Breathing for Optimal Health & Wellness
If I were to begin writing about health, I would begin with a breath. Breathing seems almost subliminal to most of us and we don’t have to spend very much mental energy thinking about our next breath. As you will come to find, how you breathe will begin your health journey and the style of your breathing has more to do with a holistic picture of your health than almost any other bodily function. When I begin to think about breathing exercises and techniques I can’t help but think about “11,” on Netflix's Stranger Things, calling people she thinks of as not very smart, “mouth breathers.” This actually holds weight to a large picture of how we use our breath to improve or reduce our mental functions. This can contribute to a “foggy mind” and when we give our bodies the proper amount of oxygen we actually think more clearly!
It is known in the science that if an individual were to mouth breathe for 10 minutes and then switch to nasal breathing the amount of oxygen that reaches their brain will be reduced during the mouth breathing and the amount of oxygen will increase during nasal breathing. Research has shown that breathing through your nose is about 20% more efficient than breathing through your mouth. This is where I begin this topic for the sake of simplicity. If you were to stop reading right now but change your breathing from mouth breathing to nose breathing you would improve your overall health in a large way by way of the compound effect over years of an adopted habit. Over time, the results can build onto itself and become exponential (the compound effect) while optimally breathing in the most efficient manner possible and can reduce blood pressure, improve focus and memory, better maintain blood cortisol levels (our “stress hormone”), as well as reduce respiratory infections. There is actually a specific type of tape that is sold for people to tape their mouths shut during sleep to ensure you only breathe through your nose! With just a small change in how we breathe we can actually extend our life with improved health through increased energy and clarity of mind.
Why is breathing through your nose so much better than mouth breathing? Well the answer to that is in our basic biology. When looking at scans of the head you will notice a cluster of empty structures at the forefront of the head just behind the nose. These chambers in the nasal passages play a vital role in respiration (breathing) by increasing the pressure of the air we take in, filtering out bacteria and viruses, humidifying and warming the air, and overall preparing the air for optimal absorption in the lungs. Increasing the temperature and pressure helps in what we call the “gas exchange” process which is our body actually trading oxygen for CO2 and eliminating waste. By switching to nose breathing we set ourselves up for overall health and wellness.
Just switching to nose breathing is great but we can take this further. Last week I wrote about meditation and gave some methods of achieving a meditative state including some breath work. Meditation focuses on the breath for a very good reason, it is a powerful way to change your mental state and reduce cortisol levels among many other benefits. When we intentionally slow down our breath we actually change our body on a physical level by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and lowering stress. If you were to place your hand on your heart right now and check your pulse, then intentionally slow and deepen your breathing you would notice your heart rate slow down within 60 seconds of this intentional change. You can radically change your physiology by using a technique popularized by Wim Hof, or the IceMan. This is done by using a forceful and rapid breathing pattern over 30 full in, full out breaths followed by a prolonged breath hold. After about 3 cycles of this method, your body will feel radically different with warm, tingling sensations flowing through your hands, feet, finger tips, and body. You can try the guided breath technique here: https://youtu.be/tybOi4hjZFQ
Another great breathing technique is used by elite military units during times of high stress, like war. This technique is called Box Breathing and involves a controlled inhale to the count of 4, holding that breath to another count of 4, exhaling to a count of 4, and then again holding to a count of 4. This is a great technique that helps the individual to maintain composure when stressed and increases focus when needed. Simply by changing your breath pattern you can elicit stress reduction and increase focus.
If you think about how you feel when you are stressed or angry you will notice that your breathing pattern becomes short and shallow which spikes cortisol and epinephrine and can lead to unhealthy levels of these hormones causing your body to think that it is going into battle when you’re just trying to make this week’s deadline at work. Over time these levels of stress will contribute to many different ill effects including increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and loss of brain function. Our society demands action and non-stop work which is actually contributing to a loss of health in our nation. Focusing on your breath is a free and easy way to manage stress, increase focus, and reduce overall inflammation caused by the mental stress we put ourselves through on a daily basis.
These breathing techniques can be enhanced by also shifting your posture into more powerful poses. Power posing also has similar effects of reducing stress and increasing self-confidence. If you think about an Olympic gold medalist many will imagine them with their arms up above their head in a sort of “V” shape. This is a powerful pose for the body and will actively promote an overall positivity in your system that can empower you to succeed in whatever you may be facing in the moment.
In today’s world we have little time to place emphasis on self care with the constant demand for our attention and focus. There is however, a growing trend of natural remedies, organic food, air purification, and sustainable resources. With this growing interest we have placed significant resources studying the benefits of meditation and breath work to our health. Health to the core. A mind, body and soul kind of rejuvenation that makes the participants feel more alive than ever. At the core of meditation is the breath. Focus on your breath as it fills your lungs and removes toxins upon exhalation.
When an individual makes a commitment to losing weight, what would you say is the primary avenue of fat loss? Is it lost through the bowels? Or maybe our renal system (urine)? Hepatic system (liver)? Well, not really. We breathe it off. As the adipose tissue is broken down and enters our blood stream it collects with gaseous excretions and vacates through our lungs in a basic metabolic process and you quite literally breathe it off. Our lungs are very complex and support the rest of the body in a tremendous way, we should give them the credit they are due and try to keep them as healthy as possible so we can live happier and healthier lives.
Breathing techniques are used in anger management, meditation, focus rituals, and taught in hospitals across the globe as treatment of many lung disease processes. If we can try to breathe as our bodies should, we can improve our quality of life and invigorate our bodies into motion for play, work, and growth. I hope you have learned some valuable information today and invite you to focus on your breath today to see how you can improve your stress levels and health.
By Tyler VandenBosch, your Health and Wellness Coach