The Importance of Breath

The Importance of Breath

'Beyond Air: The Importance of Breath' is an excerpt from Janis Blum's upcoming e-book 'Understanding You from a Movement Perspective'. The e-book will be available as part of his online Coaching Platform launching later this year.  

True health and inner peace is achieved when breathing is quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, abdominal, rhythmical and gently paused on the exhale. This is how human beings naturally breathed until modern life changed everything.

Patrick McKeown, Author of ‘The Oxygen Advantage’

How do you breathe? It’s a strange question. Many people have never even thought about it. They just breathe. Nose or Mouth? Does it matter? Actually, yes. It’s possibly the most important movement the human body undertakes around 24,000 times a day every day and it’s the only movement known to science where we can take direct conscious control over our nervous system – a bidirectional superhighway of electrical signals that operates as a communication link between the brain and the entire body. It’s kind of like the internet operating in the background connecting everything together. Almost all of it works completely behind the scenes operating your heartbeat, digestion, cell repair and growth, hormone and temperature regulation, muscle contractions and metabolism. Often we assume that most of these are beyond our control but as the science of studying the effects of breathing grows what we are discovering is that breathing is a portal into our nervous system, an opportunity to take control and address whether it is operating well or not. To do this we need to first be aware of our breathing habits and then understand how to breathe for optimal health and performance.

We have two routes to inhale and exhale, the nose and the mouth. The mouth is essentially a mechanical and chemical food reducer to aid digestion but still has the capacity to inhale air without much ability to filter any unwanted guests or particles.

The nose is a bacterial and viral air filtration system that cleans, moistens, warms and purifies the air we breathe to protect our lungs and airways from toxins and irritants as well as optimise the air quality for premium gas exchange within the lungs. The nose is also a nitric oxide factory, a chemical with many performance enhancing effects on the circulatory system, vasodilation being one of the most important.

Vasodilation is the opening of the pipework’s within the body, larger pipes mean less resistance to the flow of air, blood, lymph and other fluids circulating throughout the body, so stuff gets to where it needs to go much easier and with less effort. The vasodilation comes about from the effects that Nitric Oxide has on the nervous system, it places it in a state of calm and rest, in scientific terms this would be called a parasympathetic dominant state. Mouth breathing does quite the opposite, due to the change in muscles recruited to perform a single mouth breathe it bypasses nitric oxide production and inhibits a key player in our nervous system, the vagus nerve. Inhibiting the vagus nerve triggers a sympathetic nervous system response resulting in a cascade of signals that places the body in a position of pre-stress. Alert, ready and tense. A state designed to keep us safe and imperative for our survival but not a state that we should find ourselves in constantly throughout the day. One mouth breathe may seem harmless but 24,000 a day can be dangerous to our long term health and survival.

The benefits of nasal breathing go well beyond the immediate process of inhalation. Once the air enters our lungs and oxygen makes its way into the bloodstream that oxygenated blood travels throughout the body as an energy supply for the body’s tissues, muscles and organs. Oxygen has a high binding affinity with Haemoglobin, the carrier of oxygen in the red blood cell, so arterial blood is always highly saturated with oxygen, around 95-99%.

There is however a critical factor in how much oxygen is offloaded from the red blood cell to the tissues requiring oxygen and that determinant is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a major by-product after the mitochondria of a cell uses oxygen and food to create energy (ATP). As cells utilise more oxygen and fuel, more carbon dioxide is offloaded into the circulatory system to be released from the body via the lungs. 

It is in fact the accumulation of carbon dioxide that triggers a response to take another breathe and not a shortage of supply in oxygen.

Carbon dioxide has an even higher binding affinity to haemoglobin than oxygen, which means that when it accumulates in the blood it forces oxygen to be offloaded from the red blood cell and into the cells of tissues as required, without carbon dioxide being present, oxygen wouldn’t be displace and the tissues would starve. This is an essential relationship for a healthy circulatory system. If too much carbon dioxide is released from the body due to over breathing, a result of mouth breathing, then this can have a serious impact on limiting the supply of much needed oxygen to our vital organs, brain, muscles and tissues. Not an ideal situation for optimising human performance and health. When we mouth breath chronically, we diminish our capacity to tolerate carbon dioxide within the body and this leads us to take rapid shallow breaths, as opposed to healthy slow and low breaths that naturally occur with nasal breathing. We tend to breath high in our chest when we mouth breath and under utilise our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, that is pivotal in creating pressure and volume differences within the torso of the body.

Pressure and volume fluctuations in the abdomen and chest that occur with each breathe have a direct input upon our heart rate, breath rate and nervous system. The simple act of taking a long and soft exhale ultimately leads to a slowing down of our heart rate and creates a strong sense of calm and safety within our mind and body.

That’s because as the diaphragm retracts back in towards the chest cavity, the space around the heart gets smaller and the blood running through the heart speeds up a little which signals to the brain to slow the heart rate down. Consequently, our carbon dioxide tolerance also increases when we slow down the rate of our release of it.

There are so many aspects of breathing that I could go into however, the main takeaway I want you to have when it comes to understanding You is that nasal breathing is the safest, healthiest and most potent way to breathe except when performing physically strenuous activity. Nasal breathing is the most potent tool in our daily health kit if your goal is to live a long, healthy, productive and happy life. Sleep is often thought of as the number 1 determinant for optimal health but if you are mouth breathing during your sleep then your sleep quality is going to be greatly compromised.

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