Basic Health Habit No.5: Breathing

Life is about breathing. The rest is detail.

Breathing is a bridge between the body and the mind. It is a master switch for tuning the body. Oxygen is the quintessential nutrient that we need for living and to be healthy.

The mind is the king of the senses and the breath is the king of the mind. BKS Iyengar

Breathing is an involuntary and robust body function occurring spontaneously and without conscious attention even while we sleep, are under the influence of an anaesthetic, or if we are in a coma. 

It is also a voluntary body function that we can control to speak, sing or to play an instrument and train to improve our physical stamina and performance and for a cascade effect of health benefits. Breathing can help to create resilient health.

Breathing is a basic health habit.

The quantity and quality of oxygen depends on how we breathe and the quality of the air we take in. Poor posture, tight clothing, pollution, stress, neglect of basic health habits, lack of proper breathing method, muscles which lack flexibility or tone, and inactivity, affect how we breathe. When we are angry or stressed we tend to inhale and hold our breath which causes our muscles to tense and leads to an increase in pain. A deficiency of oxygen contributes to many physical ailments.

 Breathe Your Way to Health

Breathing allows our cells to be saturated with oxygen and expels wastes and toxins; one of the main ways our body eliminates toxins. Fluid movement  in the body happens in accordance to how we breathe, and muscle movement; only blood leaving the heart has help. Oxygen is necessary for cellular respiration: the biochemical process by which a cell converts nutrients into energy involving the oxidation of glucose to carbon dioxide and water; and the dysfunction of cellular respiration is the known cause of cancer and many other diseases. Oxygen aids in the building and repair of tissues. It reduces pain and helps the health of all of our tissues and joints. It also relieves fatigue and boosts our energy. Oxygen helps to improve blood sugar levels and to balance hormones. Breathing helps the movement of lymph, stimulates digestion and metabolism, abdominal organ function and helps to manage weight. Breathing is like an internal massage for your body.  

Deep, slow, full breathing is the key to stress reduction; no relaxation method works without deep breathing. It is a stress-relieving tool that you have available anytime, or anywhere. Breathing affects our Autonomic Nervous System also known as the Visceral Nervous System, which primarily controls our heart and respiratory rate and our digestion. When we breathe deeply, our heart rate slows, blood pressure is reduced, yet blood circulation to the extremities improves. Slow breathing engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System and quiets the Sympathetic Nervous System. The sympathetic system is designed for quick reactions; is an accelerator and is part of our fight or flight instincts while the parasympathetic system is the part of our nervous system designed to rest and digest; it acts like a brake. The body relaxes and emotions are calmed and eased as a result. Deep breathing activates the Vagus nerve (the primary cranial nerve), which is associated with a recuperative, healing state and increases Alpha brain waves which creates a relaxed but alert state of mind. 

The Importance of Nose Breathing
Breathing in and out through the nose is the only way to breathe for health (nasal inhalation/exhalation). The mouth is best used for eating and talking. 
  • The nose is connected directly to the lungs by the trachea.
  • Nasal inhalation is the most efficient and healthy way to get oxygen to the lungs.
  • Nasal exhalation is the most efficient and healthy way to get carbon dioxide out of the lungs. Getting carbon dioxide out of the lungs is as important as getting oxygen into the lungs.
  • There is a third gas, nitric oxide that is exchanged while breathing. It is an important cellular signalling molecule, a powerful vasodilator, and a neurotransmitter, involved in many physiological and pathological processes, vital to immune, brain, nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive function and health. Nitric oxide is only exchanged in the sinuses when nose breathing.
  • Aerobic conditioning, the purpose of exercise, is not possible if you mouth breathe.
  • How you breathe is always connected to muscle tension. Deep breathing is the key to relaxation; relaxation is not possible without deep, slow, full, nasal breathing.
  • The mouth is connected directly to the digestive system by the esophagus. When you breathe in through your mouth, you breathe unfiltered, untempered, dry, contaminated air directly into your digestive system, and vice-versa, unfiltered, contaminated air from the digestive system when you exhale through your mouth.

The Mechanics of Breathing 

The Exchange of Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, and Nitric Oxide,  Pulmonary and Systemic Circulation, and the Muscles of Respiration

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The lungs are paired, lobed structures like balloons, surrounded, supported and held in place by two layers of pleura (connective tissue) within our chest walls. 

