You may wonder why I am writing a whole blog post about something as self-evident as breathing. But as well as with other topics such as sleep and nutrition, I have become aware of how little we think about the very functions of our body that seem so self-evident to us. But taking a closer look at them, the potential weak points can be identified just as easily as the measures to prevent such problems.
The biology of breathing.
You know, of course, that our breath flows through the nasal cavity into the pharynx. And then through the larynx into the trachea and from there into the lungs. But did you also know that although we breathe through both nostrils, we never do so simultaneously? 80% of the population breathe mainly through one nostril. Ideally, they should alternate, because the nasal mucosa swells by turns in both nostrils.
You may also be aware that numerous muscle groups and the diaphragm are involved in breathing. And if you stop for a moment, you may feel that the muscles tighten when you inhale and relax when you exhale. The way you tense your muscles and move the diaphragm affects whether you breathe mainly into the chest or into the abdomen or into the flanks – or preferably into all of them at the same time.
When thinking about your lungs, the thing you may find uncomfortable is the mucus that is expelled when you cough. The bronchial mucosa located in the lungs is responsible for this. Or rather, its mucus-producing goblet cells and cilia. This mucus is a useful device of our body. It captures foreign bodies and passes them on to the cilia.The cilia transport everything unnecessary and harmful back out of the lungs. Normally – when you don’t cough due to illness – the mucus ends up in the throat. From there it is swallowed via the pharynx into the stomach, where it is digested. In addition, the bronchial mucosa, like all mucous membranes in our body, contains numerous immune defence cells. These are very important cells, but when we have a cold, they make it difficult for us to breathe due to the characteristic bronchial swelling of the mucous membrane.
Oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric monoxide.
Something special is caused by the smallest units of the lungs, the alveoli, which transfer the oxygen in the respiratory volume into the blood vessels. These collapse from time to time. And what do we do then? We sigh. Because with sighing, twice as much oxygen enters our lungs as normally. And with that we rebuild our little alveoli. And that’s why you sigh about twelve times an hour, regardless of your state of mind.
When we breathe in, we take oxygen from the air into the blood and transport it via the pulmonary veins to the left ventricle of the heart and from there via the aorta into the body and so into the cells. Carbon dioxide-rich and oxygen-poor blood, on the other hand, is taken from the body’s cells via the large venous trunks into the right ventricle and from there towards the lungs. Here, the carbon dioxide is exhaled into the air again. With 10-15 breaths (at rest), each adult thus circulates about 7.5 litres of air every minute of their life. (Babies still need 40-50 breaths per minute for their breathing).
And even though oxygen is the gas that is important for energy production in the cells, CO2 is largely responsible for controlling the whole thing. The lower the pH value and the higher the proportion of CO2 in the blood, the less interest haemoglobin, the transport medium of oxygen, has in holding the oxygen so that it is released into the cells. If we now breathe faster, we breathe out more CO2. In doing so, we increase the ph-value as well as the desire of the haemoglobin to absorb and hold as much oxygen as possible (oxygen affinity). As a result, accelerated breathing (so-called hyperventilation) reduces the oxygen supply to the cells. For a short time, the body can compensate for this by returning the amount of exhaled CO2 to normal after breathing has decreased to a normal rate.
However, if you breathe too fast for a longer period of time, the body gets used to the low CO2 level in the blood. It then takes care to maintain this new value, which leads to a permanent undersupply of oxygen. Stress-induced low-grade hyperventilation is now a very common breathing disorder that leads to chronic silent inflammation, weakening of the immune system and numerous respiratory diseases due to the lack of oxygen supply to the tissues.
It has only recently become known that the innermost wall layer of our blood vessels itself produces nitric monoxide from the nitrogen-containing amino acid arginine. This constant nitrogen monoxide mist regulates blood pressure (and above it, among other things, penile erection). Obviously, these mists also work in our brain as a transmission medium between the nerve cells. Without which our memory would not be able to function. Because of its simple structure compared to other hormones and messenger substances, it is assumed that nitric monoxide is one of the oldest media of signal transmission – dating back to a time when bacteria ruled the world. However, it also acts as a poison gas in our bodies when it gets out of control . As in the case of a stroke, for example.
This knowledge is important for the question of whether you breathe through your mouth or nose . (Preferably the latter). This is because nitric monoxide is also produced in the sinuses and is transported to the lungs via nasal breathing. Where it stimulates blood flow in the alveoli so that more oxygen can be absorbed into the blood. This effect is not seen with mouth breathing.
In addition, there is – little known – also a so-called microbiome in the lungs. Again, this is the population of microorganisms that are found in a healthy lung in a balanced condition. That means especially such bacteria (Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes and Proteobacteria) that produce certain short-chain fatty acids being particularly important. These are mainly found in the lower respiratory tract. Of course, the lung microbiome consists not only of bacteria, but also of viruses and fungi. But about their positive effects not too much is known yet. (Source)
The close connection between the lungs and the gut has led scientists to speak of a gut-lung axis in addition to the gut-brain axis. The intestinal flora influences the microbial composition of the lungs. Even though it is not yet entirely clear whether this happens directly via microbes or via the corresponding fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids are the link between the microbiome and the immune system. Not only in the lungs, but also in the gut. Therefore, a stable and healthy intestinal flora also has an influence on the functioning of the lungs.
Breathing control in the brain
Breathing is an automatic basic function of the human body, which we can, however, influence voluntarily at times. Our breathing centre is located in the brain stem, the so-called “reptile brain”, precisely in the medulla oblongata. Here, so-called astrocytes, star-shaped glial cells (supporting cells of the nervous tissue) measure the carbon dioxide content of the blood. If the value exceeds a certain limit, a respiratory stimulus is triggered.
Causes of breathing disorders and respiratory diseases
1. Genetic predisposition
There are a number of genetically determined but very rare lung diseases (which you can find here if you are interested).
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the third leading cause of death worldwide. The numerous COPD sufferers (almost 7 million in Germany, or one in eight over 40) often have genetic predispositions for this disease. Genes have even been identified in smokers that make them susceptible to COPD. The genetic deficiency of alpha1-antitrypsin has been clearly identified as a factor favouring COPD.
Frequent infections with bronchitis are disproportionately common in the medical history of COPD patients. This is especially true of frequent respiratory infections in childhood.
An important source of respiratory infections continues to be tuberculosis. This is the most common bacterial infectious disease causing death worldwide. The number of people latently infected with the bacterium is significantly higher than the number of people who are ill. It is estimated that about 25% of the German population is infected with the bacterium. Since a large part of the bacteria is increasingly resistant to the available antibiotics, it is important to influence the factors that trigger the disease. For apart from smoking, it is above all poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism and malnutrition that promote the disease.
3. Silent inflammation and dysbiosis of the microbiome
Allergic and chronic respiratory diseases, but also numerous other diseases such as arteriosclerosis or high blood pressure are usually the result of inflammations that have developed in the body but often remain undetected (and therefore “silent”). Obesity and a disturbed intestinal microbiome are the main reasons for this. Unhealthy diets often lead not only to obesity, but also to inflammation of the intestinal mucosa, culminating in the so-called “leaky gut syndrome”. The inflammation of the intestinal mucosa is then so far advanced that it has become permeable to substances that otherwise cannot enter the blood and now trigger the immune system’s defences here, which can even lead to allergic reactions, especially in the lungs.
In addition, being obese results in an above-average amount of fatty tissue. However, fatty tissue is not just an energy store for a rainy day, but an endocrine (i.e. hormone-producing) organ in its own right. The hormones and macrophages produced here affect the immune system and the body’s inflammatory response. Some also influence the body’s insulin sensitivity. Others act directly on the lungs. The more visceral fat tissue a person carries around, the more macrophages are produced, which make proinflammatory cytokines (substances that promote inflammation). These in turn weaken insulin transmission so that body and muscle cells become increasingly resistant. Source
The disturbance of the intestinal microbiome by external influences as well as antibiotic therapies also upset the balance of the lung microbiome. And so allow species characteristic of certain diseases (e.g. Pseudomonas in cystic fibrosis) to increasingly colonise it. Unfortunately, this also works the other way around. Dysbiosis of the lung microbiome also causes disturbances in the gut microbiome, although this is not well understood.
4. Incorrect breathing technique
Due to the frequent sitting at work, we breathe only into the chest instead of simultaneously into the abdomen and chest. Stress and excitement lead to an even greater focus on chest breathing. The more shallow our breathing becomes and the longer we breathe only into the chest, the faster our breathing muscles and fascia lose their elasticity, as does the diaphragm. In this way, the absorption of oxygen into the blood is also reduced, provoking headaches, lack of concentration and tension. However, the restriction in breathing volume also affects people who only breathe into their abdomen. Only full breathing involves the muscles, fascia and diaphragm in the chest, abdomen and flank and thus ensures sufficient oxygen supply to the blood.
In the case of prolonged incorrect breathing, the muscles concerned are often so tense that they first have to be loosened by physiotherapeutic or fascia work before the correct breathing posture can be practised.
Obesity also has a negative influence on the mechanics of the lungs. The fat restricts the volume and mobility of the lungs, which is compensated for by increasing the breathing rate. This again results in hypoxia – an insufficient oxygen supply.
When we breathe through the mouth, we bypass the natural barrier of hairs and immune cells in the nose, allowing unfiltered and cold dry air into our lungs. Mouth breathing is often maintained at night and can lead to snoring and sleep problems. Of particular concern here is sleep apnoea, which is favoured by mouth breathing and obesity.
Normally, nasal breathing stimulates the olfactory nerve. This in turn affects the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which then influence our nervous system. Nasal breathing has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for relaxation, recuperation and regeneration. Measurements on athletes showed that breathing through the mouth activated the sympathetic nervous system, which makes us ready for attack, flight or defence. So above a certain level, sport has the effect of stress – yes, I know that’s a bit of a mouthful for some people who don’t like sport. But remember: if you breathe through your nose while exercising, you can avoid this stress.
In addition, nasal breathing activates the amygdala (where emotions are processed) and the hippocampus (where memories are processed). People who were asked to identify pictures of anxious people when inhaling were able to do this much better when they inhaled through their nose. The same applies to the memory of certain objects. The scientists assume that this is an evolutionarily meaningful mechanism, since we inhale more frequently under stress and are thus better able to absorb information or impressions and thus react more quickly. These effects could not be found with mouth breathing.
5. Inhalation of toxins
In addition to smoking (80% of COPD patients are smokers), pollution in the environment is considered to be one of the main factors in the development of lung disease. Studies in Germany (University of Düsseldorf) show, for example, that the lung function values of people living less than 100 m from a busy road are significantly worse than those of people living in residential areas with little traffic. Dust, fibre, mineral and gas exposure at work are further stress factors for the lungs. As a result of these environmental stresses, there is an increased occurrence of free radicals. Free radicals are aggressive and highly reactive molecules that contain oxygen. Due to their high reactivity, they steal electrons from other connections and in this way destroy the molecules and consequently cells and tissue.
Stress supports all the previous points. The weakening of the immune system leads to increased infections. Unhealthy diets provoked by stress, often combined with smoking, alcohol or tablet consumption, lead to disturbed intestinal and thus also lung colonisation, silent inflammation, insulin resistance and obesity, resulting in a self-reinforcing spiral. Stress leads to tension and bad posture, to incorrect breathing, shallow breathing and reduced exhalation. Not only is brain activity lowered with the restriction of breathing, but brain function is also altered. Stress promotes the release of free radicals in the body and the accompanying damage to mitochondria, cells, tissues and organs. And in the case of severe stress, the bronchial tubes tighten up to the point of shortness of breath and fainting.
Why you should pay attention to natural breathing.
Because breathing moves your soul.
Breath is a word that has undergone little change via the transformation of language itself. Both the Old High German “atum” and the Old Indian “atma” are still easily recognisable as breathing. The Old Indian “atma” comes from the stem “atman”. And “atman” is the central word of ancient Indian philosophy and denotes the absolute indestructible self. The essence of our spirit, which is connected to the physical vessel for a certain time. For the ancient physicians from Paracelsus to Hildegard von Bingen, the breath was not only the most important thing for man’s existence, but through its connection with his soul, it was also responsible for the way he lived his life.
Interestingly, the English “breathe” does not come from the same meaning. But derives from the Old English bræð, which refers to vapour or odour.
Because breathing influences your posture – inside and out.
Since full breathing is not possible with a bent posture, you have to straighten up. In an upright posture your attitude towards certain subjects is different from a bent posture. (Simple experiment: Stand up straight with your arms raised and your face turned upwards and say: “My life is terrible! Cross-check: stand bent with your face down and arms hanging and say, “I’m so happy!!!” Doesn’t really work, does it?!)
Because all the actions you take to improve your breath affect your whole well-being.
As described above, all the negative influences – which are pretty much our own fault except for genetics – make our lives unhealthy, exhausting and short. However, if we make the effort to eliminate one or two negative influences, our lives become more balanced, longer and more worth living. Is that enough motivation?
If you would like to read concrete tips and my personal recommendations for improving your breathing, download them here:
As always, I hope you enjoy thinking about your breath and trying out new approaches.