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You’ve heard it again and again. Take a deep breath and exhale. You’ll feel better and immediately reduce anxiety. But is the breath you’re taking this way doing you a favor? Are you doing it right? Are you sure you know what a deep breath is? Or maybe there’s a better way?
In his book, The Oxygen Advantage, Patrick McKeown explains the science behind breath-holding to reduce anxiety, the importance of nose-breathing for good health, and the overlooked problem of over-breathing.
The biggest obstacle for your health and fitness is a rarely identified problem: Chronic over-breathing.
We can breathe two to three times more air than required without knowing it. We assume that the body reflectively knows how much air it needs at all times, but unfortunately, this is not the case. The process of breathing has been warped by chronic stress, sedentary life, unhealthy diets, overheated homes, and lack of fitness. All of these contribute to poor breathing habits. These in turn contribute to lethargy, weight gain, sleeping problems, respiratory conditions, and heart disease.
The Oxygen Paradox
Here’s the oxygen paradox. The amount of oxygen your muscles, organs and tissues are able to use is not entirely dependent on the amount of oxygen in your blood. Our red blood cells are saturated with between 95% and 99% oxygen. And that’s plenty for even the most strenuous exercise. What determines how much of this oxygen your body can use is actually the amount of carbon dioxide, also called CO2. Most people learn that carbon dioxide is just a waste gas that we exhale from our lungs, but it is not a waste gas. It is the key variable that allows the release of oxygen from the red blood cells to be metabolized by the body. This is called the Bohr Effect.
The idea of taking bigger breaths to take in more oxygen is akin to telling an individual who is already eating enough food to provide their daily caloric needs that they need to eat more. For years, we have been introduced with the benefits of taking deep breaths by well-meaning stress counselors, yoga practitioners, and sports coaches. And it’s easy to see why this belief is perpetrated. Taking a large breath can feel good, even if it can actually be bad for you. Just as a cat enjoys a good stretch following a midday nap, taking a big breath into the lungs stretches the upper part of the body, allowing a feeling of relaxation to follow.
But this leads many to believe that with breathing, bigger is better. To deal with stress, the instruction to take a deep breath is actually correct, but a truly deep breath is abdominal, gentle and quiet. The exact opposite of the big breaths usually taken in an attempt to calm down.
The symptoms of anxiety and hyperventilation are similar and have been found to be linked in some cases, dizziness, headaches, chest pains, and lightheadedness. Is it anxiety that is causing hyperventilation, or is it hyperventilation that is causing anxiety?
Hyperventilation reduces the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. This leads to the narrowing of blood vessels and reduced delivery of oxygen to the brain. The oxygen-deprived brain is more excitable and agitated. And as it floods with self-generated thoughts, anxiety kicks in. So when stressed, hold your breath
- Take a small, silent breath in and out through your nose.
- Hold your breath for two to five seconds.
- After each breath-hold, breathe normally for about 10 seconds.
- Perform a series of these small breath holds.
Breathing is important for all areas of our life. It is tightly connected with all systems and bodily functions. If we make the effort to ensure normal breathing, our health can benefit enormously. Normal breathing during rest involves regular, silent abdominal breath, in and out through the nose.
Let’s cover in short some of the areas that could be affected by the way we breathe.
Nose versus Mouth Breathing
You were born to breathe through your nose. The mouth is for eating. Mouth breathing is synonymous with emergency and activates the fight or flight response. Nasal breathing results in abdominal breathing, while mouth breathing activates the upper chest, involves larger breaths and may cause reduced oxygen uptake in the arterial blood. Is no wonder that habitual mouth breathers often suffer from poor energy, lack of concentration, and moodiness. Moreover, prolonged mouth breathing causes profound facial changes that have been well-documented by orthodontists. Narrow jaws, crooked teeth, sunken cheekbones, and smaller nasal cavities.
The gas nitric oxide plays a monumental role in the human health by reducing cholesterol, revising the build-up of plaque in the blood vessels and helping to prevent blood clotting, all of which significantly increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
According to Nobel Laureate, Dr. Lewis Ignacio, nitric oxide is the blood’s natural defense to prevent all of these things from happening. It sends a signal for the blood vessels to relax and dilate. If there’s too little nitric oxide, blood vessels constrict, and the heart has to raise the pressure to send blood throughout the body. Since nitric oxide is produced inside the paranasal sinuses, as well as the blood vessels, breathing gently and calming through the nose increases the amount of the gas and allows it to be picked up and carried to the lungs and the blood.
To reap the most benefit from your physical training, you need to train your body to do more with less. To do this, you’ll need to reduce your air intake. Incorporating this concept into your training will result in an improved breathing economy and an increase in your athletic performance, along with reduced breathlessness and lactic acid during competition. More importantly, you will not need to push your body beyond its limits, reducing your risk of injury, cardiovascular, and respiratory problems and other health concerns.
Nasal breathing during physical training ensures that you do not push yourself beyond what your body is capable of doing. In addition to nasal breathing breath, breath-holding techniques are very beneficial to athletes. When you purposefully subject your body to reduce oxygen intake for a short period of time, the kidneys increase the production of EPO: a hormone that promotes the formation of red blood cells, and the spleen releases red blood cells into the blood circulation.
Provoking the body to release additional red blood cells and increase the concentration of hemoglobin in the blood improves the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles during exercise, this way giving an athlete a competitive edge. Athletes have been using these techniques for quite some time by training at high altitude and forcing the body to adapt to exercizing with less oxygen. The traditional methods involve living and training at specific places. Whereas the oxygen advantage program is a practical alternative available to all people, regardless of location.
The author points out that there is also a relationship between breathing and food consumption.
Overweight individuals tend to have poor breathing habits such as chronic hyperventilation, frequent sighting, and breathing from the mouth and upper chest. Putting on a few extra pounds causes you to breathe more heavily, and not just during physical exercise. Breathing volume is increased during rest as well.
The question is whether processed and acid-forming foods lead to the development of poor breathing habits, or might it be that poor breathing habits lead to cravings for processed and acid-forming foods.
In his experience, there is a feedback loop between breathing and weight gain. And this cycle must be broken if change is to occur.
The book, The Oxygen Advantage, presents some simple, scientifically proven breathing techniques that will guide you back to normal breathing. It will make you healthier, slimmer, faster, and fitter.