Do you breathe properly? Do you know what it means to breathe properly? No, that’s not a trick question!! Most people actually breathe far too quickly, and shallowly, through their chest or shoulders and through their mouths.
We take our very first breath right after we are born, and the very act of breathing comes naturally – even though we have not been breathing in this same way whilst in the womb. You would think, then, that breathing would be the most natural thing on earth – after all we have to do it all the time and it is an unconscious bodily function – without it we would die. It is only when we start to concentrate on it that we become aware of our breathing patterns.
So how is it that our breathing can become so out of kilter?
Let’s take a look at the breath itself…
We use the diaphragm, the muscle between the chest and abdominal cavities, just below the lungs, it tightens when we inhale allowing the lungs to expand, and relaxes when we exhale, as the lungs deflate. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. We know that oxygen is absolutely necessary for life, but did you know that carbon dioxide is equally important?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) regulates our breathing. High levels of CO2 correspond with high levels of acid (a low blood pH) that, in turn, signals the requirement for more oxygen. Hyperventilation is when we breathe too fast and are taking in too much oxygen. This releases too much carbon dioxide out of the blood, increasing the blood pH. This is why people use a paper bag to breathe into when hyperventilating, as this allows the carbon dioxide to re-enter the system and therefore begin to regulate the breathing once more.
Breathing through the nose triggers nitric oxide, which is important for vasodilation – the expansion of blood vessels. This allows a greater uptake of oxygen and the blood is oxygenated 10-15% more than when breathing through the mouth. In fact, mouth breathing severely limits nitric oxide intake.
Nitric oxide also has strong anti-bacterial properties, which means it can kill bacteria and viruses. Our nose has a filtration system to help eliminate pollutants and germs and, in tandem with the nitric oxide, these help defend our bodies against unwelcome intruders!
To work out whether you are breathing properly just take a few minutes to sit and breathe – taking note of which parts of your body are moving. If you feel your chest expanding and/or your shoulders lifting then you are not breathing optimally. Does it feel natural to breathe in AND out through your nose? Are you using your mouth frequently either to breathe in or breathe out (or both?). Set a timer for 1 minute and, breathing normally, count how many breaths you take during that minute. (Do this BEFORE checking how many it SHOULD be at the bottom of the page!).
Do you breathe through your mouth when exercising? I know I definitely do when I am out running. Again, we should be breathing in and out through our nose. I am now practising this whenever I am out running and doing other types of exercise. There may be occasions where you will need to exhale through the mouth, particularly during high intensity exercise, in order to release more carbon dioxide, but generally speaking we should be breathing through the nose at all times. Interestingly, my first experiment with nasal breathing whilst running resulted in a nosebleed! I think this is because the air was cold – and clearly my nose has not had to deal with this previously when out exercising! It made for an interesting run!! Conversely you might find that hot and humid conditions may affect your ability to breath nasally at first, as the stuffy air may feel difficult to inhale. It is interesting that I default to mouth breathing during exercise because I learnt to breathe properly through my nose and using my diaphragm at an early age, courtesy of my dance and drama training. My recent breath test showed almost near optimal number of breaths per minute, so I just need to refine it now by further elongating the breath and inhaling/exhaling even less volume.
Here is an exercise you can do to start to improve your breathing…
- Lie on your back, or sit in a chair with your back straight.
- Place your hands on your abdomen.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose at your normal rate.
- You want to feel the stomach rise and fall with the breath. This is the activation of the diaphragm.
- Feel as though you are filling the stomach with air – this may feel strange at first if you are not used to breathing this way.
- Now take some deeper breaths, slow and long.
- Feel the rise and fall of the stomach.
- Now keep the breaths long (about 4 seconds) but try and take in as LITTLE air as possible and exhale as LITTLE as possible. So, a longer breath time with less volume being inhaled & exhaled.
This is a normal breathing pattern.
Once you are comfortable with the above breathing technique and have developed a normal breathing pattern, practice this whilst performing daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects etc…
Another test is to take a couple of normal breaths (in and out through the nose) and on the second one (without taking in a huge gulp of air), hold the nose after exhaling and count how many seconds you can hold it for.
- Less than 10 is not good
- Around 20 is good
- More than 20 is very good
How did you do?
Mouth taping is a practice that many are using to try to encourage nasal breathing – particularly at night. Those who suffer with sleep apnea and snoring are generally breathing through their mouths. It can feel strange and uncomfortable to tape the mouth at first so a good idea is to practice during the day for an hour or so to start getting into good breathing habits. Special mouth tape can be purchased online.
Pranayama breathing, which is a yoga practice, has various different exercises focusing on the breath. The practice of alternate nostril breathing focuses specifically on the breath entering and exiting via the nose. Close the right nostril with your right thumb as you inhale through the left nostril, and then place the right ring finger over the left nostril as you exhale through the right. This is extremely mindful and meditative and can be deeply relaxing.
Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits such as weight control, exercising regularly, not smoking and good sleep habits can help mitigate breathing problems. Checking your house for mould and limiting the use of artificial air fresheners and chemical cleaning sprays can also be extremely beneficial. Posture is also a very important part of breathing correctly. If you are hunched over and leaning forward, this will prevent the airways from expanding properly, constrict your lungs and diaphragm, and inhibit the capacity to fill the lungs. Stretching exercises can also help to loosen these areas, keeping everything supple and flexible.
Ok, the time for reckoning is here! How many breaths per minute did you take on the test above? You may be surprised to learn that the normal number of breaths in a minute should be 6! It is quite usual these days, however, for people to take up to 19 breaths in a minute! This is known as over-breathing and the loss of carbon dioxide can result in a reduction of oxygen in the brain.
So how can you improve your breath test score? Practice the diaphragmatic breathing exercises above about 3 or 4 times each day – taking about 5-10 minutes each time. Don’t be surprised if you feel tired doing this, as you will be using much more conscious effort to breathe this way. Over time this will become normal and natural. Try to elongate the breath but take in only as much oxygen as you need. Work your way to taking only 6 breaths per minute, and being able to extend the time that you are able to hold the exhaled breath for. Be conscious of your posture; sit and stand with a straight back, lengthening the body and allowing the air to expand and contract effortlessly.
Optimal breathing patterns can lead to better sleep, more energy and improved resilience to stress.
Aaaaand – breathe!