Why How You Breathe MattersOct 31, 2023
Breathing is the only function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is both automatic and within your conscious control.
Why dive into the mechanics of something as basic as breathing? It's something you do without even trying. Yes, you're absolutely right. Breathing happens effortlessly. But the real question is, are you harnessing the power of breath to fuel your wellbeing?
What’s happening when you breathe?
Let's establish the fundamentals. Breathing isn't just about air going in and out; it's a lifeline, delivering oxygen (O2) while expelling carbon dioxide (CO2).
Ever felt out of breath running up a hill? That's because your muscles produce extra carbon dioxide , which can briefly make your blood more acidic. To balance this, you naturally start breathing faster to remove the excess carbon dioxide. This process is beneficial because it helps your body become more efficient at using oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide . With regular exercise, your body gets better at handling and expelling carbon dioxide, which boosts your overall fitness.
How to breathe for optimal health
So, now you understand the role that oxygen and carbon dioxide play, let’s get into how to breathe for your overall wellbeing and performance.
Before you read on: Set up a timer for 60 seconds and count how many breaths you take.
The average person typically takes 15-18 breaths per minute. However, a healthier respiratory rate hovers around 12 breaths per minute, with an ideal target of 6 breaths per minute.
Why does this matter? Over-breathing, or breathing at an excessively high rate, can lead to a reduction in carbon dioxide levels. This, in turn, can hinder the effective delivery of oxygen to your cells, potentially resulting in a hyperactive mind and even feelings of anxiety.
What's the best way to breathe?
In everyday life, it's nasal breathing that takes the lead. It holds the key to improved wellbeing, thanks to its diverse benefits. “You get 20% more oxygen breathing through your nose than you do from equivalent breaths through your mouth.” - James Nestar
The benefits of nasal breathing:
- Activates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest)
- Filters, humidifies and warms air, making the oxygen cleaner for your lungs and easier to absorb.
- Generates six times more nitric oxide. This natural vasodilator prompts your blood vessels to relax, allowing them to expand. This expansion facilitates the unrestricted flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen throughout your entire body.
- Increased sexual function
- Better oxygenation and blood flow to the brain
- Improves focus and energy levels
- Reduced risk of snoring and sleep apnea = better sleep
In contrast, habitual mouth breathing triggers your body's fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system), leading to a perpetual state of stress and anxiety. It also has significant drawbacks, affecting your sleep quality, cognitive function, and even your facial features.
Breath-work techniques to try
Breath-work to set your day up right:
This technique is an excellent way to start your day with a focus on conscious breathing. It helps establish a routine for slow, deep breathing, promoting awareness of your breath and positively affecting your respiratory rate and nervous system regulation over time.
- Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4 (deep into the belly)
- Exhale through the mouth for a count of 5
- Continue for 5 minutes
Breath-work for stress reduction:
The 4-7-8 technique offers a simple tool to manage stress and induce relaxation. The extended exhalation helps to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and down regulate your nervous system in times of stress.
- Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 7
- Exhale through pursed lips for a count of 8
Breath-work to Help Increase Your carbon dioxide Tolerance, Improve Your Mood, and Enhance Focus:
Cyclic Hyperventilation: This technique shares similarities with the renowned Wim Hof method but emphasises nasal inhalation and mouth exhalation. This exercise involves 3 rounds of 20 breaths, accompanied by breath holds.
- Take deep inhalations through the nose, immediately followed by mouth exhalations.
- Maintain a rapid, uninterrupted pace—no pauses at the bottom or top.
- After your 20th exhalation, exhale completely and hold your breath for 20-30 seconds.
- Following the three rounds, take a moment to sit in stillness and practise deep, slow breathing for 2-3 minutes.
With this style of breath-work it is common to experience physical sensations such as tingling and possibly lightheadedness. This is due to rapidly changing the CO2 levels in your body and everything will return to normal levels after the exercise.
A few important notes: This technique is not recommended for individuals who are pregnant or have epilepsy. If you're prone to high levels of anxiety, exercise caution. Never practise this technique while driving or near bodies of water. Please take the breath hold at your own pace and do what feels comfortable to you.
The way we breathe, though often overlooked, influences every aspect of our lives. The conscious choice to adopt healthier breathing patterns, has the potential to improve your mental clarity, physical stamina, and emotional wellbeing.