Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients

What is Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients?

Diaphragmatic Breathing, also called deep breathing or belly breathing, is a simple technique taught to GI patients to help them manage stress caused by GI conditions. 

Focusing one’s breath is an effective way to encourage the body to relax. When practicing diaphragmatic breathing, the stomach, rather than the chest, moves with each breath, expanding while inhaling and contracting while exhaling.  Deliberately paying attention to each breath serves to distract and quiet the mind. 

How Does It Help?

There are many advantages to learning diaphragmatic breathing. The technique:

  • Lowers heart rate and blood pressure
  • Decreases muscle tension
  • Increases blood oxygenation
  • Brings warmth to the hands and feet
  • Increases energy and motivation
  • Improves concentration
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Reduces stress hormones
  • Activates the body’s relaxation response (and reverses the stress response)
  • Can be easily implemented, requiring no medication or cost

For those suffering from GI symptoms, diaphragmatic breathing offers specific benefits: Activating the diaphragm creates a gentle massaging action felt by internal organs like the intestines and stomach, which can reduce abdominal pain, urgency, bloating and constipation. While diaphragmatic breathing, you are facilitating the activation of the parasympathetic system, which can be thought of as the relaxation response of the body or the “rest and digest” state. Diaphragmatic breathing can help in specific GI-related situations:

  • Diarrhea and urgency: Diaphragmatic breathing can help calm the digestive track and ease those moments of panic (i.e. “I MUST get to the bathroom immediately!”).
  • Constipation: Diaphragmatic breathing can be used while sitting on the toilet attempting to have a bowel movement to calm and massage the system. The result may be a more complete bowel movement.

Learning to Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable place. Close your eyes.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. The bottom hand should do the moving. The top hand should remain still or only move as the bottom hand moves.
  3. Inhale through your nose for about 4 seconds, feeling your abdomen expand. (You may feel slight tension the first few times you inhale.)
  4. Hold your breath for 2 seconds.
  5. Exhale very slowly and steadily through your mouth for about 6 seconds. The mouth should be relaxed.
  6. Repeat for 5-15 minutes.

When first learning diaphragmatic breathing, it is common to feel some uneasiness or lightheadedness.  Quicken your breath if you feel light headed. After a session of diaphragmatic breathing, allow yourself time to adjust to your surroundings — do not stand up too quickly.

Diaphragmatic breathing is an excellent tool for relaxation, but it is a skill that requires practice. With practice it becomes easier over time, and eventually can be done with eyes open, while sitting, standing or even walking or driving.   

Contact the GI Behavioral Health Program

At this time, adult patients (18 years and older) must be under the care of a Michigan Medicine gastroenterologist who would be happy to place a referral to the GI Behavioral Health Program.  To schedule an appointment with a Michigan Medicine gastroenterologist call 1-888-229-7408.  If you are a current patient with the GI Behavioral Health Program and need to reschedule or cancel an appointment, call 1-888-229-7408.

To learn more about new patient appointments, insurance coverage, and the GI Behavioral Therapy Care Team, visit the GI Behavioral Appointments and Team page.