What Your Breathing Pattern Reveals About Your Health
And how to fix it.
Doctors, rescue workers and wilderness experts use the “rule of threes.” Three weeks without food, three days without water, three minutes without air, and you’re in deep trouble or dead.
Everyone knows that we need food, water and air to survive. The idea that our health is affected by the quality and quantity of what we eat and drink is also common knowledge. Recent research indicates that this is no less true for breathing.
A growing body of science is demonstrating how voluntary control of our breathing provides unique access to a remarkable array of processes that had been considered beyond our reach. These include important gene expression, inflammatory pathways, brain maintenance, pain perception, blood pressure, heart rate, energy level, emotional state and stress response.
“Just by breathing!” you say?
Well, by breathing correctly. Most people don’t do it properly. I know, sounds ridiculous. That’s like saying we don’t blink the way we should.
What is faulty breathing?
The most common breathing abnormalities are over breathing and mouth breathing. Over breathing or hyperventilation syndrome (HVS), like over eating, describes a breathing pattern that exceeds metabolic demand. HVS has been called the great mimic because it can cause symptoms in virtually any organ or system. Palpitations, general fatigue, decreased concentration, heartburn, reflux, cramps in the neck, shoulders or back, free floating anxiety, and sleep disturbances give you an idea. Sufferers rarely complain of shortness of breath and demonstrate no conspicuous excess breathing. As you might imagine, this makes HVS a difficult condition to diagnose.
Mouth breathing is what it sounds like. We’ve all done it and lived to tell the tale. However, which anatomical port air travels through en route to the lungs has profound consequences. Evolution does not engage in haphazard construction projects and the nose is no exception.
Unlike the mouth, the nose provides air conditioning. Nasal breathing increases the temperature and humidity of inspired air. Without this function the lungs cannot perform optimally. For instance, exercise induced asthma is a condition thought to be caused by the drying and cooling of the airways. The nose also acts as a filter trapping small airborne pollutants and infectious agents.
Is that the best you’ve got for the nose? Air conditioning?
No. Here’s the remarkable thing about nasal breathing.
In 1991 nitric oxide (NO) was discovered in exhaled air. More recently, investigators located the production site, the paranasal sinuses. NO is one of the most important signaling molecules in the regulation of blood flow. Nasal breathing endows inspired air with NO. The NO dilates the arteries allowing significantly greater oxygen delivery throughout the body. In the molecular signaling arena, NO is an MVP. It has been shown to reverse memory and learning problems associated with dementia, balance good and bad cholesterol, prevent damaging clots and decrease blood pressure. Two of the most successful drug classes in pharmaceutical history, statins (think Lipitor,Zocor…) and Viagra, work by promoting NO release.
The Viagra discovery provides an amusing anecdote in the NO story. Originally designed and tested for angina (chest pain associated with cardiovascular disease) in older men, Viagra proved a disappointment. However, one of the researchers noticed an unusually high compliance rate amongst the test subjects. In exploring why these gentlemen were so good about taking a drug that did little to alleviate their chest pain, investigators uncovered a side effect that had generated no complaints during the study. Erections. Viagra had the fastest initial sales growth of any prescription product, reaching close to $2 billion in its first year. Stay tuned for a multi-pill combining a statin and a Viagra-like compound.
Back to breathing.
Bottom line, you should close your mouth not only when you’re chewing but whenever you’re breathing.
So why do we screw up something as basic as breathing?
Stress produces a shallow accelerated breathing pattern. So it’s no surprise that we don’t breath properly. And that alone can make us sick. The good news is that by correcting our breathing we also recalibrate our stress response system. In fact we can balance a number of brain functions this way.
The autonomic nervous system controls a host of automatic functions through its two divisions, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Theses systems are a sort of yin and yang. The sympathetic branch triggers the fight or flight response increasing heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and fuel consumption. The parasympathetic branch is the calming, recharging system that slows things down and allows for repair and regeneration.
Health requires a balance of these systems. Unfortunately modern life makes that quite difficult. Constant stress of one kind or another tips the balance toward excessive sympathetic (fight or flight) tone. This promotes inflammation, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, immune dysfunction, obesity accelerated aging, and disease.
Breathing provides a gateway to the mind-body system. Of all the automatic functions, only breathing can be voluntarily controlled. By adopting specific breathing patterns we tap into the information highway running between the body and the brain. This is a busy thoroughfare trafficking constant updates on the body’s experience and the brain’s response.
On this information highway, respiratory messages have right of way. Because we can survive only minutes without oxygen, these signals take priority. By changing our breathing we send a message to the brain in a language it understands well and heeds immediately.
So how should we breathe?
I will describe only two breathing patterns with the understanding that this is a vast and complex field of study and praxis. It must be said that science arrives at many truths long after the poets. And science has been late to this game. Indian yogis have practiced and prescribed breathing techniques since the 6th century BCE.
Slow Belly Breathing (5–10 minutes once or twice/day) • Lie on your back, relax and close your eyes and mouth • Breathe into your belly using your nose for a slow count of 6 • Let the air out slowly through your nose for an equally slow count of 6 • Feel your belly blow up and go down like a balloon as you breathe in and out • If the 6 count feels too slow try a 5 count
Resistance Breathing (this is human purring) Resistance on exhalation increases stimulation of the parasympathetic regenerative system. • Lie on your back, relax and close your eyes • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with the tongue against the top teeth making a hissing sound • Use the same 6 or 5 count as above