The pleura fluid between these connective layers and the lungs lubricates and allows the lungs to move freely as they inflate and deflate. 

Breathing is a physical process involving the exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide. When we breathe in through our nose the air is filtered and warmed before passing into the trachea which sits in front of the esophagus. The nose is connected directly to the lungs, and this is one of the reasons nasal inhalation and exhalation is the recommended breathing method for health. Just as important as getting oxygen to the lungs, is getting carbon dioxide out of the lungs; nasal breathing achieves this, and efficiently.

From the trachea the air then passes into the branches of our bronchial tubes (bronchi) and then into the finer branches of bronchioles and finally into terminal sacs called alveoli where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide actually occurs.

The lungs are a moist environment and have a healthy system of lymph nodes to protect them from bacteria which would otherwise thrive in such a moist environment. Pneumonia is inflammation of the lungs, pleurisy is inflammation of the pleural lining while bronchitis is inflammation of the bronchioles.

Oxygen-depleted blood from the body leaves the systemic circulation and enters the right atrium of the heart and into the right ventricle into the left and right pulmonary arteries (one for each lung) and travels through the lungs where carbon dioxide is released. 

Oxygen is picked up during respiration by the pulmonary veins and returns to the left atrium of the heart and then into the left ventricle. The oxygenated blood is then distributed to the body through the systemic circulation system. 

Nitric Oxide
There is a third gas that is exchanged when we breathe: nitric oxide (NO). It is an important cellular signaling molecule, a powerful vasodilator, and a neurotransmitter, involved in many physiological and pathological processes, vital to immune, brain, nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive function and health. Low levels of nitric oxide production are important in protecting organs such as the liver from ischemic damage. Nitric oxide is only exchanged in the sinuses when nose breathing.

Systemic Circulation:
blue arteries with oxygen depleted blood, 
red veins with oxygen-rich blood
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Muscles of Respiration
The Diaphragm is the primary muscle of breathing. It is a huge muscle that looks like an opened parachute and rests horizontally across the base of the rib cage, connected in the front along the sides of your lower ribs and also along the back.

On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and flattens, pulls downwards, pulling the lungs down to bring in air while the ribs flare outwards. 

On exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and air is released from the lungs.  With deep diaphragmatic breathing, the space below the sternum (breast bone) pushes in slightly to exhale more completely.

We cannot isolate or control the movement of the diaphragm directly. The abdomen is the handle that allows you to indirectly affect the diaphragm.

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The external and internal intercostal muscles are the weaker muscles of respiration. They bridge each adjacent pair of ribs externally and internally. The internal intercostals pull the ribcage down and inward when they contract and the external intercostals expand and lift the ribcage outward when they contract. They are aided by muscles in the front and back when breathing.


Vagal Tone
Operating far below the level of our conscious minds, the vagus nerve is vital for keeping our bodies healthy. It is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming organs after the stressed fight-or-flight adrenaline response to danger. Not all vagus nerves are the same, however: some people have stronger vagus activity, which means their bodies can relax faster after a stress.

The strength of your vagus response is known as your vagal tone and it can be determined by using an electrocardiogram to measure heart rate. Every time you breathe in, your heart beats faster in order to speed the flow of oxygenated blood around your body. Breathe out and your heart rate slows. This variability is one of many things regulated by the vagus nerve, which is active when you breathe out but suppressed when you breathe in, so the bigger your difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher your vagal tone. 
Research shows that a high vagal tone makes your body better at regulating blood glucose levels, reducing the likelihood of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Low vagal tone, however, has been associated with chronic inflammation. As part of the immune system, inflammation has a useful role helping the body to heal after an injury, for example, but it can damage organs and blood vessels if it persists when it is not needed. One of the vagus nerve’s jobs is to reset the immune system and switch off production of proteins that fuel inflammation. Low vagal tone means this regulation is less effective and inflammation can become excessive. Hacking the nervous system

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Practical Guide

  • Your nose is connected directly to your lungs, your mouth is not. When you breathe in through your nose, the air is filtered and warmed before passing into the trachea, which sits in front of the esophagus.
  • Your mouth is connected directly to your digestive system, and when you mouth breathe, you are taking in unfiltered, contaminated air directly into the digestive system. The mouth is for eating and talking.
  • Shallow breathing is faster and increases heart rate and blood pressure. Inhaling through the mouth increases shallow breathing and overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Air breathed in through the mouth goes to the digestive system and can contribute to indigestion and oxygen depletion.
  • We use only a third of our lung capacity on average.
  • Aerobic conditioning is not possible with mouth breathing.
  • Focus on your breathing. Just breathe freely. Take a moment to enjoy breathing comfortably.
  • Inhale through your nose. Exhale through your nose. This is the most efficient way to get oxygen to the lungs and, equally important, carbon dioxide out.
        • The average breathing rate is 15-18 inhalations - exhalations per minute.
        • 10 inhalations - exhalations or lower per minute is the rate for deep breathing.
        • You don't have to count your breaths. 
        • Natural, unforced deep breathing requires conditioning to create the flexibility and strength of respiratory muscles.
        • Get physically active. 
        • The breathing style used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is Ujjayi which is a relaxed diaphragmatic style of breathing, characterized by an ocean sound which resonates in the back of the practitioner's throat in the vocal diaphragm. This style of glottal breathing, rather than nasal breathing, gives control of the length of inhalation, and exhalation. 
        • Throughout a practice, this specific breathing style is maintained in alignment with movements. The steady cycle of inhales and exhales provides the practitioner with a calming, mental focal point. Additionally, Viṅyāsa and Ujjayi together create internal heat, which leads to purification of the body through increased circulation and sweating. 
        • Aerobic conditioning is only possible with nose breathing.
        • Ribcage movement occurs in three dimensions: front to back, side to side, and top to bottom. Muscle tightness and congestion around the ribcage will hinder this movement.
        • Have an abdominal massage, including the diaphragm and the muscles around the ribcage to increase circulation, ease congestion, muscle tension, and fascial restrictions.
        • Your sacrum nutates (a forward and backward, nodding motion) when you breathe. If you have a sacral iliac restriction this will affect your breathing. 
        • Landmark times in your day to be aware of your breathing: before you get out of bed in the morning, while sitting in morning traffic, waiting in a line, when you feel bored or when time is passing slowly, when the phone rings, when you are experiencing pain, fatigue or stress and before you go to sleep at night.
        • Try breathing in one nostril and out the other: cover the left nostril with your finger, inhale through right nostril, then cover the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril. Reverse.
        • Try focusing on inhaling and exhaling equally with both nostrils.
        • Try focusing on how the air feels as it  passes under your nose during inhalation and exhalation. 
        Try this breathing exercise: 
        1. Inhale deeply. 
        2. Exhale with a short burst which activates the diaphragm. 
        3. Exhale with a long, slow finish to empty your lungs. Breathlessness comes from not expelling enough carbon dioxide.  
        4. There is a natural pause after exhalation.
        5. Inhale and fill your lungs from the bottom to the top. We use only a third of our lung capacity on average. 
        6. Hold this inhalation to allow the oxygen to saturate cells. Exhale slowly and fully. Repeat steps 4-6 for 5 minutes.
        • 60-80 heart beats per minute (bpm) is a healthy resting heart rate. Deep breathing increases the heart rate variability which can be lost with poor health, age and inactivity. A person who is physically active on a regular basis often will have an average resting heart rate of 50 bpm. Athletes can have a resting heart rate of 25-35 bpm. 
        • iphone app for measuring heart rate: Heart Rate Monitor (HRM). 
        • Get the app: Breath Pacer to measure breathing rate
        • Get an air filter and ionizer for your home - office - bedroom - exercise room
        • Try a Neti Pot: a natural remedy for clearing the congestion of Sinusitis
        • Visit Breathing Earth to look at a live play of the population and our CO2 emissions on the planet
        • Diaphragmatic breathing which is the proper breathing technique for meditation, and deeply relaxing for the Autonomic Nervous System and the mind, involves breathing with the upper abdomen; it does not involve the lower abdomen or movement of the chest.
        • Breathe into restricted or painful areas of your body by directing your attention and breath to that area. At the same time, visualize this area expanding with the increased air flow; the tightness easing; space being created; pain being erased.
        • Teaching your children about breathing is one of the most valuable gifts that you can give them. It will be a natural habit and an instinctive and effective response to stress and pain, unlike when we learn deep breathing as adults, first having to unlearn poor habits and condition ourselves to healthy habits. 
        • The secret to deep breathing is a full exhalation. This creates room naturally and comfortably for the next inhalation to be a little deeper, slower, and fuller, and makes deep breathing effortless. With regular practice, this develops the muscles of respiration.
        • Breathing is an effective response to stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and pain.

