Healthy breathing with a smart bulb

Diagram illustrating breathing at a certain rate with the help of a smart bulb.

Summary

Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds. Research repeatedly demonstrates that this breathing pattern reduces anxiety, stress, high blood pressure, and insomnia, both during sessions and durably for months afterward. In this article I summarize research into breathing, and create an open-source tool that uses a smart bulb as a peripheral-vision breathing guide.

By the end of this article you will be able to:

  • Understand how breathing one inhale-then-exhale cycle every 10 seconds (6 breaths per minute) has positive health benefits.
  • Apply different ratios of inhalation to exhalation to alter your self-perceived mood.
  • Use a Raspberry Pi and a LIFX smart bulb as a peripheral vision breathing aid.

The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

Breathing

Pause. Inhale as deeply as you can. Then exhale slowly and fully. Something as simple as a deep breath can reset a bad mood or offer a fresh perspective on a problem. Merely being present and breathing deeply is beneficial. Yet breathing in a specific way has surprising and proven benefits.

Focus on your stomach and put one hand on your stomach. Keep your rib cage and chest fixed. Instead, imagine that you are only able to breathe in while moving your stomach outwards then inwards. Inhale as deeply as you can. Then exhale slowly and fully. Repeat 3 times. By moving only your stomach you are doing diaphragmatic breathing, i.e. belly breating. You may find it easier to do this lying down, but over time you can do this sitting upright. Diaphragmatic breathing is more efficient than breathing with you chest, lowers your heart rate, and lowers your blood pressure 1.

Continue to focus on your stomach and belly breathing. Inhale for 5 seconds, then exhale for 5 seconds. Breathing in pattern means you are breathing once every 10 seconds, i.e. 6 breaths per minute. Ancient practices such as yoga acknowledge that breathing 6 times per minute is optimally beneficial. However, you can also try a different exalation to inhalation ratio. A ratio of 1:2 (inhale for 3 seconds, exhale for 7 seconds) further encourages alertness, focus, and stress tolerance 2.

Research suggests this pattern optimizes the respiratory sinus arrythmia (RSA) and the high-frequency (HF) power in your heart rate frequency. Changes in the RSA and HF of your heart beat are associated with a better capacity to adapt to stressful situations 2. Breathing is not a magic cure-all for conditions, but breathing 6 times a minute is associated with reducing tension, insomnia, high blood pressure, and stress, even if you breathe like this for only 10-15 minutes a day 3 4. There is weaker evidence that breathing in this way improves your thinking 5.

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    Using a smart bulb

    When I’m working on my widescreen monitor I find it difficult to use breathing aids either on my phone or as a moving image on the computer. Instead I realized that changing the colors on a smart bulb to match inhalation and exhalation cycles would help me remember to breath correctly whilst working.

    Hence I wrote a program that I run on a Raspberry Pi that uses the lifxlan Python module that helps me maintain a breathing pattern. A LIFX bulb gradually changes color to indicate inhalation or exhalation, and then quickly switches off then on to indicate to change from inhaling to exhaling.

    I’m now able to work or watch TV and have the ambient colors of a LIFX smart bulb optimally guide my breathing.

    Here’s a video of it in action:

    Future work

    • Instead of me remembering to turn on the bulb, I’d like the bulbs to be scheduled to run at certain times and locations so that I’m proactively reminded to breath correctly.
    • There might be demand for selling Raspberry Pi’s pre-configured to detect LIFX bulbs and run breathing programs for you.

    Footnotes


    1. Harvard Medical School, “Learning diaphragmatic breathing”

      • Relearning how to breathe from the diaphragm is beneficial for everyone. Diaphragmatic breathing (also called “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing”) encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.
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    2. Diest, Ilse Van et al. “Inhalation/Exhalation Ratio Modulates the Effect of Slow Breathing on Heart Rate Variability and Relaxation." Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 39 (2014): 171-180.

