The Breath-Brain Connection: How Conscious Breathing Can Improve Mental Clarity

Hello, let’s talk about a simple and powerful tool at the center of our body – our breath. This rhythmic life force, which often goes unnoticed, has the potential to improve mental clarity, sharpen focus, protect the brain, improve neuroplasticity and give you a new sense of self-control 🤯. We’ll understand the science behind the profound impact of breathing on our mental and physical health, but also look at practical advice and techniques for harnessing the power of the breath.

The brain depends on a constant supply of oxygen and glucose to maintain optimal functionality, preserving neuronal integrity, facilitating synaptic transmission and ensuring smooth cognitive operations. It is worth noting that the brain accounts for approximately 20% of the body’s energy demand, a remarkable figure given its size.

Shallow or rapid breathing can lead to sub-optimal oxygen delivery to the brain, leading to a decline in cognitive functions, attention span and overall performance in mental tasks. This highlights the importance of conscious breathing practices for improving our cognitive functions, but also for physical well-being, as it contributes to better stress management.

Take breaks and

breathe consciously.

Incorporating slow breathing exercises into your routine can be a simple but powerful strategy for increasing mental clarity, concentration and productivity. Encouraging employees to take short conscious breaks to breathe throughout the day can promote a more focused, calm and efficient working atmosphere, benefiting both the individual and organizational performance.

The Physiology of Breathing

When we engage in slow, deep breathing, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion, thus reducing stress in the body. This activation is mediated by the vagus nerve, a critical component of the autonomic nervous system that serves as the body’s highway for communication between the brain and various organ systems (Porges, 2007).

We can increase the strength and endurance of our respiratory muscles by practicing slow breathing. This leads to increased lung ventilation and improved gas exchange efficiency (Li, T.T. et al., 2023). Breathing through your nose is just as important as breathing slowly, as it regulates the volume of air you inhale and ensures that it is properly filtered, warmed and humidified before it reaches your lungs. Nasal breathing also produces nitric oxide, a molecule that plays a crucial role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen more efficiently to cells, including brain cells.

Rhythmic breathing practices can improve the body’s tolerance toCO2, which can lead to better oxygenation of the brain.

Oxygen is vital for brain function, but the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our blood is just as important. The right balance of carbon dioxide is necessary for the release of oxygen from hemoglobin in the blood cells to the body’s tissues, a phenomenon known as the Bohr effect. HighCO2 levels reduce hemoglobin’s affinity for oxygen, making it easier to release oxygen to the tissues that need it most.

The Neuroscience of Deep Breathing

When we breathe, we produce sequences of uniform, rhythmic signals that accompany the movement of our breath. These stimuli reach the brain in three areas of the cortex: the olfactory cortex receives stimuli from the olfactory bulb; the somatosensory cortex receives stimuli from the movements of the chest and abdomen, and the insular cortex receives chemoreceptors – changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood – and mechanoreceptors in the lungs, diaphragm and internal organs.

These rhythmic stimuli produce three patterns of cortical activity across the neocortex: neuronal oscillations, an increase in the power of gamma-type brain waves and the timing of phase transitions in the activity of the large-scale neuronal network. This rhythm helps to synchronize large portions of the cortical network in slower processes, affecting the efficiency of brain functions. As the brain synchronizes with breathing, other functions, in the search for precision, also tend to synchronize with it, such as the eye and finger movements of a pianist playing the piano (Heck, D.H. et al. 2017).

Gamma oscillation power and phase transition time are strongly involved in cognitive function, directly linking respiration to cognitive processes (Heck, D.H. et al., 2017). This synchronization can impact cognitive processes such as decision-making, attention and sensory perception.

Nasal and oral breathing cause different patterns of electroencephalographic activity. Nasal breathing drives delta wave oscillations and gamma power modulations in a non-olfactory area of the neocortex. The stimulation of delta oscillations suggests that nasal breathing can help induce a state of relaxation and recovery in the brain, even when we are not asleep. This can be particularly beneficial in managing stress and promoting a state of rest that favors recovery from cognitive fatigue. The modulation of gamma power by nasal breathing indicates that this type of breathing can improve cognitive abilities, increase focus and processing speed (Heck, D.H. et al. 2017).

Breathe through your nose and cope better

with stress.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has revealed that controlled breathing can lead to decreased activity in the amygdala, a specific structure within the limbic system that is particularly associated with emotional processing and memory formation (Hölzel et al., 2013). Increases in breathing rate synchronize with activation of the amygdala during states of anxiety or fear and play a modulating role in the neuronal activity of the neocortex.

Respirar de forma consciente melhora a conexão entre áreas do cérebro responsáveis pelas emoções e pelo pensamento, ajudando a gerência melhor os sentimentos.

But mouth breathing does not induce the same synchronization of patterns and is correlated with sleep disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Campanelli, S. et al., 2020).

Another effect of breathing exercises, such as slow, rhythmic breathing, is the creation of an optimal environment for the brain to form new connections, neuroplasticity. Stress can suppress neuroplasticity, but the state of relaxation produced by deep breathing favors it. Meditation focused on breathing has been associated with increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning and memory (Hölzel et al., 2011). In addition, incorporating breath-holding can significantly increase blood flow to the brain. This increased circulation supports the growth of brain cells and fosters neuroplasticity. For a deeper understanding of how this process works, let’s continue with the next session.

The Cognitive Effects

In addition to all the results of nasal and slow breathing mentioned above, we can delve into different breathing practices and their influence on cognitive function.

  • Vibration: The practice of conscious breathing plus vibration – reproducing the sound of buzzing bees – during nasal exhalation, reduced the reaction time of the stop signal, the ability to suppress motor responses. Improved response inhibition is indicative of more flexible cognitive control (Campanelli, S., 2020). The mode of action of vibration is not yet fully elucidated, but some hypothesize that vibration may activate the vagus nerve and induce a state of relaxation, or may increase the synchrony of brain rhythms in areas associated with attention.
  • Fast Breathing: After practicing fast and intense breathing, actively expelling air with abdominal contractions at a faster pace, people reduced their visual and auditory reaction time, but by the opposite effect of slow breathing. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for“fight or flight” responses, improving sensory-motor performance (Campanelli, S., 2020). Some high-performance athletes and US armed forces have claimed to use this breathing before a big game or a special operation (Nestor, J., 2020).
  • Breath Retention: Holding in air with full lungs increases carbon dioxide levels, which leads to vasodilation and increased cerebral blood flow. This mechanism is a response by the body to improve oxygen transport andCO2 removal from the tissues. In addition to oxygen, increased blood flow can also facilitate the delivery of essential nutrients to the brain, such as glucose and fatty acids, which are crucial for neuronal function and health. Increased blood flow helps in the efficient removal of metabolic waste from the brain, preventing the accumulation of potentially toxic substances, and can influence the release and reuptake of neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit signals in the brain and affect everything from mood to cognition.

Pessoas que praticam regularmente técnicas de respiração profunda têm maior função executiva, atenção e memória do que aquelas que têm hábitos de respiração superficial.

Studies have revealed that oxygenation levels in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain essential for higher cognitive processes, increase when the individual performs deep diaphragmatic breathing (Pujari, V. and Parvathisam, S., 2022).

Deep breathing allows individuals to firmly fix their attention on the present and improves cognitive performance and emotional stability. More aware individuals can regulate their feelings more successfully and have greater control over how they react to situations (Campanelli, S. et al., 2020). This is also related to mental resilience, the ability to recover quickly from stress. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system and reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the stress response, suggests that deep breathing can increase the body’s resistance to stress (Brown & Gerbarg, 2005).

Breathe differently to

achieve different effects.

Attention, relaxation, resilience and neuronal protection.


Our brain needs oxygen to function and stay alive. When it doesn’t receive enough oxygen, a condition called severe hypoxia, this can cause a number of serious problems, such as loss of energy (ATP depletion), excessive production of harmful substances (reactive oxygen species), calcium build-up and inflammation. However, studies and research show that moderate and intermittent exposure to low oxygen levels can actually make the brain more resistant to these types of damage, ischemia (reduced or interrupted blood flow) and other stresses.

Intermittent hypoxia (IH) refers to alternating exposure between periods of normal breathing and periods of breathing with low oxygen content. When oxygen content is reduced, even for short periods, this can trigger a series of responses in the body, promoting remodeling and recovery. The body begins to produce more of certain substances, such as nitric oxide and Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), as well as reacting to the decrease in oxygen itself. These substances and the situation of less oxygen give the body a little push to activate an internal defense system. This defense system causes the body to produce special proteins that protect cells from damage, protecting them from stress caused by lack of oxygen, inflammation and lack of energy. To do this, the body uses a type of internal signaling, called protein kinase signaling, which basically tells the cells to turn on their defenses against these problems. (Sprick, J.D. et al. 2019).

This process was initially aimed at triggering physiological adaptations to improve the body’s efficiency in using oxygen. Adaptations can include increased production of red blood cells, improved efficiency in the use of oxygen by cells and better vascularization. The main objective is often related to improving athletic performance, adapting to high altitudes or as a therapeutic approach in certain medical conditions, such as sleep apnea, cardiovascular diseases and even neurological conditions. Exposure to low oxygen levels in intermittent hypoxia is systemic, i.e. it affects the whole body (Navarrete-Opazo, A. & Mitchell, G. S., 2014). We can achieve these effects by training with rhythmic breathing and prolonged breath holds.

Another mechanism is ischemic preconditioning, which involves inducing short, controlled periods of reduced blood flow (and therefore oxygen) to specific tissues or organs, followed by reperfusion (restoration of blood flow). This method is used to precondition the tissue or organ to resist the effects of a subsequent, more severe ischemic event (a prolonged period of reduced blood flow). The mechanism is thought to activate protective cellular pathways that reduce tissue damage during subsequent ischemic episodes. It occurs in one tissue at a time, such as myocardial tissue or non-cardiac tissue, including kidney, brain, skeletal muscle, lung, liver and skeletal tissue. Protection begins immediately, within minutes of the ischemic preconditioning lesion and lasts a few hours, and a late phase develops with circadian regularity, twenty-four hours later, and reappears cyclically over several days, and then dissipates (Dardik, I.I., 2002).

This means that you need to have disciplined breathing training to maintain your protection. Rapid, intense breathing increases heart rate and blood pressure, reducing carbon dioxide levels, which produces vasoconstriction and reduces cerebral blood flow in the intracranial arteries. Other studies suggest a protocol of respiratory work and aerobic exercise to produce ischemic preconditioning in myocardial tissue (Dardik, I.I.,2002).


It is important to emphasize that you should never force your body with breathing practices, the gain in breathing conditioning and the increase in retention time are acquired through continuous training and with the guidance of a certified instructor. Always consult your doctor before starting any training.

In Practice

  • To Be More Alert: Quick, short breaths can be taken for a few seconds to increase alertness and readiness for challenging tasks. Focus on exhaling with intensity and speed, like a quick breath, and inhaling passively to match the faster pace.
  • To Improve Relaxation and Focus: Slow, deep breathing and breath-holding practices can be employed to relax the mind, increase focus and facilitate a state conducive to meditation. Breathe deeply, projecting your abdomen outwards, expanding your ribs sideways and subtly raising your chest, retaining the air in your lungs for as long as is comfortable and exhaling slowly by lowering your chest, bringing your ribs closer together and contracting your abdomen.


People with chronic stress have an activated sympathetic nervous system and a constant state of fight or flight. So focus on deep breathing training. Start with slow breathing and, when your daily breathing is at this level, you can start with holds and fast breathing training. Find a breathing instructor to help you learn all the techniques.


Breathing, an often neglected autonomic function, is a powerful ally in the quest for mental clarity and better cognitive performance. While the scientific community continues to discover the connections between our breathing patterns and brain function, we can take advantage of these ancient techniques to transform our days into ones of productivity and well-being.

Simple nasal, diaphragmatic and slow breathing can have a positive impact on cognition; if your natural breathing is shallow and fast, try to pay attention to your breathing and make it deeper. Learn other types of breathing techniques, with retentions and rhythm, to obtain even better results in cognition, mental resilience, emotional regulation and stimulation of intuition.

See you next time!


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