Most of us have never been taught to breathe correctly because it’s so fundamental, even a baby can do it! Or so it seems. Learning to breathe correctly can have immediate and profoundly beneficial effects. It’s your most underutilized tool to chill out, think clearer, sleep better and more. Taking a deep breath can enliven us in the moment, get us centered and grounded, and help us clear the fog and cobwebs of a stressful day. Certainly, deep breathing might feel good and have short-term benefits, but is it the healthiest and most natural long-term approach to breathing?
There are two key factors that comprise breathing – volume and frequency. Volume is the total amount of air breathed in and out within a period of time. Frequency is the breathing rate within that time period. Advanced meditators and yogis, martial art masters, and highly trained athletes, all naturally breathe only a few times per minute (3 – 5 breaths / min.) with low total volume of air (2 L / min).
On the other hand, a person under distress (sick, stressed out, anxious, scared, etc) breathes rapidly (20 – 30 breaths per minute) while drawing in a large volume of air (~20 L / minute). Although there is a high volume of air moving in and out of the lungs in this state, body tissues can become hypoxic, (a condition where bodily tissue is deprived of adequate oxygen supply) literally suffocating without enough oxygen. Our bodies can all too easily habituate to this way of breathing, so that it comes our default pattern of breathing. And, our breath can become a negative feedback loop. When we are stressed and anxious, our breathing speeds up. When our breathing is too fast due to habitual over-breathing, it causes us to be anxious and stressed, leading to fast breathing, leading to anxiety and stress, leading to... You get the idea. This high volume, rapid breathing tends to be done through the mouth, which has its own set of negative impacts, as will be explained shortly.
When we are relaxed and calm, our breath is naturally very light with a low volume of air being moved in and out of our lungs per minute. How can breathing slower with less volume be healthier than deep breathing ? A central key to vibrant health and longevity is high oxygenation of our tissues, vital organs and brain. Yet, a healthy level of oxygen in our cells can only occur if there is a healthy concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) present in both our lungs and blood. CO2 is not a toxic by-product of breathing. It is actually a primary factor in the process of releasing oxygen from the blood (via hemoglobin found in erythrocites, or red blood cells, RBCs) to our cells and in the regulation of our blood pH. (Breathing and CO2 regulation is a far more effective regulator of the body’s acid/alkaline balance than food.) This is called the Bohr effect, which describes the process of how hemoglobin releases oxygen to tissue based on CO2 levels in the blood. Levels of CO2 in the lungs and consequent levels of oxygen in our cells are directly related to our daily breathing patterns. Low CO2 levels are called hypocapnia and can lead to lower oxygenation levels in the blood.
Habitual overbreathing and hyperventilation (for example, due to stress, poor diet, and/or chronic mouth breathing regardless of the cause) and regularly low oxygen levels in our tissues is scientifically correlated to heart disease, cancer, asthma, chronic fatigue, and other diseases including psychiatric disorders.
Furthermore, when you take a deep, forceful breath, you will have a correspondingly big exhale, which releases large amounts of CO2. CO2 relaxes smooth muscles in and around blood vessels, so breathing out CO2 and reducing the CO2 concentration in your blood causes your blood vessels to constrict. This in turn impairs blood flow (especially to the extremities) and reduces cells’ ability to take up oxygen. If you suffer from cold hands and feet it may be sign that you are over-breathing!
In the later half of the 20th century, a Russian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko scientifically showed the health benefits of breathing lightly like the yoga masters compared to modern society’s disease linked “over-breathing”. As Dr. Buteyko’s years of research showed, through regular practice of slower, lighter breathing, we gain more tolerance to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in our blood, which in turn allows for optimal amounts of oxygen to be released to tissues and cells throughout the body.
So what is the best way to breathe?
The two most important factors to breathe in a healthy manner long-term are:
Breathe lightly, quietly and gently through the nose only.
Breathe slowly, smoothly and deeply.
There are several reasons to breathe through the nose only:
Breathing through the nose leads to slower, deeper breaths. This helps quiet the mind and relieve stress.
Mouth breathing engages mostly the upper lungs and chest. However, the greatest concentration of blood tends to be in the bottom lobes of the lungs, due to gravity. Nitric oxide (NO) in the nose and nasal sinuses are carried to the lungs when you breathe through the nose. NO shifts the blood from the lower lobes to the upper lobes of the lungs, which allows for better perfusion (transfer of oxygen to and carbon dioxide from the blood vessels).
Mouth breathing leads to poor oral health. Breathing through the mouth can dry out delicate tissues in the mouth, leading to dry mouth, sensitive teeth and gums, and greater risk for cavities and gum disease. Read this post to learn more about natural oral care solutions.
Breathing through the nose activates the diaphragm, which in turn stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a major player in the healthy functioning of your parasympathetic nervous system, or the Rest-And-Digest nervous system. The vagus nerve reaches from the back of the brain all the way down to the colon, branching off to the lungs, heart, stomach, spleen, kidneys, liver and more. Correct breathing is critical to the health of this wandering nerve. For more ways to overcome the damaging effects of stress, read this post.
Increasing NO is important for other reasons. NO is an important cellular signaling molecule. It helps modulate vascular tone, insulin secretion, airway tone, and peristalsis (the movement of food through the digestive tract), and is involved in angiogenesis (the development of new blood cells) and neural development. Endothelial NO synthase (ENOS) helps regulate vascular tone and platelet aggregation, among other things, making it essential for a healthy cardiovascular system. Neuronal NO synthase (NNOS) is likely important in memory and learning. NNOS has many other physiological functions, including regulation of cardiac function and peristalsis and sexual arousal.
NO in the sinus cavities and nasal passages helps to sterilize incoming air. Also, breathing through the nose warms and humidifies incoming air, and small particles of dust and pollution are prevented from making their way to the lungs. Both of these actions of nose-breathing mean cleaner, healthier air reaching the lungs which leads to less irritation of the delicate mucosal lining of the lungs.
What about when I sleep?
If you find yourself waking up groggy and sleepy most (all) mornings, if you snore, have sleep apnea or wake up with a dry mouth and/or sore throat then you are likely a mouth breather when you sleep. Some helpful hints for nose-breathing at night include the following:
- Try specially designed tape to gently keep your mouth closed while sleeping. After all, you can't control how you breathe while you're asleep because you're, well, asleep. This general first aid paper tape* works great for a fraction of the cost of the specialty tapes.
- nasal dilators* are available to help you breathe through your nose at night. These items may take a bit of getting used to, but getting a good night's sleep is one of the foundations of vibrant health and energy.
- Practicing calm, slow, mindful, light breathing during the day (as part of a meditation practice or just as its own endeavor) is a great way to be a better breather during sleep.
- Read this post for more tips on how to get your best night's sleep, starting tonight!
More tips to breathe correctly
Use a Neti pot on a regular basis. It is a simple saline wash for the sinuses and nasal cavities. This will help you breathe through your nose.
Breathe through your nose! I know, I know, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Mouth breathing is a habit. Change the habit to breathe through your nose. As you become used to breathing through your nose, you will find that your sinuses are more open and it becomes easier to breathe. NO that is released in the sinus cavities helps to open the airways. When you breathe through your nose on a regular basis this NO is circulated and helps keep airways in the nasal passages as well as the lungs clear.
Get some exercise. Our sedentary lifestyles (too much sitting, poor posture while staring at screens, lack of regular vigorous movement) set us up for poor breathing patterns. Now you can add better breathing to the long list of benefits we experience from regular movement.
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