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What Part of the Brain Controls Breathing?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What Part of the Brain Controls Breathing

Breathing is something we carry on with throughout the day without thinking much about it. It is, without a doubt, a crucial aspect of our existence as humans. But have you ever stopped for a second to wonder about how the process takes place and what regulates it?

If you haven’t, it is high time you explored the importance of this knowledge, as understanding it can help you consciously control your breathing and gain several benefits to your health and well-being. Here is all you need to know about what part of the brain controls breathing and how you can focus on it to improve your health.

What Part of the Brain Controls Breathing?

According to research so far, the brainstem is responsible for controlling breathing. Located at the back of the head, the brainstem is where our spinal cord connects with the skull and has been classified into the following three parts:[1]

  • Pons: This part supports the respiration to be smooth
  • Medulla Oblongata: It instructs the spinal cord to maintain breathing
  • Midbrain: This part of the brain induces changes in breathing

Many experts consider the brainstem as a bridge of different types. All electronic signals need to pass through it before being distributed to the rest of the body. The most exciting bit is all this happens subconsciously without any influence from our side.

Examining Breathing Closely: What Muscles Does it Need?

The diaphragm is the main breathing muscle of the body, a structure that separates your chest from the abdomen. When you breathe in, the diaphragm contracts, pulling the lungs down to expand them. As you breathe out, it relaxes to resume a dome shape, reducing air in the lungs. During exercise, the process of expiration takes place through the abdominal muscles. The intercostal muscles between the ribs also help with breathing in some instances.

Breathing in

Healthy lung tissues are always elastic and springy, so your muscles have to work on expanding your chest to draw air into the lungs. Signals from the brainstem travel through the nerves to reach the diaphragm, pulling it flat and pushing out the abdomen and the lower ribcage. At the same time, your ribcage is pulled up and out through the muscles present between the ribs. This movement successfully expands the chest, drawing maximum air straight into the lungs through the nose or mouth and the windpipe.


Breathing out

Breathing out or exhaling is usually a passive process, especially at rest. The same muscles you use to breathe in relax to allow the elastic lungs to push air out. When this needs to be done more quickly, such as during exercise, the abdominal muscles work as the main driving force in exhaling with additional support from the intercostal muscles.

With constant support from the brainstem, the respiratory system keeps working so that you breathe in and out comfortably at rest with the least effort and no consciousness about the process. However, during exercise, when you need to move out more air rapidly, your brain automatically adjusts the signals, telling you to breathe more quickly, take bigger breaths, or both.

How the Brain Signals the Lungs to Slow Down Breathing?

We often encounter situations where our breathing needs to slow down. In such instances, the brain automatically sends a signal to the lungs through the peripheral nervous system, telling it to slow down and take it easy. But how does it accomplish this? Mostly through a phenomenon called arterial pressure regulation.

For instance, let’s take the example of breathing during exercise. When you are working out, you are exerting yourself more than usual. The body’s need for oxygen goes up, which is picked up by the medulla. The medulla then makes you breathe more heavily to match the increased oxygen demand. Additionally, the heart contributes to the process by beating faster so that the incoming oxygen is readily distributed to the muscles. This increased intake and distribution of oxygen helps you deal well with the rapid carbon dioxide buildup. In short, the medulla oblongata helps keep the respiratory process in balance.

In situations where the oxygen concentration becomes too high, medulla oblongata signals the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to take it down a notch.

Controlling Breathing to Improve Brain Health: Is it Possible?

Isn’t it fascinating to know that something that our brain controls can be used to improve its very health? This holds true for breathing, which is mostly under the involuntary control of the brain but can be altered a bit to benefit the organ.

Known as deep breathing, the technique simply involves taking deep breaths through the nose and releasing them slowly through the mouth. Science has solid reasons to believe that this straightforward technique can do wonders for brain health, such as:

Reduction in Anxiety and Stress

Stress is no longer only a part of the vocabulary for a modern human. Many people continue to live and breathe it every single day of their lives. In many instances, chronic stress leads to anxiety while worsening other aspects of mental health, and deep breathing can be one of the ways to keep it in control.

Reduce Anxiety With Proper Breathing

Deep breathing helps manage stress by acting on the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body. As you take deep breaths, the tone of the vagus nerve increases, which professionals measure through a scale called heart rate variability (HRV). Good HRV has been repeatedly associated with healthy aging and better stress management, especially in older adults.[2]

Improved Attention Spans

A bad night of sleep can easily make you suffer from mental lethargy, brain fog, and poor attention spans. Many of us let our minds wander off the very next day when we should be focusing on the tasks at hand. If this has become a norm for you, deep breathing might be a way to boost your productivity and improve your attention span.

Research has noted that as little as 20 sessions of diaphragmatic or deep breathing can level up focus and attention in people. [3]As you engage in diaphragmatic breathing, the brain regions responsible for cognitive control and self-monitoring experience increased activity. So every time you try the technique, you can boost your self-discipline and manage your behavior. At the same time, deep breathing also deactivates the brain areas that default to mind wandering, making you more productive at work.

As a bonus, your cortisol levels will drop, giving you better control over negative emotions, like fear and anger. Sparing only 15 minutes per day to engage in deep breathing can be enough to improve self-regulation and attentiveness. [4]

High Oxygen Levels in the Brain

Deep breathing can also improve oxygen concentration in the brain. Many research studies have analyzed how this simple technique has effectively improved oxygen saturation and ventilation in patients with progressive lung diseases.[5] Similar benefits can also be observed in healthy people. A well-perfused brain automatically improves the overall functioning of the body and enhances the quality of life.

Enhancement of overall brain health

For a relatively smaller size, the brain is a major user of oxygen, taking roughly 20% of the total oxygen supply of the body. It also needs good sleep to remove the toxins that keep building up in different parts of the brain with time. Unfortunately, the usual breathing technique is unable to help the brain optimize its oxygen supply. Additionally, the current lifestyle is making much of society chronically sleep-deprived, leading to a toxin buildup in one of the body’s most vital organs.

In such poor circumstances, deep breathing can help tackle the problem in two ways:

  • It makes the absorption of oxygen more efficient for the body, so the brain gets enough of it and stays in top form.
  • When combined with good sleep hygiene, deep breathing also makes it easier to fall asleep at bedtime and even during wakefulness periods during midnights.[6]

Conclusion: Deep Breathing Your Way to a Stronger Brain

Breathing is crucial for life, and an essential, involuntary function of a part of the brain called the brainstem. In addition to removing carbon dioxide and distributing oxygen, the brain accomplishes a lot more through breathing in and out. From higher oxygen levels to better attention spans, it is possible to improve the health of your brain simply by deepening the very next breath you take. To make sure you are breathing correctly, remember to breathe from your belly, not the chest.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we breathe?

We need oxygen to perform everyday functions in the body, such as moving muscles, digesting food, and even thinking. When these processes happen, the body generates a gas called carbon dioxide as a waste product that must be removed to prevent toxicity. The removal of this carbon dioxide is the function of the lungs, for which they get signals from the brain. These signals activate the muscles involved in breathing depending on how active you are and the concentration of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. In short, the purpose of breathing is to ensure that all body tissues are well-perfused with oxygen and there are no accumulations of carbon dioxide anywhere in the body.

Is my breathing controlled by my brain?

Breathing is an automatic function that we subconsciously control through the respiratory center located at the base of the brain. The breathing activity continues even when we sleep or during unconsciousness. It is also possible to control breathing when you wish, such as during singing, voluntary breath-holding, and speech.

Can brain problems lead to breathing issues?

Yes, brain problems or neurological problems may lead to breathing issues if they involve the respiratory center. Some examples of brain diseases that may alter breathing function include multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.


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