29 Nov The Essential Breath
Breathing – obviously, everyone knows it’s essential.
If you’re reading this right now, then you must be breathing. It’s an automatic function of our body. Our brain is preprogrammed to tell us to breathe in and breathe out. Most of the living things on our planet do some kind of oxygen exchange; some sort of breathing.
I have noticed lately that A LOT of my patients are shallow breathers or breath holders. (You know who you are.) I’m sure there are more of y’all out there who can identify with shallow breathing or breath holding when you’re scared, anxious or stressed. Some of you may start breathing faster or feel your chest get a little tight in stressful situations. If you’re having any of these issues and they don’t have anything to do with anxiety or stress, you may be having some kind of physical problem with your lungs or some other system in your body.
The Ins and Outs of Breathing
Let’s get into it!
What you may not know are the numerous body functions that require oxygen and its opposite (sort of) gas, carbon dioxide. When we take a breath in (inhale) oxygen rich air fills our lungs, and when we breathe out (exhalation) we release carbon dioxide. That’s not all the process involves, though.
Where does the oxygen go after it hits our lungs?
Why do we need so much of it? Well, the first place that inhale goes is across the ends of the tiny vessels of our lungs into blood circulation through our heart and then out to our entire body. It then gets incorporated into biochemical reactions in every organ and body system. Each of our organs has some method by which it “breathes”—heart, liver, brain, kidneys, skin (yep, the skin is an organ)—name an organ, any organ. That is a lot of places for one tiny molecule to travel.
Oxygen works so hard!
(I bet as you have been reading this you have noticed your breathing a bit more than usual. At least, I hope you have. Breathe people, breathe!)
Ok, so oxygen goes practically everywhere—what does it actually do for us?
The Benefits of Breathing
Yes, breathing is beneficial. Of course, it is! But, how does our body use this practice for its benefit?
Breathing helps us even when we’re just sitting around doing nothing.
When we’re at rest, our brain uses 20% of the total oxygen in our body (a lot more when we’re moving around or “exercising” our brain in any way!). So, if we’re not breathing our brain’s not gonna work right. Not getting oxygen to our brain can create issues like anxiety and depression and difficulty sleeping, which is what we see with sleep apnea.
The Lung-Heart Connection
The other large place that we need oxygen is obviously our lungs. Our lungs are the main distribution point of oxygen for our cardiovascular system. So our heart needs to breathe, too! There is a whole exchange of oxygen between the lungs and the heart (which makes sense because they sit right next to each other in the chest).
The interesting thing about the fact that the cardiovascular system breathes when we breathe is that taking a breath in causes the vessels to squeeze down or constrict. Conversely, when we breathe out our vessels open up. This means that for those of you who are breath-holders you can actually increase the pressure in the system. Yes, you can create hypertension by holding your breath too often.
Yes, mindful breathing can help heart health.
Breathing for Your Liver
The next organ that consumes the most oxygen after the brain, lungs, and the heart is the liver.
The liver holds about 13% of the blood in the entire body and, of course, with blood along comes oxygen.
Most people know the liver is a filter for the blood—it’s the whole reason “detoxing” exists. Without breathing in and out, blood can’t move through the liver very well and we won’t detox well, either. If we don’t get enough blood oxygen to the liver we can actually have liver ischemia, or essentially a stroke in the liver which can cause the death of liver cells.
What kind of “Breather” are you?
I’m going to go over four types of breathers: breath-holders, shallow breathers, mouth breathers, and chest-breathers.
We’ve already talked about the breath-holder. For you, the issue is going to be making sure you don’t hold that breath for longer than a couple seconds before you exhale. Remember our mantra, “breathe…”
Another type of breather is the shallow breather.
Those of you who inhale and/or exhale for less than 1-2 seconds. The issue here is the amount of oxygen taken in and the amount of carbon dioxide pushed out. This can mess up the ratio of ventilation in your lungs, which can lead to anxiety, and even panic attacks. You might feel as though you are suffocating, and in a way, you are.
Next up are the mouth breathers.
We all breathe through our mouths at one time or another, and we are obviously meant to do so, since both our noses AND mouths open up to our lungs. The problem comes when we mouth breath on the regular. It can lead to a dry mouth and throat. Mouth breathing increases our exposure to toxins and pathogens. It causes our lungs to cool off and dry out (which they DO NOT like—the lungs quite prefer a warm moist environment).
Finally, we have the chest breather.
This is essentially breathing halfway. Our lungs have two sections (called lobes). There are two lobes on the left side and three lobes on the right side. In order to get oxygen into the tiny cells in the bottom lobes we need to expand our breath all the way into our abdomen. What we’re actually doing is expanding a giant sheet of muscle, called the diaphragm, that opens up the lower lobes of our lungs and allows the oxygen to drop in. Breathing fully also causes compression and expansion of the organs and vessels in our abdomen, which helps them function better.
Be a regular, deep, closed-mouth, full-breather and all your organs will thank you!
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Dr. Lisa Fortes-Schramm is a Naturopathic Doctor, a Doctor of Traditional Chinese medicine, and has two degrees in the mental health field. She is experienced in treating people with anxiety and depression. If you’re experiencing anxiety and/or depression, or suspect you may be, talk with Dr. Fortes and she can tell you about your Naturopathic options.