There is no health practice more fundamental and
no effect more profound, than correct breathing
Ways to encourage
and cultivate good
How can you
tell if you are
Immediate short-term solutions to overbreathing
Breathing is a behavior, respiration is the goal - getting oxygen to the cells, tissues and organs of the body. Breathing is voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious. You are being “breathed” by your body 24/7 whether you’re thinking about it pr not.
Precise coordination of breathing rate and depth is a brain coordinated reflex which is regulated by you and can easily be deregulated by you. It is a trigger for emotions, memories and physical symptoms, as well as an antidote when any of those are out of balance.
Relaxation encourages good breathing although relying on relaxation for good breathing can be a problem. Good breathing is important always, no matter what you might be doing or feeling.
Optimal oxygen delivery during activity and sports depends on good breathing.
1. Breathing Truths
Good breathing is rhythmic breathing - harmonious, regular and repetitive. While breathing at rest the in-breath is equal to the out-breath and there will be a small automatic pause after the exhale before breathing in again. In - out - pause; in - out - pause; in - out - pause.
Good breathing is nasal breathing. The mouth is for eating, the ears are for hearing, the nose is for breathing. During inhale, the sinuses warm, moisturize and clean the air in preparation for its entry into the lungs. During exhale, the sinuses reabsorb carbon dioxide into the body via specialized cells before any excess is released back into the air for recycling. CO2 is critical for oxygen delivery in the body.
Good breathing is abdominal breathing. A normal breath begins and ends with the diaphragm. With inhale, the transversus abdominis muscle in the abdomen extends outward as the diaphragm contracts downward, as air is pulled into the lungs. With exhale, the abdomen contracts slightly inward, the diaphragm relaxes upward, and air is released from the lungs. The diaphragm is the largest muscle in the body and the primary muscle of breathing.
Good breathing is less breathing. Athletes and healthy people breathe less at rest and during sleep although they can get as much air as they need when they exert themselves or just want to take a healthy abdominal full breath.
There is a cultural myth that speaks to taking a deep breath for relaxation. Under normal circumstances deep breathing is not a solution to stress or anxiety; typically it is counterproductive and may actually trigger
Full breath - originating from the abdomen and diaphragm; can be a small or large (volume) breath; brings oxygen to all of the alveoli including the lower lungs
Deep breath - pulling air in with gusto after a comfortable inhale and continuing to push air out after an exhale; can be with upper or lower respiratory muscles
Good breathing allows each breath to come and go without rushing. Slowing one's breathing reduces excitation to the nervous system, produces a feeling of calm and is a highly effective way to control stress. The ability to remain calm during vigorous activity can become a model for handling many of life’s stressful situations.
Good breathing is Eucapnic breathing. Eucapnia means a normal, healthy level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the body and lungs - about 5.5 to 6.5%. The respiratory system is the primary regulator of blood pH in the body.
Good breathing comfortably rests in the pause after the exhale and tolerates periodic feelings of slight air hunger. Hypoxia - low oxygen - is perceived in the body as air hunger. Consider people such as the Sherpas in the Himalayas, or most modern day Olympic athletes who train in simulated 10,000 ft altitudes. Higher altitudes have less oxygen; this in turn generates a greater efficiency of oxygen usage and helps the body to maintain healthy external and internal respiration.
external = outwardly visible breathing mechanics; easily and immediately accessible
internal = cellular; challenging to access respiration O2 and CO2 exchange in the body.
Good breathing results in a healthy body, mind and spirit; a body in which all systems - immune, digestive, hormonal, cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological - are functioning optimally.
10. Good, healthy respiration leads to:
Strengthened immune system
Calmer nervous system
More efficient energy metabolism
Greater air, blood and lymph flow throughout the body
Easier digestion and food absorption
2. Nature's Perfect Balance
Humans and animals have been created in perfect balance with nature.
Look at a tree, and be aware that the leaves absorb carbon dioxide that we make and breathe out, as they make and “breathe out” oxygen that we absorb in our alveoli. We all know what a leaf looks like; alveoli are like the “leaves” in our lungs - those tiny little air pockets that expand and deflate with each breath, like miniature balloons.
We make carbon dioxide in our bodies and give it to the green world. The green world makes oxygen in its body and gives it to us.
CO2 and O2 exchange in the leaf/alveoli
Similar tree branches and our bronchial “tree” branches
Two lungs, and two kidneys, together responsible for acid/alkaline BALANCE in the body.
3. What's so Great About Carbon Dioxide ~ CO2?
Carbon dioxide - CO2 - has been called, “the Breath of life” or Prana. One of its most vital roles is ensuring release of Oxygen - O2 - into the body.
CO2 is a crucial regulator of the respiratory, cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems as well as energy metabolism. Adequate carbon dioxide is essential to healthy body functioning.
CO2 is manufactured in the body in the mitochondria of every cell - the place of energy production. It is then broken down into different forms such as bicarbonate, carbonic anhydrase and carbonic acid.
CO2 is a natural bronchodilator and is the body's equivalent to bronchodilator drugs. Research shows that a loss of CO2 in the lungs leads to constriction and inflammation in the airways.
The lungs and kidneys together are responsible for maintaining pH (acid/alkaline) balance in the body. The lungs regulate CO2, an acid, and the kidneys regulate HCO3 - hydrogen bicarbonate -, a base. O2 is absorbed into our bodies based on how much CO2 is available. (Bohr Effect)
Reducing the rate and volume of breathing normalizes it and will help to replenish the body's CO2 levels.
