We all have experienced how frightening not breathing can be. From when we hold our breath upon hearing bad news to a loved one suffering from asthma or COPD. When we can’t catch our breath, we literally feel like we are dying. In a real sense, that’s true because we can’t access life-giving oxygen when we don’t breathe.
So, why aren’t we taught about breath? With a bodily function this important, surely, we should know the philosophy and mechanics of breathing. That is why I am sharing this primer on breath with you today.
It’s clear that modern medicine ignores the importance of breathing leaving it to innovative doctors, therapists and breath work practitioners to fill the gap. I don’t remember “correct breathing” being mentioned once in my medical training. Medicine only intervenes when breathing goes bad with conditions like asthma, emphysema and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Even then, the emphasis is on medication, respirators, or oxygen masks.
You can tell a lot by the way a person breathes – slow deep diaphragmatic; slow, shallow diaphragmatic; or rapid breaths. By the time you finish reading this blog, you will know what the types of breathing mean and how to improve you and your loved ones’ breathing. Improving the quality of your breath is one lifestyle improvement that is easy to implement.
What Is Good Breathing?
If you do the research, you’ll find that there is a plethora of breathing techniques recommended on the Internet. You will probably also find, like I did, that the information sources about breathing contradict each other quite a bit. It’s challenging to wade through the various opinions.
For my beginning readers, I always answer one simple question. Your question for today is, “Dr. Dean, what is good breathing?” Here is my response: “It’s all about balance and avoiding extremes.” What does that look like in practical terms? Remember, breathing is an automatic body process, so your body natively knows how to breathe. Here are the three qualities of natural breathing that you may notice:
- Nasal. You breathe through your nose.
- Diaphragmatic or abdominal. This is done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. Air enters the lungs; the chest does not rise and the belly expands during this type of breathing.
If you would like to read on, please do so. I will continue my primer on breathing so that you can indeed help yourself and your loved ones make improvements in your/their quality of life.
Benefits of Breathing
It’s something we just don’t think about, so you may be surprised at some of the ways that breathing benefits your life. Here is a list I made for Module 52 of my Completement Now Health Program. (NOTE: Much of the material for this post is an updated excerpt from this Module. So, if you would like to research other modules, the link provided takes you to a free trial of the first four modules of the program.)
- Bringing oxygen to your cells
- Removing carbon dioxide, the waste produce of cellular respiration and metabolism
- Keeping the right balance of carbon dioxide to oxygen ratio
- Keeping the lungs inflated
- Expanding the ribs
- Keeping the diaphragm in place
- Massaging internal organs with the mobile diaphragm
And there’s much more. Breathing also brings awareness. I remember a Peanuts cartoon where Linus focused on his breathing and got so tripped up about it that he became afraid that he would forget to breathe. I think he had to pay a visit to Lucy behind her psychiatrist’s booth to ask her what to do.
Breathing is automatic, so why mess with a good thing you ask? Because I think we may be unconsciously adopting poor breathing habits and don’t even realize it. Poor breathing habits can arise from behaviors or from illness. Or a combination of both.
Breathing and Illness
If you have sinus congestion, you’re going to be forced to breathe through your mouth. Mouth breathing, however, is not the best way to get air into your lungs. The role of the nasal passages is to moisten and warm (or cool) the air that is presented to the delicate lining of your lungs. Your nasal membranes and their hairy lining also trap foreign particles that could lodge in your lungs and cause sensitivity or allergic reactions.
Asthma is another condition that changes the way you breathe. Occasionally, I’ve laughed so hard I’ve begun to wheeze. It had nothing to do with asthma but made me realize how sensitive the lungs are. Coughing, laughing, and restrictive breathing due to a cold or cold weather can all set off spasming in the lungs… and don’t forget, where there’s spasming there is also
Many of you may have seen someone having an asthma attack…even if it was only on TV. The first thing that caregivers try to do is get the person to take some slow deep breaths. In fact, if someone feels an attack coming on, they may be able to avert it with proper breathing.
Making Your Lungs Behave
What happens when you hear a loud and startling noise? I don’t know about you, but I unconsciously and immediately experience a sharp intake of breath. So, when people are anxious, they breathe short quick breaths high up in their lungs. Shoulders elevate. Stomach tenses. The whole body goes rigid when you are anxious. The question is. When you breathe this way habitually, does that make you tense? I’m sure it does. Additionally, if you hyperventilate you can actually build symptoms of anxiety. Let’s actually look at how this works.
Is there such a thing as bad breathing? I’ve already alluded to hyperventilation as a bad breathing pattern. So, let’s use hyperventilation as an example. If you are hyperventilating, you’re breathing faster than necessary potentially causing a host of symptoms, such as:
- Anxiety attacks
- Chest Pain
- Fainting or feeling faint
- Numbness/Tingling of hands, feet, lips
- Panic attacks
- Slurred speech
During a panic attack you can breathe up to 20-30 breaths per minute. These breaths are high in the chest and very shallow. (The normal breathing rate is 8-12 breaths per minute.) You might imagine that if you breathe faster and faster and faster that you will build up lots of oxygen. And since oxygen is what we need…isn’t that a good thing? But it’s not just about the oxygen. The fine balance in breathing is between oxygen and carbon dioxide. When you hyperventilate you exhale too much carbon dioxide. A reduction in carbon dioxide raises the blood pH to a more alkaline level. Alkaline blood constricts blood vessels and prevents proper oxygen transport to the nervous system resulting in the above symptoms.
But crazily enough, there is actually a hyperventilation therapy that’s being offered by a European breath practitioner. The Sunday Timesintroduced “the latest alternative therapy fad” reporting on “The trippy new breathing therapy” asking “Can turbo-charged breathing really make you hallucinate your way to happiness?”
