The New Science of Breathing For HealingNov 25, 2021
Breathing is something we all do, punctuating life from our first breath to our last. Each day, the average person breathes 25,000 times, taking in about 30 pounds of air into the lungs. We don’t have to think about breathing, yet how we breath has a dramatic influence on all aspects of our health.
Breathing is necessary for life, but breathing can also be used as a tool for healing.
The quickest way to reduce inflammation in the body is to switch the nervous system to the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, state and this can be achieved in minutes with conscious breathing. Numerous studies have shown that breathwork can help lower pain.
Scientific journalist, James Nestor and author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, says that to think how we breathe doesn’t matter is not based in any real science. In researching the book, Nestor consulted with experts who have been studying the breath for years and subjected himself to experiments with breathing practices. Nestor says that breathing consciously can dramatically change our health and performance in life and that how we breathe affects us down to the sub-atomic level, even affecting the density of our bones.
But according to Nestor, human beings are the worst breathers on the planet.
How is it that we are so bad at something that happens automatically?
How you breathe is more important than what you eat, how you move, how you sleep and all the other lifestyle factors normally thought of as starting points for anyone dealing with a health issue.
Breathing consciously also does not require time or money, just awareness. Time and money are the two most common reasons people say they can’t focus on their health. We are all breathing anyway, so why not breathe consciously?
Breathwork practices are thousands of years old. Ancient Chinese, Hindu and yogic traditions all incorporate conscious breathing and there are literally hundreds of ways to breathe. Many of the world traditions incorporate chanting which is another form of breathwork.
What IS new is the science behind why these breathing techniques work, and also what does not work.
When using the breath for health and healing, five main areas should be considered:
Rate of Breathing
Volume of Breath
What is very clear from the science is that many of us, about 25-50% of the population, are habitual mouth breathers, inhaling mostly through the mouth. Breathing through the mouth actually leads to a host of health problems. We are meant to breathe mostly through that appendage on our face: the nose.
When we breathe through the nose, the incoming air is filtered as it enters. It also becomes pressurized, opening up the soft tissues of the palate and at the back of the throat. This results in increased efficiency, allowing up to 20% more oxygen in with every breath.
When we habitually mouth breathe, the mouth gets smaller and the airways shrink, making it harder and harder to breathe through the nose. This can result in respiratory problems like asthma, snoring, sleep apnea, ADHD and affects virtually every aspect of our physiology.
Just because we CAN breathe through the mouth doesn’t mean we always should do it.
The good news is that you can change the size of your airways by making a new habit of breathing through the nose.
The first step is to become aware of your breathing. Start to notice how you breathe. Do you habitually breathe through your mouth? You don’t need to breathe through the nose 100% of the time, like when you are talking or laughing. Just aim to breathe most often through the nose.
Awareness doesn’t help when we are asleep though, and since we spend about one third of our life asleep, addressing how we breathe while we sleep is critical. Chronic mouth breathing at night leads to snoring, sleep apnea, and other health issues. A simple way to encourage breathing through the nose while sleeping is to place a postage stamp-sized piece of medical tape across the lips at night. This can help train your mind to keep the mouth closed during sleep.
When most people think of breathing, it’s the inhale that comes to mind, not the exhale. But breath experts have discovered that the most important aspect of breathing isn’t taking air in, but exhaling.
A complete exhale involves an umbrella-like muscle which lies below the lungs called the diaphragm. With a full exhale, the diaphragm moves upward to expel air out of the lungs. On the inhale, the diaphragm moves downward into the belly allowing the lungs to expand.
It is the movement of the diaphragm that expels the old, oxygen depleted air and allows oxygen-rich air to get to the bottom of the lungs.
It turns out that most oxygen is absorbed in the lower lungs because oxygen is absorbed by the blood and there is more blood in the lower lobes of the lungs.
It’s the exhale that releases the old stale air from the lower lungs and allows fresh air to get to the bottom of the lungs where it can be better absorbed by the blood. It’s simply more efficient.
Over time, a habit of shallow breathing mostly in the upper lobes limits the range of movement of the diaphragm, lowering efficiency of the respiration process. Most adults engage only about 10% of the range of diaphragm while breathing. Extending the range of motion of the diaphragm enables more air to enter the lower lobes and also lowers strain on the heart, since the diaphragm influences the speed and circulation of blood.
