I believe that there are numerous physical and mental conditions that could be improved through more efficient breathing. For example, you may suffer with stress or anxiety or feel that there often just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. You may have a circulatory issue like Raynaud’s or an auto-immune condition such as one of the many forms of arthritis. Or, it may simply be that you’d like to improve your sports performance or be better at your chosen activities. You may even just want to wake up feeling more refreshed or rested, or not have an energy slump in the afternoon.
I’ve always been reasonably fit and healthy, but for most of my life I suffered with a slight shortness of breath when doing activities, which made me revert to breathing through my mouth when I felt like I was unable to get enough air. I experienced fatigue regularly during the day and would yawn and sigh a lot. I frequently felt congested even though I didn’t have a cold, which would mean that even if I did breathe through my nose it would be slightly laboured and I could hear my breathing. This had been going on for as long as I could remember so I just assumed it was normal. I would sometimes during meditation try to slow my breath down without considering the volume of air I was taking in. When doing yoga or Pilates we are often told to breathe deeply, “in through the nose and out through the mouth”, and to take “big, cleansing breaths”.
BUT, it transpires that the problem is not that we need more oxygen, but rather that we aren’t able to access the oxygen already in the bloodstream because we need carbon dioxide present to allow the haemoglobin (a protein molecule within red blood cells) to release the oxygen molecules to be used as energy. When we over-breathe we wash out too much carbon dioxide, making our blood cells hold on to the oxygen in our system instead of releasing it to the body’s tissues as energy.
This made sense to me based on my own experience, and learning about it drew my attention to just how inefficiently I had been breathing. So, I did some research into efficient breathing and have summarised some information below that I think you may find useful, although it’s somewhat simplified as the full information includes a lot of chemistry and formulas. If you’d prefer to read the summary, you can skip to the list of points at the end, where I explain why “over breathing” is not helpful to us and provide some recommendations to improve your breathing efficiency.
The Bohr Effect
The Bohr Effect was first described by Christian Bohr in 1904 and is a physiological effect detailing how the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen changes depending on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. This means that the presence of carbon dioxide influences the ability of haemoglobin to let go of the oxygen and thus improves oxygen delivery.
The concentration of carbon dioxide changes the pH of the environment. When a tissue’s metabolic rate increases (during movement and exercise) so does its carbon dioxide waste production. This then forms bicarbonate and protons. In the lungs, where the oxygen concentration is high, the binding of oxygen causes haemoglobin to release protons, which recombine with bicarbonate to eliminate carbon dioxide during exhalation. An increase in carbon dioxide causes increased acidity which then enables the haemoglobin to release oxygen. Of course these changes are subtle and the body is constantly managing your pH to stay within a range of 7.35-7.45.
Despite being toxic when outside the body, nitric oxide plays an important role in making our cardiovascular system healthy. Nitric oxide is produced in the nasal cavity when we breathe through our noses, so when we are breathing in, it will follow the air into the lower airways and lungs. It then increases the amount of oxygen uptake in the blood. It is involved in vasoregulation (the opening and closing of blood vessels), homeostasis (the body’s tendency to seek stable physiological balance), neurotransmission (the messaging system within the brain), immune defence and respiration. It also helps to prevent high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, keep arteries flexible and prevents them clogging, and plays a central role in dilating the smooth muscle layer embedded in the airways.
Nose breathing increases oxygen uptake by imposing resistance to the air stream. Nitric oxide is continuously released into the nasal airways, so its concentration is dependent on the flow-rate of air. Breathing more gently increases nitric oxide concentration and, once inside the lungs, it will help to open up the airways. This is particularly useful information for anyone with asthma or other breathing complaints.
From there it passes into the blood, where it helps with vasodilation (the dilation of blood vessels). Because of this it improves circulation and can help to prevent and reverse the negative effects of high cholesterol and build-up in the arteries.
When we inhale from the diaphragm it brings nitric oxide from the back of the nose and sinuses. This short-lived gas then dilates the air passages in the lungs and does the same to the blood vessels, affecting our entire blood flow – 100,000 miles worth of circulatory system.
Muscles Used in Effective Breathing
The main muscles used in breathing are the diaphragm and intercostals. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped structure that lies between the chest cavity containing the lungs, and the abdomen containing the digestive system. The internal and external intercostals are the muscles responsible for moving the ribs. When we inhale, these muscles contract, the diaphragm flattens and pulls downwards and the external intercostals subtly pull the ribs up and out, creating space in the chest cavity and allowing the lungs to expand.