        Paul Barclay

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        DO YOU KNOW? 
        One fifth or 20% of the air that we breathe contains oxygen. There are 400 million cycles of breathing in a sedentary lifetime. 

        The Bohr Effect  is a physiological phenomenon involving haemoglobin's oxygen binding affinity and its inverse relationship both to acidity and to the concentration of carbon dioxide. An increase in blood CO2 concentration, which leads to a decrease in blood pH, will result in haemoglobin proteins releasing their load of oxygen. Conversely, a decrease in carbon dioxide provokes an increase in pH, which results in hemoglobin picking up more oxygen. Since carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, an increase in CO2 results in a decrease in blood pH

        The Bohr effect enables the body to adapt to changing conditions and makes it possible to supply extra oxygen to tissues that need it the most. For example, when muscles are undergoing strenuous activity, they require large amounts of oxygen to conduct cellular respiration, which generates CO2 (and therefore HCO3− and H+) as byproducts. These waste products lower the pH of the blood, which increases oxygen delivery to the active muscles. Carbon dioxide is not the only molecule that can trigger the Bohr effect. If muscle cells aren't receiving enough oxygen for cellular respiration, they resort to lactic acid fermentation, which releases lactic acid as a byproduct. This increases the acidity of the blood even more than CO2 alone, which reflects the cells' even greater need for oxygen. In fact, under anaerobic conditions, muscles generate lactic acid so quickly that pH of the blood passing through the muscles will drop to around 7.2, which causes haemoglobin to begin releasing 10% more oxygen.

        Kussmaul Breathing 
        Is deep, laboured breathing associated with severe metabolic acidosis, diabetic ketoacidosis and renal failure. First the breathing pattern is rapid and shallow and then becomes deep, slow, laboured and gasping.

        Eupnoea refers to breathing which is quiet and effortless.

        Circular Breathing 
        Is used by musicians of some wind instruments to produce a continuous tone without interruption by inhaling through the nose while simultaneously exhaling out of the mouth using air stored in the cheeks.  Circular breathing allows music that was composed before the 20th century for stringed instruments that often required this method of breathing, to be played on wind instruments. For example: Moto Perpetuo transcribed for trumpet by Rafael Méndez from the original violin work by Paganini. Saxophonist and Ohio native Sir Isaac Lacey holds the world record for continuous playing at 2 hours 13 minutes. Circular breathing is used to play the Australian Didgeridoo, the Sardinian Launeddas and the Egyptian Arghul.

        Ujjayi Breathing
        The breathing style used in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is Ujjayi which is a relaxed diaphragmatic style of breathing, characterized by an ocean sound which resonates in the back of the practitioner's throat in the vocal diaphragm. This style of glottal breathing, rather than nasal breathing, gives control of the length of inhalation and exhalation. 

        Throughout a practice, this specific breathing style is maintained in alignment with movements. The steady cycle of inhales and exhales provides the practitioner with a calming, mental focal point. In this way aerobic strength is developed as well. Additionally, viṅyāsa and Ujjayi together create internal heat, which leads to purification of the body through increased circulation and sweating. 




          1. I thought the review of how breathing works, I mean in terms of the mechanics of the body, was excellent. It's a useful reference for someone like myself who knows a little bit but hasn't put all the pieces together. I agree that breathing is like an internal message. I've often thought of it as an internal exercise. I've deepened my breathing for years by throat singing. Doing a quick count, I find that a normal rate for me today is 6 breaths per minute. I think this has definitely been a health benefit. However, approaching the end of my 40s, I can say that I have learned in the last years that having too sedentary a lifestyle is not good, doesn't matter how well I breathe. External exercise is needed to balance internal exercise, no doubt about it. I am working on that, and making some progress, but just like a good breathing habit, the body doesn't learn (or relearn) overnight.

            Paul Barclay

          2. Thanks Val, insightful and informative as ever. I think we all know that breathing is necessary (maybe even vital to being alive) but I really didn't understand more that that. Really helps to explain what happens when I can't catch my breath when I've over-exerted myself!

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