4. Ways to Encourage & Cultivate Good Breathing Habits
Learn to wait for the breath. Allow the exhale to happen and then allow the inhale to happen. Don’t be in a hurry. Breathing on purpose is not the goal; it can deregulate you.
Compare the feelings/qualities of abdominal vs. chest breathing. Once habituated, you will notice that abdominal breathing is easy, automatic, and efficient while chest breathing is effortful, intentional, and inefficient.
Breathe quietly, without intention, effort, or worry. Give yourself 5-30 minutes a day to do this.
Learn to trace the pathways of your breath as it moves through your respiratory system. Lay your hands on your belly and feel it gently expand with the inhale and contract with the exhale. Occupy your mind and sense the flow of air through your nostrils during inhale and exhale.
Think about people, circumstances, and events that generate positive feelings. Visualize the simple beauty of fresh flowers, a stream, a mountain vista, a sunset. Imagine yourself walking along a beach or a path in the woods. Recall a recent experience with a friend or loved one where you felt happy. Practice constructive self-talk.
Hyperventilation = overbreathing. Both are normal patterns that develop in response to stress of any kind. Chronic and consistent overbreathing will result in CO2 deficiency. You can overbreathe by either breathing too fast, too deeply or both, and even very slow breathing (3-5 breaths per minute) can result in deficiency if depth is exaggerated.
Chronic overbreathing is frequently referred to as “hidden hyperventilation” since most people aren’t aware that they’re doing it, and it may feel just like underbreathing. Both lead to O2 deficiency and in both cases you may feel breathless, short of breath, and constricted. It is estimated that up to 90% of individuals in the western world are chronic hidden hyperventilators.
Loss of CO2 from overbreathing leads to loss of other crucial carbon containing compounds in the body which all play important roles in metabolism and maintaining pH balance. Low CO2 causes a number of potentially problematic metabolic consequences including less efficient energy production and excessive mineral excretion in the urine.
The result of short-term overbreathing is respiratory alkalosis and in the long-term metabolic acidosis. This results in increased allergic symptoms and causes further hyperventilation which then weakens the immune system so that colds and flus are more prevalent and have a stronger impact on the body.
Chronic overbreathing means habitual upper chest, mouth and irregular breathing and eliminates CO2 at a more rapid rate than is sustainable for the body. CO2 depletion leads to hyperventilation, and a vicious cycle is created.
Hyperventilation is the body’s normal response to “Fight, Flight or Freeze” - aka STRESS. It is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system. When the stress has passed, the healthy norm for the body is to return to calmer breathing, dominated by the parasympathetic nervous system. In this place digestion is optimal, the immune system is able to function efficiently, the channels in which air, blood and lymph flow (bronchioles, arteries and veins, lymph vessels) are relaxed and open, the nervous system is calm and life is good.
Long term low level hyperventilation can lead to such conditions as asthma, sleep apnea and breathlessness, rashes, aches and pains, anxiety, chilly hands and feet (poor circulation).
Strong emotional stressors such as anxiety, excitement, anger and fear can create a state of sympathetic nervous system arousal. This causes both heart and breathing rates to increase. Ongoing stressors from modern day life (fast pace, little relaxation, poor nutrition, dehydration, trauma, decision fatigue, violence) have resulted in a world of mouth and upper chest breathers.
Mouth breathing detracts from our body's natural ability to clean the air before it enters the lungs and will cause the skull to re-align its growth and adaptability patterns. This can have long-term negative consequences especially with dentition and for children in their formative years.
How can you tell if you are over-breathing?
The following experiences are often associated with overbreathing:
Breathlessness, short of breath
Can’t take a deep breath, can’t get your breath
Worried about getting your breath
Shoulders up while breathing
Tightness or discomfort in the chest
Tingling of the skin
Cold and/or sweaty hands
Numbness in the fingers or toes
Muscle tightness, body tension
Stiff or unnatural body posture
Tightness in the jaw
Lightheadedness or dizziness
Pressure in the head
Things seem distant
Can’t think straight
Can’t pay attention
Gut discomfort, or nausea
Fast heart rate
Sighing, gasping, or breath holding
6. Chest Breathing
Upper chest breathing restricts the body’s ability to bring the air deep down into our lower lungs on a regular basis to make use of the 300 - 400 million alveoli that each human has, enough to cover a tennis court. It can also lead to chronic back and neck pain as the upper chest and thoracic muscles are secondary respiratory muscles to be used in emergencies only. Chest breathing often brings a sense of struggle to breathing and can lead to overbreathing as overcompensation for this struggle. Chest breathing:
Restricts the amount of air you can breathe with each breath
Makes it necessary to breathe more rapidly
Makes it difficult to exhale completely
Creates a sense of urgency for getting the next breath (air hunger)
Requires excessive expansion of the chest
Makes breathing seem tight and constricted;
Gives the illusion that breathing is about the chest rather than the diaphragm;
Makes breathing seem effortful, even exhausting;
Increases effort because it involves muscles unnecessary for normal breathing;
Makes breathing intentional (ie: trying to breathe) rather than automatic;
Triggers defensiveness as a result of feeling physically and mentally trapped;
Triggers sympathetic nervous system activity (emotions, arousal, stress);
Interferes with brain stem reflex coordination of O2 needs with the diaphragm