Most of us think we are standing with good posture when we lift the chest and pull the belly in, but keeping the belly pulled in is a bad idea because that ‘stuff’ has to go somewhere… it pulls your internal organs up and prevents the diaphragm from being able to contract properly. This means your collarbones and shoulders lift and your breath only gets as far as your chest. You could think of it as breathing vertically instead of horizontally, because instead of the ribs expanding they lift a little bit with each breath. When your belly is relaxed it allows the diaphragm room to move, the intercostal muscles allow the ribs to expand and actually provide a strong core. When we pull the belly in and let the shoulders and collarbones pull the ribs up to breathe, we also have the effect of creating a fight or flight response. Combine this with our habit of over breathing, and regularly taking short, shallow breaths and we end up with a tight neck and shoulders which perpetuates feeling stressed and anxious.
Please note that normal breath should be calm and relaxed and, when at optimum efficiency, the ribs should not flare exaggeratedly and the chest should not heave. When at rest, the ideal is for the breath to be silent and almost imperceptible.
How the Brain Affects Your Breathing
The brain stem houses the respiratory control centre. This adjusts inspiration, expiration and breathing cessation to achieve a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. This works in a similar way to a thermostat, but instead of monitoring fluctuations in temperature it is monitoring the concentration of gases in the blood along with the pH level. This means that the main stimulus for us to breathe is to eliminate excess carbon dioxide from the body. When we “over breathe” for a period of days or weeks, a biochemical change occurs that results in a lowered tolerance to carbon dioxide, which, in turn causes breathing volume to remain above normal as the receptors in the brain continue to stimulate breathing to expel carbon dioxide that is perceived to be in excess of its programmed limits.
Why over breathing is unhelpful:
- The intake of more air is NOT necessary in order to get oxygen in our tissues, which is where it needs to go
- Over breathing expels too much carbon dioxide from the system, leaving the oxygen molecule bound to the haemoglobin in our red blood cells
- When we feel breathless we feel the need to breath more, which makes over breathing into a cycle
- When feeling breathless we tend to breathe through our mouths, which goes to the chest to stimulate the fight or flight response
- Nitric oxide helps to relax the blood vessels. If we breathe through our mouths we don’t get as much nitric oxide into our system as we do when we breathe though our nose
- Chest breathing over uses and tightens the shoulder and neck muscles.
- If you get breathless very quickly when doing exercise or sigh or yawn a lot, this is a sign that your breathing efficiency needs improvement. Yawning does not just indicate tiredness; it indicates that the brain needs to fire up and needs more oxygen. Similarly, sighing indicates that the brain is trying to calm down
- Mouth breathing in children whilst they are still developing can cause a narrow jaw, crooked teeth and a smaller nasal cavity
- Pulling the belly in displaces your internal organs, shutting down your digestive system and diaphragm
- Tight ribs weaken the core and leave your back vulnerable
What to do about it:
- Try taking a Body Oxygen Level Test or BOLT. This is a simple test to see what your current carbon dioxide tolerance is. It is not an endurance test but rather a gauge to see what your current resistance is. The ideal is around 40 seconds although many people are below 10. Take a normal, soft exhalation and suspend the breath until you feel a hunger for air, counting how many seconds this takes. When you take a breath you should be able to breathe normally through the nose, if you have to gasp for air you’ve held it for too long.
- Breath through your nose as much as possible. This will have the added benefit of removing a significant number of germs and bacteria from the air you breathe in.
- When you feel the urge to sigh or yawn, aim to suppress it. If you don’t manage to suppress it, suspend the breath afterwards for a few seconds to adjust for the loss of carbon dioxide. I’ve learned to yawn while using my tongue to block the air from my throat so I’m still taking a nose breath.
- If you wake up with a dry mouth in the mornings you probably mouth breathe at night. Try taping the lips closed to encourage nose breathing (I know that sounds bonkers but we actually feel more congested because we mouth breathe so nose breathing will help keep the airways open).
- Observe the breathing of a baby or healthy pet. Their middle will expand with a soft, gentle inhale and there will be a slight, natural pause after each exhale.
- If your nose regularly feels blocked try the nose unblocking exercise. Not recommended just after eating, or if you have a BOLT test lower than 10 seconds. On a normal exhale, pinch your nose and take as many paces as possible with your breath held. Try to build up a medium to strong shortage without overdoing it, and when you resume breathing do so only through your nose and try to calm your breathing immediately. If you are unable to recover your breathing after two or three breaths you held it for too long. Wait for a minute or two then repeat the process up to 6 times, going easy at first and gradually increasing the number of paces you take.
- Movement is more than just exercise or even physical activity. Consider the movement required for efficient breathing as equally important as your favourite sport or current chosen form of exercise. Try a diaphragm release, rib stretch or thread the needle to allow your breathing anatomy to be more functional.
- The diaphragm is a muscle. Conscious breathing with a controlled exhalation trains the diaphragm in the eccentric phase (the motion of an active muscle while it is shortening). For a general rule of thumb, aim to exhale 2-4 times longer than the inhale.
If you would like to learn more about efficient breathing or how movement can help your breathing and have a beneficial effect on anxiety and stress, contact here to see whether Move-Free can help you.
References: The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown