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Aug 17, 2021
5 min read

The benefits of alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing exercises involve inhaling through one nostril while holding the other closed. It’s an ancient wellness practice, and research has linked it to major stress-reduction and relaxation benefits. Even better: you don’t need any special equipment to do it.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Alternate nostril breathing, or ANB, is a form of Pranayama. That’s a Sanskrit word that refers to the art of breath control. ANB is also sometimes called “yoga breathing” or “yogic breathing.” 

Now, you may take breathing for granted, but controlling the way you breathe through ANB or other breathing practices can help calm your nervous system, ease your anxiety, and improve your thinking (Ghiya, 2017; Schwerdtfeger, 2020).

Here’s your guide to this ancient well-being practice. 

What is alternate nostril breathing?

ANB is just what it sounds like. You breathe through one nostril while holding the other nostril closed with one of your fingers. And then you switch. 

There are different ANB techniques and approaches. Some start with the left side nostril. Others start with the right. Some switch up the timing of your inhalations and exhalations. But, at a basic level, all of them involve breathing for a time through just one of your nostrils (Ghiya, 2017).

What are the benefits of alternate nostril breathing?

A lot of the published research on ANB is not of the best quality. Many studies have involved only small groups of participants. While more vigorous follow-up research is needed, what we have today indicates that ANB offers some wellness benefits. Those benefits include (Ghiya, 2017):

  • Lower anxiety and reduced symptoms of depression
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better memory for new physical tasks (a.k.a., improved motor memory)
  • Improved problem solving and attention
  • More balanced nervous system activity
  • Stress relief and relaxation
  • Improved metabolism (Telles, 1994)

Research has also linked ANB to improved heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in time between each heartbeat (Ghiya, 2012). HRV increases during relaxing activities like meditation or sleep. Low heart rate variability has been linked to inflammation and stress-related diseases or dysfunctions (Kim, 2018). 

Theories for how alternate nostril breathing works 

Research has uncovered a handful of theories. Several of these are closely tied to the activity of the autonomic nervous system, which controls your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, breathing, and other essential internal functions (Waxenbaum, 2020). 

These theories include:

Nervous system balancing

When you’re stressed out and wound up, the sympathetic (fight or flight) branch of your nervous system is highly active. This activity speeds up your heart, slows your digestion, shifts your immune functioning, and leads to shallow, rapid breathing (Ghiya, 2017). 

There’s good evidence that slowing and lengthening your breath can mellow this sympathetic activity while also increasing activity in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) arm of your nervous system. ANB seems to be one of several breathing techniques that lead to this healthy nervous system rebalancing (Sinha, 2013). 

Mindfulness support

Alternate nostril breathing may help you block out distractions and focus your awareness on your breath—as opposed to your life’s many stressors (Jahan, 2020). This breath-focus is a core component of mindfulness, yoga practice, and other meditation practices that researchers have linked to mental and physical health benefits (Ghiya, 2017). Put another way, ANB may support beneficial, meditation-like mental states of focus or calm.

Triggering relaxation

Along with balancing activity in the autonomic nervous system, ANB may ease or calm the release of stress-related hormones in the brain. It’s also associated with increased “tone” in the vagus nerve—a cranial nerve that helps ease heart rate and promote relaxation (Jahan, 2020). 

How to do alternate nostril breathing

There are a lot of different ways to practice ANB. Here’s one research-backed method (Sinha, 2013):

  • Find a quiet place and sit in a comfortable position. 
  • Raise your right hand to your face.
  • Curl down your middle finger and index finger. Keep your thumb and other fingers extended.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply, and then, using your right thumb, push your right nostril shut.
  • Exhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril.
  • Before breathing in, open your right nostril and use your ring finger to close your left nostril.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril.
  • Repeat this two more times, inhaling and exhaling through opposite nostrils.
  • Reverse the order for your next three breaths so that you’re opening and closing the opposite nostrils.

Studies have found that just five minutes of ANB using this technique can lead to anti-stress and relaxation benefits (Sinha, 2013).

Other alternate nostril breathing techniques

 There are many different ANB variations. These include (Ghiya, 2017):

  • Beginning with the opposite nostril (closing your left instead of your right nostril)
  • Inhaling and exhaling through the same nostril, instead of switching
  • Switching sides after each breath, instead of after three breaths
  • Mixing in periods of normal breathing
  • Practicing ANB anywhere from a few minutes to 45 minutes
  • Trying to slow breathing down

Researchers have linked many of these variations to health benefits. It’s not clear which one is best or optimal—or whether choosing one or another makes a big difference (Ghiya, 2017). 

ANB is just one of a handful of helpful, evidence-backed breathwork techniques. The research to date indicates that many of these techniques offer a safe, easy, and effective way to combat stress and its associated health problems. 

That said, if you have a medical condition, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting a new health regimen.

References

  1. Ghiya, S., & Lee, C. (2012). Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. International Journal of Yoga, 5(1), 66–69. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.91717. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3276936/
  2. Ghiya S. (2017). Alternate nostril breathing: a systematic review of clinical trials. International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 5, 3273-3286. doi: 10.18203/2320-6012.ijrms20173523. Retrieved from https://www.msjonline.org/index.php/ijrms/article/view/3581
  3. Jahan, I., Begum, M., Akhter, S., Islam, Z., Haque, M., & Jahan, N. (2020). Effects of alternate nostril breathing exercise on cardiac functions in healthy young adults leading a stressful lifestyle. Journal of Population Therapeutics and Clinical Pharmacology = Journal de la therapeutique des populations et de la pharmacologie clinique, 27(2), 68–77. doi: 10.15586/jptcp.v27i2.675. Retrieved from https://jptcp.com/index.php/jptcp/article/view/675
  4. Kim, H. G., Cheon, E. J., Bai, D. S., Lee, Y. H., & Koo, B. H. (2018). Stress and heart rate variability: a meta-analysis and review of the literature. Psychiatry Investigation, 15(3), 235–245. doi: 10.30773/pi.2017.08.17. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5900369/
  5. Schwerdtfeger, A. R., Schwarz, G., Pfurtscheller, K., Thayer, J. F., Jarczok, M. N., & Pfurtscheller, G. (2020). Heart rate variability (HRV): from brain death to resonance breathing at 6 breaths per minute. Clinical Neurophysiology: Official Journal of the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology, 131(3), 676–693. doi: 10.1016/j.clinph.2019.11.013. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S138824571931302
  6. Sinha, A. N., Deepak, D., & Gusain, V. S. (2013). Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research : JCDR, 7(5), 821–823. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2013/4750.2948. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3681046/
  7. Telles, S., Nagarathna, R., & Nagendra, H. R. (1994). Breathing through a particular nostril can alter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 38(2), 133–137. Retrieved from https://www.ijpp.com/IJPP%20archives/1994_38_2/133-137.pdf
  8. Waxenbaum, J. A., Reddy, V., & Varacallo, M. (2020). Anatomy, autonomic nervous system. [Updated Jul 29, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539845/