Ounce of Prevention | A breath of fresh air - Breathe for better health in 2018
To our readers who wish to improve their well-being in this new year, I recommend that you pay more attention to your breathing. The average person takes more than 20,000 breaths per day. Breathing is fundamental to all our physical and mental activities. The respiratory system powerfully influences our heart and circulation while supporting our digestive, immune, and lymphatic systems. On a moment-to-moment basis, your nervous system reacts to your breathing pattern whether you are awake or asleep. Yet, breathing is often done unconsciously, but can be brought under our deliberate control.
For thousands of years, ancient traditions like yoga have stressed the critical importance of proper breathing for good health and taught techniques for breath control. Modern medical science has now recognised breathwork as a complementary wellness tool in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression and in lowering blood pressure. Here are important details involved in healthy breathing.
BREATHE FROM YOUR BELLY
The two main patterns of breathing are chest breathing and abdominal breathing. The former uses the muscles of the chest, while the latter more effectively employs the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large tentlike muscle that, when contracted, sucks air into the lungs. In abdominal or belly breathing, the belly rises with the breath in and sinks down with the breath out. Breathing with the chest muscles uses up more energy while moving less air.
BREATHE DEEP AND SLOW
Controlling the breath allows you to control various nervous responses from the body. Depending on the rate and the depth of the breath, a special part of the nervous system (the autonomic nervous system) receives signals to either relax, rest, and digest or prepare for flight or fight. Rapid or shallow breathing strongly increases the stress response while breathing slowly increases the relaxation response.
Deep breathing raises the level of oxygen in our blood while lowering the level of carbon dioxide, and thus provides a wide range of benefits for our health.
BREATHE THROUGH THE NOSE
Yoga students understand that the nose is for breathing and the mouth is primarily for eating. By design, nasal breathing and mouth breathing facilitate totally different physiological responses in the body. Breathing through the nose activates the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system, while mouth breathing encourages the stressful sympathetic nervous system. Mouth breathing even elevates the heart rate and encourages the release of stress hormones into our bloodstream.
In addition, you get more oxygen into your blood by breathing through your nose. This is because a gas called nitric oxide is formed in the sinuses of human beings. In 1998 one of my mentors, Dr Louis Ignarro shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the importance of nitric oxide in dilating blood vessels and improving blood flow. When nitric oxide is produced in the sinuses it follows the inhaled air through the nose, increasing blood flow and oxygen uptake in the lungs.This only occurs when air is inhaled through the nasal passages.
Nitric oxide is also involved in nervous and immune system functions and helps maintain, repair and defend our cells. The benefits of nitric oxide include:
- Improving blood circulation and lowering high blood pressure
- Reducing pain and inflammation and improving immune function
- Relesing more energy, improving digestion, and accelerated weight loss
We can choose to become aware of our breath. Consciously follow the air from when it enters your nostrils all the way along your air passages to your lungs, and then follow it all the way back out. Notice things like the rising of your belly and chest as you breath in and their sinking back as you breath out. Tune into the gentle sound of the breath as it flows in and out. Turning your attention inwards can have a powerfully calming and relaxing effect as it increases your parasympathetic response.
A SIMPLE BREATHING EXERCISE
There are many types of breathing exercises with varying degrees of difficulty and effectiveness. Try this simple breathing exercise:
Sit or lie in a comfortable position where you can be undisturbed for 10 minutes. Focus your attention on your breathing. Draw the breath in through your nose, down into your abdomen until you feel the breath fill your belly and chest. Hold the breath for a moment then exhale, through your nose, until all the breath is expelled from your lungs. Then begin to breathe in to a count of five. Hold the breath for a count of 15 and exhale to a count of 10. Apply this three-part breathing exercise for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening right before bed. Notice the relaxing effects as the body and mind responds to this breathing pattern.
This is what alternative-health guru Dr Andrew Weil had to say about the importance of breathing: "If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly."