We take 25,000 – 30,000 breaths per day. Breathing is a natural process, vital to our physical and emotional well-being and our brain health. We live in a culture that tends to think more is better, the more you breathe the more oxygen you’ll get. This may seem counter-intuitive, but big breaths do not lead to more oxygen. In order to improve the delivery of oxygen to the tissues, breathing volume should be light, slow and relaxed along with engaging the proper muscles. Another misconception is that carbon dioxide is bad and it is just a waste product to be exhaled. Carbon dioxide serves many vital functions in the body. A poor breathing pattern is disruptive to our nervous system and put us in a state of “fight or flight.” It can make us feel pretty lousy, sometimes causing ongoing, unexplainable symptoms that can’t be solved with conventional medical treatment.
To oxygenate tissues and organs, modern man needs to breathe less not more.Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, Founder of the Buteyko Method
Carbon Dioxide Plays a Crucial Role in Our Health
The brain plays a major role in breathing. The respiratory center in the brain monitors the blood levels of carbon dioxide, blood pH and to a lesser extent oxygen. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood, and thus blood pH, serve as the primary driver of our breathing rate; when CO2 levels drop, our breathing rate goes up. The presence of CO2 in the blood allows hemoglobin to unload oxygen and deliver it to all cells in the body. This phenomenon is call the Bohr Effect and was discovered in 1904 by the Danish scientist Christian Bohr. Carbon dioxide causes relaxation of smooth muscles found in the walls of blood vessels, bronchioles of the lungs, and gut. This is important for regulating blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain, reducing inflammation of the sinuses and opening of the airways for asthmatics, and relaxing gastrointestinal tract thus aiding digestion. Additionally, it tends to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
There are two ways to increase CO2 in the blood. One is through exercise. The other is by reducing the volume of the breath. The Buteyko Breathing Method, developed by the Russian medical doctor and scientist Konstantin Buteyko, is one such therapy of reduced breathing used to restore the biochemistry and biomechanics of breathing back to a healthy level.
Every part of your body, every organ and every system is affected by over breathing.Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, Founder of the Buteyko Method
Dysfunctional breathing, which persists at rest, is similar to the way one breathes when the nervous system’s fight or flight response is on overdrive. Ultimately, it causes hyperventilation and a blowing off of too much carbon dioxide which disrupts blood pH. Typical signs include mouth breathing in an attempt to take in more air; a high breathing rate of 15 – 20 breaths per minute; shallow upper chest breathing with tummy movement, causing neck and shoulder tension along with restricted thoracic mobility; and it is loud and erratic with lots of yawning or sighing.
Our sedentary lifestyle, forward head posture and slouching from hovering over electronic devices, weight gain, processed foods, stress and back pain all contribute to suboptimal breathing habits. It is also becoming more widely recognized that Covid patients tend to experience similar disruptions in their breathing patterns and carbon dioxide levels that can persist and impact their return to daily life.
Every system of the body can be affected by dysfunctional breathing, potentially causing anxiety, depression and panic attacks; sleep disorders such as snoring, sleep apnea and insomnia; asthma and sinus inflammation; irritable bowel, constipation, reflux and bloating; muscular cramps and stiffness in the neck and shoulders; sense of fatigue, brain fog, dizziness and headaches, etc.
Healthy breathing is life sustaining, and it requires the nose to do its job. Nasal breathing increases circulating blood oxygen and CO2 levels. It allows the release of nitric oxide into the airways, sterilizing the air we breathe and dilating the lungs. Nasal breathing also makes it easier to engage the diaphragm, the main breathing muscle. Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to shift away from shallow, rapid upper chest breathing to one that is a more relaxed widening of the lower rib cage and of a healthier volume. The classic traits of healthy breathing are described as light, slow, deep, silent and almost undetectable. It is much easier to achieve a normal breathing rate of 10 – 12 breaths per min when breathing through the nose. Research has also shown that a slower rate of 6 breaths per minute is optimal for activating the vagus nerve, thus having a calming effect on the nervous system. Additionally, the rise and fall of the diaphragm creates a rhythmic massage for the digestive organs and a pumping mechanism to stimulate lymphatic flow, which is important for a healthy immune system. Done properly, we can reap the health benefits from those 20,000+ breaths per day.
Breathing is a missing pillar of health and our attention to it is long overdue.James Nestor, Author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
Dysfunctional breathing patterns can lead to ongoing, unexplainable symptoms and bodily complaints that can baffle the medical community. Proper breathing is crucial to our health; and it is becoming more widely recognized that restoring natural breathing patterns for Covid patients is a necessity for one to return to normal daily living.
A breathing program should be individualized and involve a multi-dimenstional approach, allowing for a slow evolution back to normal, functional breathing. It should restore the biochemistry of breathing through reduced volume breathing, the biomechanics of the diaphragm via the nasal breathing, and the nervous system’s calming effect by targeting the vagus nerve. Additionally, it should address the function of midline structures such as the eyes, tongue, spine and the inner ear balance system because of their influence on the modulating the fight or flight response of the nervous system. Mobility exercises, targeting the thoracic spine, rib cage, neck and hips joints, may also help to improve postural awareness. There are many types of breathing programs but they tend to focus on just one aspect of healthy breathing. When we consider that most of our breathing is done at rest, sitting in front of the computer, driving, eating, reading, watching TV, etc., then first and foremost, it is important to restore healthy breathing patterns at rest. Having the proper foundations in place, one will then have the energy to challenge their breathing with increased activity and sports.
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