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to take over the sympathetic nervous system

So you relax your breathing and your body as a result, which reduces stress. But that’s not the only benefit. You also minimize the effects of oxidative stress.

This is important since findings show that oxidative stress is implicated in postmenopausal osteoporosis because it promotes bone loss.

If you’re wondering, oxidative stress is a state of an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. When this occurs, free radicals can harm cellular structures. 

Although it’s impossible to completely avoid free radical exposure, a study revealed that breathing deeply has a powerful effect on them. 

In the study, sixteen athletes were monitored during a training session. After the exercise, they were divided equally into two groups. 

Eight subjects spent forty minutes performing deep breathing in a quiet place. And the other eight subjects spent the same time sitting in a quiet place reading a magazine. 

Results showed that deep breathing reduced free radical production, increased antioxidant levels, and lowered stress. All of which are great for bone health!

Granted, the sample size of this study was very small. And the participants were athletes which makes the results hard to generalize to the public. 

But despite this, it’s a promising study. And a good first sign that more research should be conducted.

Bone Breathing for Better Bones Takeaways

If you’re looking for an easy way to reduce stress, bone breathing and breathing exercises could be an option that works for you.

It doesn’t take long to do. Plus, it’s a great technique for helping you lower bone-damaging stress. So it’s another powerful tool to add to your toolkit for healthy bones. 

I hope you found this helpful. Give these breathing exercises a go and let me know what you think in the comments below!

Author: Cat Buckley, RYT, RYOT

Cat Buckley is AlgaeCal’s Community Manager and Fitness Expert. She’s a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) — a distinction given to yoga teachers whose training and experience meet Yoga Alliance requirements. She’s also a Registered Yoga for Osteoporosis Teacher (RYOT), as she completed Dr. Loren Fishman’s Yoga vs. Osteoporosis training! Cat works closely with AlgaeCal’s Resident Bone Health Expert, Lara Pizzorno, to share the latest science-backed bone health advice.