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; train to improve our physical stamina and performance, and for a cascade effect of health benefits. 

Take the time to notice your breathing when you first wake up, before getting out of bed. When healthy physiological function is in harmony with your circadian rhythm, breathing is soft and effortless, yet comfortably deep and full. This is normalized physiological breathing. Continue reading to learn about the secret to deep breathing.

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. A common breathing habit involves holding the inhalation, which causes muscles to tense and leads to restricted circulation and an increase in pain. A poor breathing habit and the resulting gas exchange, contributes to many physical ailments.

 Breathe Your Way to Health
  • Breathing stimulates brain growth. The controlled breathing of mindfulness meditation increases cortical thickness. Neuroimaging research indicates that human intellectual ability is related to brain structure including the thickness of the cerebral cortex. Most studies indicate that general intelligence is positively associated with cortical thickness.
  • Breathing alters gene expression.  The relaxation response - a physiologic state of deep rest, induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and prayer - produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, inflammation, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion, and counteracts the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, and diabetes.
  • Investigations into the physiological effects of slow breathing have uncovered significant effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory, and autonomic nervous systems. Key findings include effects on respiratory muscle activity, ventilation efficiency, chemoreflex and baroreflex sensitivity, heart rate variability, blood flow dynamics, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, cardiorespiratory coupling, and sympathovagal balance.
  • Breathing is like an internal massage for your body. The movement of fluids in the body happens in accordance to how we breathe (and muscle movement) Only blood leaving the heart has help. 
  • Breathing helps the movement of lymph, stimulates digestion and metabolism, abdominal organ function, and helps to manage weight. 
  • Oxygen helps to improve blood sugar levels and to balance hormones. 
  • Breathing alters the physiological response to stress. Breathing lowers stress levels, alleviates anxiety and negative emotions; especially beneficial for people with health conditions. Breathing affects our Autonomic Nervous System also known as the Visceral Nervous System, which primarily controls heart and respiratory rate, and digestive function. 
  • Soft, full breathing slows the heart rate; 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. 
  • Breathing allows our cells to be saturated with oxygen and expels wastes and toxins; one of the main ways our body eliminates toxins. 
  • 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. 
  • Breathing is a beneficial response to pain, fear, anger, stress, anxiety, depression, and boredom.

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.
  • Mouth breathing is dehydrating; does not promote health, and adversely affects health.
  • Nasal obstruction and mouth breathing impact facial structural development negatively. Orthotropics therapy aims to correct the growth of the face and jaws, by affecting the most likely causes (the muscle tone, posture and function).  The aim is to promote a relatively more horizontal growth, normalizing the shape of the facial skeleton and providing space for the teeth to align naturally and the tongue to come up out of the airway giving the individual the opportunity to normalize their oral, head, and neck posture, and breathing. Please visit: Oral Posture Affects Facial Structural Development to learn more.

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 moistened, filtered, and warmed (or cooled) 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 secondary muscles of respiration. Their activity expands and contracts the ribcage, three dimensionally. 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.

the diaphragm is shaped like a parachute
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The Secret to Deep Breathing

If you focus your attention and effort on the exhalation part of the breathing cycle, it helps to make deep breathing, effortless. This breathing technique is infinitely sustainable, and develops aerobic conditioning. You can use your breath to expand into tight, restricted areas, bringing enhanced circulation and health. This breathing method develops Vagal tone.

Health-promoting nasal breathing uses the abdominal muscles to engage the parachute-like thoracic diaphragm, the primary muscle of breathing, and the external and internal intercostal muscles, expanding and contracting the ribcage, three-dimensionally; facilitating the exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide in the lungs - the ultimate goal of deep breathing.


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

Vagal Tone, Breathing, and Inflammation
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 the vagus response is known as 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 the difference in heart rate when breathing in and out, the higher the vagal tone. 
Research shows that a high vagal tone makes the 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

The Buteyko Method
The Buteyko method is named after its founder Doctor Konstantin Buteyko. It is the most effective drug-free approach for the management of asthma and other breathing related problems. It can be practiced by both adults and children, and gives quick and consistent results.

The Buteyko method is neither a medical treatment nor procedure. It does not involve any medication, homeopathy or herbs. It is series of lectures related to breathing which enables people to understand a concept of normal breathing or breathing according to physiological norms. It contains simple breathing techniques and logical instructions to follow. It also gives the means of controlling breathing parameters without any technical appliances. Buteyko method brings the physiological parameters of the body to the norm. Buteyko Method

Learn Buteyko's Control Pause
This exercise is designed to evaluate your current breathing ability. It involves a comfortable inhalation and exhalation followed by a breath hold. You will need to use a timer to measure your breath hold accurately. The length of your breath hold can tell you a lot about your health issues. Advanced Buteyko

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' 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. 



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