Breathe your way to long life
If you stopped eating tomorrow, you could easily live for several weeks. Stop drinking and you would keel over in a few days. But if you were to stop breathing, your lifespan would be reduced to only minutes. Breathing is so important that you cannot stop of your own volition. Hold your breath long enough and you’ll simply pass out and the breathing centre in your brain will ensure that you start inhaling again.
Stress, anxiety, posture and allergies can all lead to poor breathing habits, which can keep your body stuck in a cycle of poor health, reduce your ability to heal, cause muscle pain and tension and make you more prone to stress and anxiety.
Swimmers, divers and singers are all trained in specific breathing techniques and you, too, can learn how to change poor breathing habits to ensure a longer, healthier life. The two most important characteristics include breathing in and out through your nose and breathing with your diaphragm.
Why nature made noses
Breathing through your mouth at the end of a 10km jog is normal. However, it’s not normal or healthy while you’re sat watching TV, at your desk or asleep. As you breathe air in through your nose, your nostrils filter, warm, moisturise and dehumidify the air before it enters your lungs. Your nostrils and sinuses also produce nitric oxide, which is harmful to bacteria.
Mouth breathing also results in shallower and shorter breaths. When you take short, shallow breaths over a long period of time, your brain interprets this as difficulty in breathing and adjusts the posture of your head to tilt back in order to open the airways. This is known as ‘forward carriage’ by osteopaths, chiropractors and physios and it creates an enormous amount of strain on the muscles of your neck and shoulders, leading to chronic neck and upper back pain. Mouth breathing in children also affects the development of their facial bones and jaw due to incorrect positioning of the tongue on the hard palate.
Constant mouth breathing alters the pH of your saliva, making it more acidic, removing some of its antibacterial effect and making you more susceptible to tooth decay and gum problems. In anti-aging terms, inflammation of the gums is now linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Chronic mouth breathing also activates the fight-or-flight response, which makes you more prone to feeling anxious and stressed. Simply switching to breathing in and out through your nose can have a calming effect. This is much more important to your overall health than it sounds. Fight or flight is all about short-term survival, so not only do you burn up nutrients faster but also any body functions that aren’t essential to fighting or running for your life are switched off. Some of these functions include digestion, fertility, healing and repair. In other words, chronic mouth breathing makes you age faster.
Deep from the diaphragm
The other hallmark of healthy breathing is diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that sits beneath your rib cage, assists in breathing and separates your lungs from your heart, stomach and other organs. During diaphragmatic breathing, your diaphragm contracts as you breathe in, enlarging your thoracic or chest cavity. This sudden enlargement reduces the pressure inside, which creates suction, drawing air into the lungs. As the diaphragm relaxes, air is pushed out as the lungs recoil.
Diaphragmatic breathing is effortless and uses little if any energy. Chest breathing, on the other hand, forces the muscles of your chest and shoulders to work hard and is a constant drain on your energy reserves. The muscles used in chest breathing are also known as the “accessory breathing muscles” and are designed to assist during exercise or periods of intense activity. They are not designed to be used 24/7.
The lower lobes of your lungs are larger and have the richest supply of blood. Diaphragmatic breathing delivers oxygen-rich air to the lower parts of the lung first. Chest breathing is shorter and shallower, delivering air to the top part of your lungs only. The movement of your diaphragm also massages the organs below it, such as the stomach, heart and liver. The change in pressure in your chest and abdominal cavity as your diaphragm contracts also helps to pump your lymphatic system.
To work out if you’re a diaphragmatic or a chest breather, sit up straight in a chair with your shoulders relaxed. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Take a big deep breath in and watch your hands. If the hand on your stomach is pushed out then congratulations, you’re already a diaphragmatic breather. If the hand on your chest is pushed out, it means that you’re a chest breather and have some work to do in order to correct this.
Chronic hyperventilation syndrome is an extremely common and under-diagnosed problem, which goes hand in hand with both mouth and chest breathing. Hyperventilation results in excessive oxygen in the blood and a deficiency of carbon dioxide. Too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide is a recipe for seriously poor health and unhappiness. After all, good breathing requires balance.
When carbon dioxide is too low, it becomes much more difficult for oxygen to move from your blood to your cells. Even though your blood contains higher levels of oxygen, your cells are starved of it. Chronic hyperventilation and low carbon dioxide starves all the cells of your body of essential oxygen. Your brain can receive up to 50 per cent less oxygen when you hyperventilate. Other symptoms of chronically low oxygen include cold hands and feet, disturbed sleep, waking tired in the mornings and dark circles under the eyes.
Your body also uses carbon dioxide to control the acid/alkaline balance in your blood. Too little carbon dioxide causes your blood to become more alkaline; to counter this and keep your blood pH stable, your body starts to produce lactic acid. Lactic acid causes tight, aching and exhausted muscles. If tight, aching muscles bother you in your back, neck and shoulders, particularly between your shoulder blades, it might be your breathing that’s at fault.
If your blood becomes become too alkaline due to incorrect breathing during sleep, your brain will instruct your diaphragm to stop working until carbon dioxide increases to a safe level. According to Roger Price, a respiratory physiologist based in Sydney and founder of Breathing Well, this is one of the main causes of sleep apnoea. When this occurs during the day you may find yourself holding your breath while you’re working or concentrating.
One of the most important roles of carbon dioxide is to trigger the breathing mechanism and rate. This philosophy forms the basis of breathing methods such as Buteyko breathing. Low carbon dioxide levels trigger erratic and abnormal breathing patterns as well as smooth muscle spasm. Smooth muscle is found in the walls of your airways, digestive tract and blood vessels. Spasm in the smooth muscles of the airways narrows them and prevents you “blowing off” more carbon dioxide. This spasm of the airways is responsible for the characteristic wheeze of asthma and the tight sensation you experience during an anxiety attack. Smooth muscle spasm is not limited to the airways. Low carbon dioxide can produce digestive problems and high blood pressure as the smooth muscle in the digestive tract and arteries chronically spasms.
The Buteyko Method, or Buteyko Breathing Technique, is a specific set of breathing exercises and techniques. These are designed to correct dysfunctional breathing and hyperventilation by changing unhealthy breathing habits such as mouth breathing and restoring balance to the levels of carbon dioxide. Buteyko is most widely known as a method for controlling and reducing asthma, sleep apnoea, snoring and hyperventilation.
In fact, the Buteyko method is the only complementary medicine endorsed and recommended by the British Medical Association for the treatment of asthma. Several studies, including one conducted in Australia at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane and published in the Medical Journal of Australia, have shown the Buteyko method improves asthmatic symptoms and decreases medication use. In the Australian trial, 90 per cent of participants were able to stop their asthma medication within one week.
The Buteyko method was developed by Russian professor Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko (1923–2003) after noticing during his medical studies that breathing rate increased the more severe a patient’s illness and prognosis. These observations sparked him to conduct nearly 30 years of research into the health effects of dysfunctional breathing and hyperventilation.
Buteyko was very aware of chronic hyperventilation syndrome, which he called “hidden hyperventilation”. He also recognised the importance of healthy carbon dioxide levels in both maintaining healthy breathing patterns and allowing the body to utilise oxygen more effectively. The “control pause” is a technique developed by Buteyko to assess the level of carbon dioxide in the lungs. The level of carbon dioxide in your body determines how long you can hold your breath.
To work out your control pause you’ll need to be sitting comfortably in a chair with your shoulders relaxed and your lower back resting against the back of the chair.
- Breathe normally then breathe in to the count of two and out to the count of three. Do not breathe all the air out of your lungs and do not take a larger breath in than normal.
- Hold your breath and pinch your nose closed with your fingers.
- Start counting as soon as your hold your breath and stop when the urge to breathe occurs, at which point you should resume breathing normally.
- Do not hold your breath past the urge to breathe. The purpose of testing your control pause is to assess the health of your breathing and monitor your progress; it is not a contest to see how long you can hold your breath.
- You should be able to resume normal breathing straight after a control pause. If you feel the overwhelming need to take a bigger breath than normal, you have held your breath for too long past the urge to breathe and your control pause will not be accurate.
What does your control pause indicate?
- 50–60 seconds indicates optimal breathing and carbon dioxide levels. Buteyko noted a direct correlation between a control pause of 50–60 seconds and perfect physical health, with no obvious sign of disease.
- 40 seconds also indicates healthy breathing associated with good health and an absence of disease.
- 30 seconds is double the optimal intake of air, indicating that CO2 levels are not optimal and is associated with minor health issues such as allergies and the onset of degenerative diseases.
- 20 seconds is three times the optimal ventilation required to sustain health. This control pause is indicative of ongoing poor health and is associated with asthma, allergies, bronchitis, cancer, high blood pressure, insomnia, onset of diabetes, being overweight and decreased mental functioning.
- 10 seconds indicates very poor or fragile health. It is a breathing rate six times higher than healthy breathing.
- 5 seconds or below indicates a very serious state of poor health.
Mouth taping is recommended by Buteyko to ensure healthy nose breathing throughout the night. The practice helps to re-set the brain into accepting that carbon dioxide is rising to a healthier level and thereby helps reduce hyperventilation during the day. Nose breathing while you’re asleep also ensures better oxygenation to your tissues overnight and you’ll wake feeling more energised and rested. To mouth tape, a strip of micropore tape is placed vertically or horizontally across the lips to prevent them opening. You can also tape your mouth while watching TV or working on the computer.
Yawning and a blocked nose can both be signs of over-breathing. If you feel your nose is too congested to sleep comfortably with your mouth taped, try the following nose unblocking exercise first. Remember that the more you breathe through your nose the less blocked it will be and the more you mouth breathe the more blocked your nose will be. Most people have a blocked nose because they mouth breathe.
After you breathe out, pinch your nose closed with your fingers and hold your breath while you nod your head vigorously back and forth or walk around until you feel the urge to breathe, at which point release your nose and breathe slowly and gently in and out through your nose. You should experience an immediate opening of your nasal passages. Repeat the exercise as many times as you need to.
The Buteyko method was introduced to Australia in 1990 by Alexander Stalmatski, who worked with Professor Buteyko in Russia for more than 15 years. The breathing method can be successfully taught to anyone over the age of three and is typically taught over a series of 5–6 90-minute sessions. Many Buteyko instructors use a form of biofeedback to help make it easier to recognise and retrain dysfunctional breathing. By learning how to breathe correctly while sleeping, exercising, speaking and eating, you can easily integrate healthy breathing into daily life, improving health on all levels. For more information on Buteyko breathing or to find a qualified practitioner and teacher in your area visit the Buteyko Institute of Breathing and Health Website at www.buteyko.info
Known by many simply as yogic or yoga breathing, “pranayama” is the Sanskrit word for “lengthening of the prana or breath”. It is derived from the words prana, meaning “life force and vital energy”, and ayama, which means “to lengthen or extend”. Other translations for pranayama include “breath control” and “suspension of breath”. Prana is the power, force or intelligence behind the functioning of your body and mind; the key to health and wellbeing.
Pranayama is typically practised while sitting on the floor. There is a strong emphasis on good posture as poor posture such as slouching results in shallow breathing. It’s important to sit with your back straight and erect from the base of the spine up to the neck. Folding a blanket or towel and using it like a mini-seat to elevate your bottom can be helpful. It is also recommended that you perform pranayama in the morning on an empty stomach. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, regular practice of pranayama is believed to delay or slow the ageing process.
There are many different pranayama techniques. Some of the better-known examples include diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing and ujjayi, or bee breathing. The techniques vary from rapid breathing or panting through to a conscious slowing of breathing, with extended pauses between both inhalation and exhalation.
The benefits of putting in the hard work to master pranayama are, according to numerous scientific studies, well worth the effort. They include managing stress and stress-related illness; reducing free radical damage; improving lung function and quality of life in chronic illness; and helping cancer patients deal with pain. An Indian study on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease found that as little as three months of daily pranayama practice improved lung function and exercise tolerance and significantly improved the quality of life compared with the control group. Multiple studies examining the effects of pranayama practice on asthmatics have found that not only is lung function improved but also an overall anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy effect has been noted, resulting in a decrease in asthma attacks and medication use.
If pranayama practice can effectively improve lung function and quality of life in people with chronic illness, the sky is the limit when used as a tool to maintain a healthy body and mind in order to prevent illness, premature ageing and disease.
Reverse abdominal breathing
According to Dennis Lewis, author of the Tao of Natural Breathing, reverse breathing or traditional Taoist breathing is used by martial artists and practitioners of qi gong as a method of drawing and directing energy to specific parts of the body and is particularly useful for improving the functioning of the immune system.
Reverse abdominal breathing reverses the natural in-and-out movement of the abdomen that occurs in healthy breathing. The abdomen is instead contracted as you breathe in and relaxed as you breathe out. It is best practised once you are comfortable and familiar with healthy diaphragmatic breathing; otherwise there is a tendency to overly tense the muscles of the face, neck and chest, which results in pain.
Several methods of breathwork developed specifically to use breath as a tool for releasing emotional blocks and fears include Reichian Therapy, Rebirthing, Radiance Breathwork, Holotropic Breathwork, Radix, Shen and Vivation. Due to the nature and intensity of these techniques, it is essential that you work with a skilled and experienced practitioner to avoid re-traumatising yourself as frightening and traumatic memories resurface. The International Breathwork Foundation (www.ibfnetwork.com) can help direct you to a practitioner in your area.
Breathe blood pressure down
Breathing correctly is an effective drug-free approach to reducing blood pressure and has no nasty side-effects. Studies show that slowing your breathing to under 10 breaths a minute can help lower blood pressure when carried out for as little as 15 minutes a day. Practise the following breathing exercise 10 minutes in the morning and evening or whenever you feel stressed:
- Close your mouth and gently breathe in and out through your nose. After two normal breaths through your nose, hold your breath for the count of two before breathing in again. Repeat this then hold your breath for the count of three. Continue to increase the count by one each time you hold your breath until your reach 10. After reaching 10, reverse the process and count back to one.
Breathe Well, Be Well
Correcting unhealthy breathing habits not only helps your body age more slowly, it can also assist with the following health conditions:
- Sleep apnoea
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- High blood pressure
- Preventing dental problems
- Chronic stress
- Low energy and fatigue