      • Preamble
        • RSA: respiratory sinus arrythmia
        • HRV: heart rate variability
        • HF: high frequency
        • Higher HF power or RSA would correlate with a better capacity to adapt to the environment and induces a calm, but alert state (Brown & Gerbarg, 2005a). Heart rate variability is also a marker of cardiovascular health and autonomic homeostatic control (Lehrer, Sasaki, & Saito, 1999; Thayer & Brosschot, 2005).
        • According to yoga, the ideal breath rate is situated around six breaths per minute, with an exhalation that is twice as long as the inhalation (ratio 1:2). General yogic breathing is believed to stimulate a good mental health, as well as a state of calm alertness, mental focus and stress tolerance, by means of several mechanisms.”
        • Breathing techniques are also applied to treat cardiovascular complaints (Grossman, Grossman, Schein, Zimlichman, & Gavish, 2001; Pitzalis et al., 1998). E.g., a FDA-approved intervention in reducing high blood pressure in hypertensives involves device-guided breathing exercises (see https://www.resperate.com). With differentiated inspiration and expiration “sounds” the user is guided to lower the respiratory frequency to less than 10 breaths/minwith prolonged expiration. Studies on the efficacy of this treatment (Grossman et al., 2001; Logtenberg, Kleefstra, Houweling, Groenier, & Bilo, 2007; Rosenthal, Alter, Peleg, & Gavish, 2001; Schein et al., 2009; Viskoper et al., 2003) reported significant reductions in systolic blood pressure.”
      • Experiment
        • First breathing video: inhalation 1.5s, exhalation 3.5s, 12 breaths/min (low ratio)
        • Second breathing video: inhalation 3.5s, exhalation 1.5s, 12 breaths/min (high ratio)
        • Third breathing video: inhalation 3s, exhalation 7s, 6 breaths/min (low ratio)
        • Fourth breathing video: inhalation 7s, exhalation 3s, 6 breaths/min (high ratio)
      • Results
        • “Generally, our findings show that i/e ratio is the more important determinant for self-reported effects of relaxation as obtained by instructed breathing. Although participants did not expect such effect prior to performing the breathing exercises, they reported higher pleasantness and more feelings of control for the breathing patterns with a low compared to a high i/e ratio. In addition, participants reported more relaxation, more positive energy, less stress, and higher mindfulness when adopting a breathing pattern with a low i/e ratio as compared to a high i/e ratio. In contrast, effects of respiration rate were observed only for positive energy.”
        • “A low compared to a high i/e ratio resulted in a significantly higher HF-HRV when participants were breathing at 6, but not at 12 breaths/minute.”
        • “In summary, the present results strongly suggest that voluntary changes in i/e ratio are an important determinant of self-reported states of relaxation, and of RSA and power in the HF-band when breathing at 6 breaths/min. Our results suggest that beneficial effects of slow breathing described in the literature may be primarily due to concomitant changes in i/e ratio.”
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    3. André, C. “Proper breathing brings better health. Stress reduction, insomnia prevention, emotion control, improved attention certain breathing techniques can make life better. But where do you start." Scientific American. January 15 (2019).

      • “Overall, research shows that these techniques reduce anxiety, although the anxiety does not disappear completely. Breathing better is a tool, not a panacea. Some methods have been validated by clinical studies; others have not. But all of those I describe in this article apply principles that have been proved effective. They aim to slow, deepen or facilitate breathing, and they use breathing as a focal point or a metronome to distract attention from negative thoughts.”
      • “A typical cardiac coherence exercise involves inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). Biofeedback devices make it possible to observe on a screen how this deep, regular breathing slows and stabilizes the beats… Simply applying slow breathing with the same conviction and rigor could well give the same result.”
      • “Some versions of cardiac coherence recommend spending more time on exhaling than on inhaling (for example, six and four seconds). Indeed, your heart rate increases slightly when you inhale and decreases when you exhale: drawing out the second phase probably exerts a quieting effect on the heart and, by extension, on the brain. This possibility remains to be confirmed by clinical studies, however.”
      • “What is the best time to apply slow-breathing techniques?”
        • “One is during occasional episodes of stress—for example, before taking an exam, competing in a sporting event or even attending a routine meeting at work.”
        • “These exercises may also help when insomnia strikes.”
        • “But respiratory techniques do not work only for acute stresses or sleep problems; they can also relieve chronic anxiety…Even better, improvement was maintained two and six months later, with follow-up sessions just once a week and some home practice during this period.
        • “Breathing exercises also help to counter the accumulation of minor physical tension associated with stress. Therapists recommend doing them regularly during the day, during breaks or at moments of transition between two activities: you simply stop to adjust your posture and allow yourself a few minutes of quiet breathing. Therapists often suggest the “365 method”: at least three times a day, breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds inhaling, five seconds exhaling) for five minutes. And do it every day, 365 days a year. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to providing immediate relief, regular breathing exercises can make people less vulnerable to stress, by permanently modifying brain circuits.”
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    4. David Robston, “Why slowing your breathing helps you relax”, BBC, March 2 (2020)

      • A recent review of the relevant scientific literature found that slow, deep breathing can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it also appears to help relieve insomnia.
      • “Interestingly, people practicing breathwork seem to find a sweet spot at around six breaths a minute. This appears to bring about markedly greater relaxation through some kind of a positive feedback loop between the lungs, the heart and the brain. “You’re kind of unlocking or promoting the amplification of a basic physiological rhythm,” says Noble. He points out that this frequency can be found in the repetitive actions of many spiritual practices – such as the Ave Marias spoken in rosary prayers and the chanting of yogic mantras. Perhaps those practices evolved through an unconscious recognition of this restorative breathing rhythm and its capacity to send people into a relaxed but focused state of mind.”
      • Besides improving cardiovascular health, the slower breathing rate of six breaths per minute also seems to be optimal for pain management, according to the study by Jafari.”
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    5. Soni, Sunaina et al. “Effect of controlled deep breathing on psychomotor and higher mental functions in normal individuals." Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology 59 1 (2015): 41-7.

      • “100 normal healthy subjects (52 females and 48 males, age range - 18 to 25 years) participated in the study. Each subject acted as his or her own control. Six weeks course of controlled deep breathing i.e. 5 seconds of maximal inhalation followed by 5 seconds of maximal exhalation, once a day for ten minutes, six days a week was arranged.”
      • “(i) Letter cancellation test (ii) Rapid fire arithmetic deviation testand (iii) Playing card test were conducted before and after six weeks of controlled deep breathing practicefor evaluating psychomotor and higher mental functions”
      • The results suggest that a short, simple breathing practice can be helpful in improving cognitive processes.
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