What takes your breath away? Sweeping vistas, the touch of a loved one, the thrill of achievement or physical exertion?
Or could it also be other life events that affect your breathing for the longer term? Shock? Grief? Injury? Illness?
Our amazing lungs are truly a work of art. Designed exactly like great many-leafed trees, each branch giving root to another set of smaller branches until the delicate leaf unfurls, outstretched, to perform a finely balanced work of near-magical alchemy that our entire existence is based on – the transfer of oxygen.
There isn’t room or time here to tell you all the amazing things you might not know about your very own lungs. Have a read here, here or here for a wealth of fascinating facts (including How Elephants Can Snorkel). Suffice to say, the body itself is infinitesimally primed to ensure that the optimum conditions for gas exchange (i.e. oxygen in, carbon dioxide out) are maintained. Here’s a cute animation to show you how it works:
That balance can be disrupted in a whole host of ways in our daily lives. Despite our general lack of awareness of this entirely automatic activity, be in no doubt that the challenges our lungs face from our lifestyles can and will affect all of us in similar ways.
Subtle but Significant
Though we are all aware of the risks of smoking, poor breathing patterns can have far reaching effects as well, though many don’t realise it. Perhaps it’s due to growing up with the mantra of “chest out, stomach in!” the constant barrage of six packs and the shame piled on love handles, but to so many people it seems counter-intuitive to let the stomach OUT when we breathe IN. However, look at any baby’s breathing and you’ll see it being done right – the belly moves freely, the ribs barely lifting, unless a yell is on its way. This is abdominal breathing – more on this later.
Just by shallow breathing, we can reduce the efficiency of our lungs and their capacity for gas exchange.
By poor breathing patterns, we can reduce the flow of oxygenated blood to our tissues. This can lead to cellulite, headaches and even pins and needles: not just a weird feeling from childhood but signs of something more serious afoot. Crucially, our diaphragm doesn’t get used as much with shallow breathing, and like any muscle can get weak and lose fitness. It’s not just for the sake of our muscles that we are encouraged to get outside and strength-train – it’s essential we keep our heart and lungs fit for a better old age too.
Deep, abdominal breathing is neglected further by our sitting habits – hunched over, curled up, just sitting for hours a day. Over the months, years, decades, it’s easy to see why we stereotypically see older people like this: where on earth is the room for a nice deep breath? The diagram below shows how habits of poor posture can become exaggerated over the years – as the spine bows and age ‘shrinks’ us, so the ribs sit lower, become limited in their range of movement (i.e. expansion is restricted) and words are not needed to understand how this can limit breathing, movement, and ultimately quality of life.
We can build up carbon dioxide in our blood stream just by not expelling it fully – this can lead to headaches and lethargy, and fatigue in sports. Carbon Dioxide attaches to the same molecule as Oxygen in the blood, Haeomglobin, so one has to be removed before the other can bind on and move off in the bloodstream. Swimmers who find themselves gasping for air during the crawl might be surprised to find they actually are not blowing out the CO2 in preference for a quick refill, and so get more tired more quickly.
Conversely, hyperventilation syndrome whereby you have too little carbon dioxide in your system due to over-breathing (breathing too deep or too fast), can cause a spectrum of other issues. If there isn’t enough CO2 in your blood, the abundant oxygen has no stimulus to leave the transporter cell Haemoglobin, so can’t get into the tissues. Low CO2 also causes vaso-constriction – a narrowing or tightening of the blood vessels, further reducing oxygen delivery.
Your breathing could have been perfectly good until life threw you a curveball. We have all been in the situation where a break-up has made us want to curl up and hide, or a knock on the sports field has physically winded us. Even a long standing cough or cold can alter our patterns. These experiences, both emotional and physical, can significantly affect breathing patterns, either by repeated protective body postures, compensatory breathing for repeated blocked sinuses or by trauma to the breathing muscles (for example the muscles between the ribs) that will restrict breathing. Sometimes it is a simple case of noticing and recognising how you breathe that can start the journey to wellbeing and better patterns.
So what is ‘good breathing’? The in breath should be almost entirely effortless: the diaphragm being a large domed muscle that sits under your ribs, and as it contracts and flattens, pulls the lungs downwards, sucking air in. Here’s a good visual, and you can see how the ribs and chest only start moving after the stomach has reached a comfortable expansion. The belly expands to allow space for the organs as they are pushed downwards by the diaphragm – a simple redistribution of space and pressure, around 16 times a minute.
Compare this to chest breathing – this uses the muscles of your chest and ribs to expand the rib cage more than you normally would, to make up for the lack of diaphragm action – note how the abdomen barely moves in this video. Such use of relatively small muscles on every breath causes further fatigue and muscle overload (aches and stiffness, poor posture, etc.):
What Can We Do?
Unfortunately most dysfunctional breathing happens without our realising. Our body is doing what it can to keep you going, and it’s controlled by very deep and ancient parts of your brain. And thank heaven for that, otherwise we’d be able to think of nothing else! So the way forward is to recognise, understand, and practice good breathing (as above). If you have been in a car collision or other shock-style situation, it’s worth getting your breathing assessed by a physiotherapist or GP – though the consequences can be far reaching, they can also be relatively easy to solve.
Notice. How do you breathe? Do certain situations, memories or people make you breathe differently? When you are resting, are you yawning or using your chest a lot to breathe? Do you hold your tummy in, or wear restrictive clothing? Notice your patterns, be mindful of long standing symptoms mentioned above that you may not have previously connected to your breath.
Place one hand on the chest and the other on the belly. Take a deep slow breath in through the nose, ensuring the tummy (not the chest) inflates with enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. Don’t fill to bursting, but allow a feeling of slight stretch before you then slowly and easily let the air out. Don’t try to push it or hold your breath between the in- and ex-hale.
Try this for ten minutes a day, with between 6-10 deep, slow breaths each minute. You will feel immediate effects, of relaxation and possible light headedness, as your body adjusts and responds to the new gas changes. If you can continue this daily and are persistent for over 6 weeks, the immediate reductions to heart rate and blood pressure can continue into the rest of your day and consequently your overall health.
The good news is that we can do it anytime, anywhere, as we are breathing anyway! But if at all possible try to get a few minutes a day to be mindful, notice your patterns, and try to let your abdomen relax and move, let your shoulders lower, straighten your back out… perhaps even imagine you are surrounded by trees breathing with you… and breathe in the difference.