The most amazing thing about breath to me is that it's our easiest access point to change our internal state from stress to calm. From a purely physiological standpoint, we can use our breath to directly influence our autonomic nervous system. It's the health hacker’s most readily available tool to promote wellness, and yet it's one of the most overlooked and under-utilized.
So how does it work?
When we developed the ability for speech, we also developed the ability to control our breathing. Breathing in most mammals is as inaccessible to conscious thought as heart rate and digestion. These functions fall under the control of the autonomic nervous system, which is by definition involuntary or unconscious. Yet when humans began speaking, we gained conscious access to this previously off-limits area of our nervous system and in so doing opened the door to all other areas of the autonomic nervous system through this portal. It's like a backdoor hack in a security system.
As breathing is hardwired in to the autonomic nervous system, when we consciously regulate our breath, we can also regulate that entire system! By consciously breathing rapidly, we can stimulate the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system and induce a flight or fight response in our body. For example, you may see a boxer amp himself up by rapidly breathing before a fight. Conversely, slowing ones breath to long slow cycles can induce a stimulatory effect to the parasympathetic branch and induce a calming effect in our body. The prevalence of the phrase ‘take a few deep breaths’ is a clear indication of the common understanding of this.
The thing is most of us don’t know how to take advantage of this life hack!
The Three Main Threats to Breath
Hyperventilation is as common in people living in an urban environment as cars and cell phones. Most everyone is doing it and it's slowly killing us. The impulse to inhale is regulated by the medulla oblongata in the brain stem. When blood levels of CO2 rise to a preset level, the brain fires off a message to breathe and muscles contract to draw breath into your lungs.
With chronic hyperventilation (which you may very well be experiencing right now) you're depleting your CO2 reserves inducing an acidic internal environment as well as constantly stimulating your adrenal stress response.
The ramifications of this are enormous!
If you suffer from digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, menstrual problems, acne, decreased sex drive, lower back pain, accelerated aging… in fact, any chronic disease, it's likely to be intimately linked with the rate that you're breathing. How about them apples?!
Breathing slowly and retraining this preset level of CO2 in your system takes conscious practice, but it's not complex. If there was one simple thing that I could offer a person to most dramatically improve their health, this may well be it.
Breathing in the chest and filling the lungs from the top down rather than the bottom up, is considered an inverted breathing pattern. It tends to overuse muscles of the upper back and neck in preference to the large diaphragm muscle.
In my clinical experience around 90% of western people breathe like this.
The overuse of these neck and upper back muscles has led to the epidemic of shoulder and neck pain that our culture experiences. These particular muscles are well designed to help us breathe in high stress situations, and to be relaxed when there is no threat to our safety. They are fast twitch dominant muscles (which means they tire quickly). If you're using them all day, everyday (which is around 26000 breaths a day!) then these muscles are going to be screaming at you to get away from that darn tiger already!!
Our obsession with a flat tummy has been a major contributor to this epidemic. Holding your tummy tight to make yourself look skinny pushes your organs hard up against your diaphragm, limiting its ability to function. If the diaphragm is pinned by your tight tummy muscles, then the only way you're going to get air in is by using your neck and shoulder muscles.
The effects of denying the diaphragm its right to breathe are vast and profound. Pelvic floor weakness, lower back and neck pain, acid reflux, poor core strength, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, constipation, dysbiosis… are just a small sample of issues that often arise from poor diaphragm function.
Relaxing the holding of your tummy and allowing your breath to descend as deeply into your body as you can will ease your stress and bring a new level of health to your bodymind.
Breathing through the mouth offers us a very efficient way of delivering air into our lungs very quickly. It was a beautiful design to aid in times of heightened threat, like running away from a predator or engaging in mortal combat with an enemy. Its design is for short-term use only. Constant mouth breathing has serious side effects.
What the nose offers that the mouth doesn’t is a warm, moist surface for air to pass over so that the incoming air can be heated and humidified before making contact with the sensitive tissues of the lungs. There are fine hairs that collect dust and debris and our immune system has cells at the ready to catch and eliminate any airborn bacteria, bugs or viruses.
When we bypass this amazing inbuilt air treatment system, we get a straight shot of raw air that enters the lungs without any filtering or preparation. This raw air can be very irritating and dangerous to our health.
Another serious problem with mouth breathing is the postural changes that it encourages. To help clear the way for the air, people who mouth breath will often jut their head forward to open their pharynx (throat). This forward head posture leads to some serious issues with neck pain, and long-term structural issues with the cranium and its vital functions (vision, hearing, chewing, balance and… breathing).
Problem solving around why mouth breathing is happening is vitally important. Whether it's from a constantly stuffy nose due to some allergy/immune issue, or from an inability to get enough air in through the nose due to structural limitations, this is something worth resolving.
The Second Pillar.
Breathing holds the number two spot (behind thoughts and emotions) in the Six Pillars System of Temple. Of all the physiological functions of the body, it is without doubt the most important. The body has systems in place to adjust, alter and compromise everything else to ensure that our breathing is maintained.
Our breathing is also the servant of our stress (real, imagined or simulated) and will change to provide our body with the optimal respiration pattern to serve us in confronting or escaping that stressful situation.
remedies for the Three threats
Threat #1: Rapid Breathing
Remedy: Become more conscious of your breath throughout the day and breath much more slowly. Challenge yourself to dwell in the outbreath space for longer periods of time. Allowing the discomfort of the urge to inhale to be experienced before actually drawing breath in.
Threat #2: Inverted Breathing
Remedy: Breathe exclusively with the diaphragm. Lying comfortably on your back with a heavy book over your navel, breathe so that the book rises and falls with your natural breath. Relax your belly during your day when walking and sitting to allow the breath to enter deeply into your lungs expanding into your abdominal space.
Threat #3: Mouth Breathing
Remedy: Breathe solely through the nose. When exercising, challenge yourself to breathe through the nose as much as possible and only use the mouth to breathe when you can’t get enough air in through the nose. If your nose is chronically blocked or obstructed, seek out a specialist who knose ;-) how to asses the nose.