Getting to know your breath

With Tim Wright Gower Acupuncture, Swansea

I wonder how many people can say they know how they breathe? And even the process behind breathing. It’s a reasonably unique function in that it’s under control of the autonomic nervous system so happens automatically, but can also be over-ridden by conscious control. How many other functions in the body can claim that? You can’t suddenly decide to speed up digestion of a meal or increase the rate of toxin metabolism in the liver. Yet you can for breathing. So how does it work and what happens when it doesn’t quite go right?

How Does It Work

Breathing is an exchange of oxygen with carbon dioxide. You breathe in oxygen and breathe out the waste gas carbon dioxide. Don’t be fooled – carbon dioxide may be a waste gas but it’s not useless and actually plays a critical role in breath regulation.

A deficiency in carbon dioxide can cause fainting, seizures or even death so it’s fair to call it important. An increase in carbon dioxide means that oxygen is low and so breathing is stimulated. If you’ve ever tried to hold your breath for a long time you’ll notice you can hold it longer if you breathe out numerous times, almost panting, then hold the breath with empty lungs. This seems counter-intuitive but you are dumping both carbon dioxide and oxygen from your lungs. The low levels of carbon dioxide mean lower urge to breathe and the ability to therefore hold breath for longer.

When Breathing Goes Bad

Breathing goes wrong for most people when they hyperventilate. Hyperventilation can occur for a number of reasons:

While hyperventilation can cause anxiety, anxiety can also cause hyperventilation. The heightened anxious state can increase breathing rate as you enter fight or flight mode. Unfortunately this reduces carbon dioxide levels and increases the need to breathe. Breathing into a paper bag when panicked can work because you bring carbon dioxide back into the lungs and tissue thereby reducing the need to breathe.

Organ Disease.
Fluid in lungs, heart failure, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), chronic kidney disease, hypertension can all cause hyperventilation. 

Structural Abnormalities.The pursuit of the perfect strong western body; thin waist, 6 pack stomach, protruding chest and pectorals can all have profound impacts on breathing. Isolating and pulling in the abdominals and puffing out the chest can be very bad for the breath. The principle muscle involved in breathing – the diaphragm – switches off and most of the breathing is carried out high in the chest. Accessory muscles of the neck and upper chest overwork to aid breathing and become tense and tender as they take some of the workload from the inert diaphragm. 

Heat. Much like a dog, we have the ability to dissipate extreme heat through the breath. While not a major cause of hyper-ventilation (as heat can be effectively dissipated through sweating) heat can exacerbate hyperventilation.

The One Important Tip For Improving Breathing

There are many breathing techniques that can improve breathing. Buteyko, yoga, tai chi, feldenkrais, pilates. Explaining any of these techniques is beyond the scope of this short article. If there is one tip I could offer you it is this – breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nose takes more effort and therefore increases oxygenation in alveoli (tiny air sacs of the lung). Nitric oxide found in the nasal cavity also sterilises incoming air. Mouth breathing, by contrast, is easier, reduces oxygenation of tissue and is much less efficient at filtering out disease.

Can Acupuncture help?

Chronic anxiety and over-breathing can affect accessory muscles. These are muscles in the upper chest and neck that are activated when poor breathing patterns have been prevalent. These muscles get tight and tense. Needling specific points on these muscles can reduce pain, anxiety and improve range of movement in the affected muscle.

Assuming there is not irreversible damage to structures of the bronchi (airway passage), acupuncture can help asthma and COPD by reducing inflammation and bronchospasm.

To contact Tim go to: E: T: 07764 254881

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