I’m reluctant to even name this person because I don’t want anyone to think I’m recommending his work. I will reference him below. He calls himself the Breath Guru and says we only use 20-30% of our lung capacity and he wants us to use 100%. He believes that in this way our cells get fully oxygenated and energized and everything in your body will work more efficiently. But he may be deadly wrong. His, so-called therapy makes you feel tingling in your extremities until they get heavy and feel paralyzed. He wants you to feel faint and lightheaded, which he says expands your mind and puts you in touch with your emotions. Come on people, this is a self-induced panic attack pronounced as enlightenment therapy! Leave it alone!
For Advanced Readers
What is Breath Therapy?
When done with a proper therapist, breath therapy can be a tool for helping alleviate anxiety, grief and loss, respiratory conditions, chronic pain, and emotional trauma. It’s usually coupled with some form of psychotherapy or emotional release. Most articles and papers I read about breath therapy insist that the cardinal rules are:
- Breathe more
- Breath deeper
- Get more oxygen into the body
But is that really so?
Most breath therapists seem to think that we don’t use our full lung capacity. That’s what the Breath Guru says too. So, they make the case that if your lungs are saturated with more oxygen, then more oxygen will get to your muscles. More oxygen will make your muscles work more efficiently allowing oxygen saturated blood to flow more easily. And even make your brain work more efficiently. But this may be a series of false premises that have the ring of truth but may be just half truths.
Dr. Konstantin Buteyko has the opposite philosophy to the Breath Guru. But he backs his beliefs with some science. I say “some science” because I’m not convinced that he’s completely right either. However, he says he can prove that deeper breathing actually means less oxygen at the cellular level.
Buteyko training seemed like the opposite of what we think we know about breathing. His work is about shallow, slow breathing as opposed to deep diaphragmatic breathing, which forces extra oxygen into the body. But that isn’t necessarily the case because too much oxygen drives down carbon dioxide as I mentioned above.
Buteyko says the following are the most important aspects of proper breathing:
- Diaphragmatic or abdominal
- Barely visible
I agree with Dr. Buteyko that breathing is probably best when it’s nasal, diaphragmatic and slow. I don’t want to completely endorse “barely visible” because then you might get too caught up in making it a “rule” when it’s already natural to breathe that way. And I also agree that all this forced deep breathing is probably detrimental in the long run. It makes sense to me that when the body is moving huge volumes of air and building up oxygen then it should be for a purpose. Like running away from danger. So, when you purposely practice this type of breathing, perhaps it flips some switch in the body equated with an alarm state.
I know what Buteyko and I are saying goes against all the heavy exercising that a segment of the population enjoys. But think of how they are artificially pushing the envelope to get an endorphin high. What goes up must come down. I’ve treated enough athletes to know that they can burn out their adrenal glands from the stress of exercise.
Basic Breath Therapy: Abdominal Breathing
Abdominal breathing is also called diaphragmatic breathing because your diaphragm moves
down as you inhale. When babies and animals breathe, their whole body seems to be involved and their abdomens rise and fall with each breath.
I catch myself sometimes with a tense abdomen and take a conscious abdominal breath to release it. When I was growing up, the emphasis was on posture, not breathing. Which made me throw my shoulders back, tense my abdomen and suck in my stomach — the military posture. Then there was all that tight clothing that people wore in the 60’s and 70’s. Girdles were all the rage. How can you possibly breathe with all that rubber and elastic squeezing the life right out of you?
With half the population in bathing suits here on Maui, I see a lot of abnormal breathing because people are trying to suck in their wayward stomach. I don’t know if this is the only reason. Perhaps that and the stress and fear that we allow to pervade our lives makes us tense and inhibits our breathe. Many years ago, I learned about abdominal breathing during my naturopathic training.
Learning to Breathe
What is your normal breathing pattern? Here is a strategy for finding out:
- Lie down comfortably on your back and become aware of your breathing. Don’t try to change anything. Are you breathing into your chest or your abdomen? How fast are you breathing?
- To make it clearer, rest one hand on your abdomen over your belly button and another on your chest over your sternum (breastbone). Breath as you normally do. Which hand is moving the most?
Now, let’s practice abdominal breathing, using the following steps:
- Place one hand on your abdomen over your belly button.
- Inhale through your nose slowly and deeply. Concentrate on moving air into the bottom
of your lungs. Let your abdomen rise as your chest moves only slightly.
- Hold at the end of inhalation for a second or two and exhale through your nose.
What about Yogic Breathing?
Yes, it most likely is. But in this post, I wanted to give you the very basics of breathing. If you wish to delve more into breathing exercises, you can do that in a yoga class where the exercises are combined with the proper breathing patterns. There are many forms of breathing exercises taught in a yoga practice but, again, I want you to know that the basic aspects of yoga are simply outlined here and very doable and manageable without taking any classes.
Owning the Information
Now that you understand a bit more about breathing and have learned to find out what your normal breath pattern is and how to do abdominal breathing, here are some daily practices to reinforce good breathing:
Practice Abdominal Breathing.I’m sure many of you already know about abdominal breathing. This module will serve as a reminder to be conscious of doing it regularly. For those of you who now realize you are shallow breathers, follow the abdominal breathing instructions and make it a habit.
Breath through your nose.If you have nasal congestion, please “google” my name adding the words, “nasal congestion.” Example: “Dr. Carolyn Dean Nasal Congestion”
Breathe in and out slowly.Consciously being aware of steady breathing is immensely calming. While writing this post I’ve slowed down considerably taking more time to appreciate the importance of my breath and the simple things in life.
Dr. Carolyn Dean