Many of us tend to chronically overbreathe. We breathe too often in too little time and take deep breathes the wrong way.
Our bodies actually allow us to take 2 to 3 times more air in, than we need. We assume, that our bodies would be smart enough how to breathe and how much to breathe, but unfortunately this is not the case. This seems to be linked to chronic stress, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diets, overheated homes and a lack of fitness. All of these above contribute to poor breathing habits. This can lead to lethargy, weight gain, sleeping problems, respiratory conditions, and heart disease.
The Oxygen Paradox
A normal oxygen saturation in our red blood cells is between 95 - 99% and there is no need to why we should aim for more. Another important parameter is the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood. CO2 is the waste gas that we exhale from our lungs, but that is not the only thing it is. The CO2 levels are crucial to the release of oxygen from the red blood cells, that then can be used in the body. This is called the Bohr Effect.
It is shown that taking deep breathes is not necessarily a good thing. They can lead to us taking in more oxygen than our bodies can actually use. A big breath every now and then can be something positive, because it can allow our upper body to stretch and relax, but if you overdo the deep breathing it can actually elevate anxiety and stress levels.
The most relaxing form of breathing is a gentle, quite, abdominal breath. Hyperventilation reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. This leads to narrowing the blood vessels which reduces the delivery of oxygen to the brain. A brain that is deprived of oxygen is more excitable and agitated, which can lead to more anxious thought patterns.
McKeown suggests that we actually hold our breath when we are stressed, rather than try to breathe it away.
- take a small, silent breath in and out through the nose
- hold your breathe for 2 to 5 seconds
- after each breath-hold, breathe normally for about 10 seconds
- perform a series of these small breath holds
Our breath is one of the most important areas of our lives. It is connected to all systems and bodily functions. Our overall health can benefit greatly from ensuring a normal breathing pattern.
Nose vs. Mouth Breathing
Our bodies are made for us to breathe through the nose. Mouth breathing is only reserved for emergency situations and activates the fight or flight response. It's hard to really breathe into the abdominal areas of the lungs, while breathing through the mouth. Mouth breathing motivates upper chest breathing. Nose breathing motivates abdominal breathing. Habitual mouth breathing can lead to poor energy, lack of concentration, and moodiness. There are also changes in the facial muscle and bone structure documented by orthodontists. It leads to a narrow jaw, cooked teeth, sunken cheekbones, and smaller nasal cavities.
There is another component of the breathing chemistry, that plays an important role. Nitric oxide plays a monumental role in the human health by reducing cholesterol, revising the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels and helping to prevent blood clotting. These increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Nitric oxide is the blood's natural defense to prevent all of these bad things from happening. It helps blood vessels relax and dilate. If there is not enough, blood vessels constrict and the heart has to raise the pressure to send enough blood out into the body. Nitric oxide is mainly produced inside the paranasal sinuses. Calm and gentle breathing through the nose increases the amount of nitric oxide.
McKeown states that to reap the most benefits from our physical training, we need to train our body to do better with less resources. Which is why, we should train while reducing our air intake. This will result in a better breathing economy to increase athletic performance, along with reducing breathlessness and lactic acid during competition. Breathing through your nose while exercising will stop you from pushing over your bodies limits and staying within a solid level of training with less risk of injury, cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Breathing too much in your everyday life, might lead to more breathlessness during exercise.
Purposefully reducing the oxygen intake for a short period of time has other benefits for the body as well. This increases the production of EPO in the kidneys: A hormone that promotes the formation of red blood cells. Additional red blood cells and more hemoglobin in the blood improves the body's ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles during exercise, which can give an athlete a crucial competitive edge. This is similar to training at high altitudes or with special masks, which forces the body to adapt to exercising with less oxygen.
Some questions that might help you to identify your own breathing pattern?
- Do you sometimes breathe through your mouth as you go about your daily activities?
- Do you breathe through your mouth during deep sleep? (If you are not sure, do you wake up with a dry mouth in the morning?)
- Do you snore or hold your breath during sleep?
- Can you visibly notice your breathing during rest? Take a look at your breathing right now. Spend a minute observing the movements of your chest or abdomen as you take each breath. The more movement you see, the heavier you breathe.
- When you observe your breathing, do you see more movements from the chest than form the abdomen?
- Do you regularly sigh throughout the day? (While one sigh every now and again is not an issue, regular sighing is enough to maintain chronic overbreathing.)
- Do you sometimes hear your breathing during rest?
- Do you experience symptoms resulting from habitual overbreathing, such as nasal congestion, tightening of the airways, fatigue, dizziness, or light-headedness?
If you answer yes to some or all of the above questions, this might suggest a tendency of overbreathing.
Practice a Right Breathing Pattern
- Walk and hold: After a minute of continuous walking, gently exhale and pinch your nose to hold your breath. If you feel uncomfortable pinching your nose while walking in public, you can simply hold your breath without holding your nose. Continue to walk while holding your breath until you feel a medium to strong air shortage. Release your nose, inhale through it, and minimize your breathing by taking very short breaths for about 15 seconds. Then allow your breathing to return to normal.
- Continue walking for 30 seconds and repeat: Continue walking for around 30 seconds while breathing through your nose, then gently exhale and pinch your nose with your fingers. Walk while holding the breath until you feel a medium to strong hunger for air. Release your nose and minimize your breathing by taking short breaths in and out through your nose for about 15 seconds. Then allow your breathing to revert to normal.
- Repeat breath holds 8 to 10 times: While continuing to walk, perform a breath hold every minute or so in order to create a medium to strong need for air. Minimize your breathing for 15 seconds following each breath hold. Repeat for a total of 8 to 10 breath holds during your walk.
This exercise will take about 12 minutes to complete and is highly effective at teaching your body to do more with less. At first you may only be able to hold your breath for 20 or 30 paces before you feel a strong air shortage (or less if you have asthma or are out of breath). As the number of paces per breath hold increases, the air shortage you experience will progress from easy to moderate to strong. As you feel an increased hunger for air, the breathing muscles in your abdomen or neck will begin to contract or spasm. An added effect of the contractions is to provide your diaphragm with a workout, thereby strengthening your main breathing muscle. During the longer breath holds, as you feel your breathing muscles spasm, focus on relaxing your body. Allow your muscles to go soft as you hold your breath. Relaxing the body in this way allows a longer breath hold with less stress.
With repetition, as the weeks go by, you will find yourself being able to hold your breath for 80 to 100 paces. Your ability to hold your breath will increase with practice and without stressing your body. Do not overdo it. Ideally, your breathing should recover easily and become calm within 3 or 4 breaths. While this exercise is a challenge, it should not be stressful.
If you notice any side effects, such as an elevated or stronger than normal pulse for a prolonged period after completing breath holding, then it is best to refrain from performing the stronger breath holds. Instead, concentrate on breathing lightly both during rest and physical exercise to bring benefit to your health and sports.
Breath holding can also be incorporated into a jog, run, or bike ride. While you may not be able to hold your breath for as many paces during a jog as you can during a walk, the quality of the exercise will be better because of the greater accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood.
Breath holding during training adds an extra load that would only otherwise be experienced during maximum intensity exercise.