Starting with awareness again, be aware of how you are breathing. Are you breathing low into the lungs or shallowly, into the chest? Notice if your belly moves in and out as you breathe, which is an indication of diaphragmatic movement. Having good posture while breathing helps because it allows expansion of the diaphragm while breathing.
Rate of Breathing
The rate of inhalation and exhalation directly affect the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Most people would think that having more oxygen circulating ought to be a good thing, but it turns out this is not true: the great paradox is that most of us are suffering from a lack of carbon dioxide.
The body accesses oxygen from the blood by using carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide helps “offload” oxygen into the blood. Without adequate carbon dioxide, oxygen is simply unavailable to the cells, tissues and organs throughout the body.
To make oxygen more available, we need to breathe slowly.
The most efficient breathing rate turns out to be an inhale of about 5.5 seconds, an exhale of about 5.5 seconds for a breathing rate of 5.5 breaths per minute.
Interestingly, many prayers and chants of the world’s religions and wisdom traditions follow a pattern which results in a breathing rate of about 6 seconds. The Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum, Kundalini yoga chant sa ta na ma , Hindu khechari and the original Latin version of the Roman Catholic rosary, among others, all have a cycle of about 5.5 to 6 seconds per breath. It’s not surprising that these chants have a calming effect on the mind and body as the optimum amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide circulate in the body.
Volume of Breath
When it comes to optimal breathing, less is more. Not only should we have fewer inhales and exhales, we should also breathe less volume. Less volume of air can be achieved with longer exhales. Breathing less affects every aspect of health, increases endurance and extends life span.
With slower and longer exhales, more carbon dioxide is present resulting in a gain in aerobic capacity, helping increase athletic endurance. This can help people live longer and healthier lives. The goal is to breathe as closely as possible to our metabolic needs, which usually means taking in less air.
Breathing less can be accomplished by extending exhales so that the exhale is longer than the inhale. For example, breathing in for a count of four and extending the exhale to a count of eight. With practice this can become a new habit of breathing. Even a few minutes of breathing this way every day can benefit almost anyone.
How we chew our food, or a lack of chewing, affects how we breathe.
We haven’t always been habitual mouth breathers. Biological anthropologists studying human skeletons have found that the human skull has been shrinking affecting alignment of the teeth. Ancient human sculls had massive jaws and beautifully straight teeth.Things remained this way until a dramatic shift about 300 years ago.
The rapid industrialization of farming meant that foods were processed more, becoming softer and softer, requiring less chewing. Over the centuries, food has become more and more refined, requiring less chewing.
Less chewing physically changed our mouths and jaws, making them smaller, with less room for the teeth, the tongue and shrinking the airways.
Masticating the jaw begins at birth. Breastfeeding requires more jaw action from the sucking baby compared to bottle feeding where little effort is required. Pureed baby food became common in 1960’s, requiring less chewing for the developing child, resulting in smaller mouths and smaller airways.
The good news is that you can help change the size of your airways by chewing food. Bigger airways make it easier to breathe through the nose and all the benefits that go along with nasal breathing.
Chewing also helps with digestion by making the food easer for the digestive system, and also by invoking the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest, state of the nervous system. When we chew food, typically we chew on just one side at a time. The body associates side chewing with the the parasympathetic response. Clenching down on both sides is associated with stress, which activates the sympathetic response of the nervous system. So, taking the time to chew food thoroughly makes it easier to digest food, and makes all the body’s systems function more beneficially for our health.
To summarize, here are five key aspects of breathing for health and longevity:
Breathe through the nose
Exhale completely by engaging the diaphragm
Breathe slowly at a rate of about 6 breaths per minute
Breathe less by lengthening out the exhales
Chew food to increase the size of the airway to make breathing more efficient
Breathwork is one of the first things I teach people I work with because it’s a simple place to start switching on the parasympathetic state of the autonomic nervous system. This is the state where all the body systems function optimally and where healing happens.
Conscious breathing is free and can be done anytime, anywhere by anyone.
If you would like to improve your health, promote healing and lower pain, take some time every day to breathe consciously.
A great way to feel more peaceful is with heart-focused breathing - so simple, yet effective! I have a great free resource for you to implement TODAY to help you feel more relaxed and calm. It’s an MP3 audio file you can download to guide you through 3 minutes of heart focused breathing. Click on the image below to receive it.