Latest posts by Jessica Peatross, MD (see all)
The Importance of Breath
Breathing is an unconscious yet ever so vital part of daily life. Very few of us take the time to consider our own breathing patterns. Even physicians in allopathic medicine, me included, pay little attention to respiratory rate unless it is affecting our pH levels or mental status.
Our respiratory rate is determined by how many breaths we take in one minute. Increasing our respiratory rates is a natural response to stress and anxiety. This increases our oxygen while decreasing carbon dioxide in preparation for an emergency escape from something like a wild animal, per se. Evolutionarily speaking, hyperventilation is an important life saving feature for us because we need more oxygen when running! Unfortunately, in today’s undue stress, many people now breathe 15-20 times/minute rather than the normal 8-12 breaths/minute that is recorded in medical literature. This is unnatural and if continued chronically, can change our pH as well as internal cellular activities. Scientifically, this means that we end up losing too much C02, thus reducing body oxygenation due to vasoconstriction caused by C02 deficiency (bohrs effect). This causes hypoxia and reduced oxygenation in our cells. Remember that oxygen delivers all the necessary nutrients to every organ in the body.
Slow, mindful breath, such as the famous prayanama breath of yoga (constricting the back of the throat to make a audible, textured breath) engages the parasympathetic system, which is the relaxation and housekeeping system of the body. This conscious breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which innervates the thyroid, heart, bladder and bowels. Slow, deep breathing helps to regulate our immunity, digestion, nervous systems and metabolism all through this system…which is linked to BREATH.
Higher respiratory rates = Shorter lives
Animals with a higher respiratory rates often (as a general rule) have shorter life spans. Consider that rabbits, which breathe 40-60 times/minute, have a lifespan of 8 years or dogs, which breathe 15-30 times/minute, live 15-20 years. The shrew breathes 140-170 times/minute and lives ONE year. In contrast, the giant tortoise or great whales have a respiratory rate of 3-8 times/minute and live for 150 and 111 years old, respectively! This is important when one considers that ill patients also have a higher respiratory rates. For example, patients who are septic or have cancer often breathe 20 or more times per minute. It seems that there is a correlation between slower respiratory rates and longevity. The Indian Vedas and Buddhist Monks are just two examples of ancient cultures who believed that we are given a set number of breaths at birth that can predict the length of our life. They believed that through meditation and yoga, one can extend the length of their life by slowing down and reserving their set number of breaths. In fact, many patients with cancer can prolong their lives by slowing down their rate of breathing. Most panic attacks could easily be avoided with controlled breath work. If a man breathes 15 times/minute, he will breathe 900 times in an hour and 21,600 times a day. If he could consciously decrease our respiratory rate to 10 breaths/minute, he would breathe 600 times a hour and 14,400 times a day. This significantly decreases our “set breath” given in life. Studies have shown that fast breathers suffer from higher levels of anxiety, depression, sleeping disorders and high blood pressure. In fact, the FDA acknowledges that oxygen is a medicine!
“Most panic attacks could easily be avoided with controlled breath work.”
Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your own breathing pattern:
1. Am I breathing properly?
Not only has the traumas and stress of this world affected our normal respiratory rates, but we have literally forgotten HOW to breathe. Its amazing to hear how many of my patients contract and suck their abdomen in with inhales rather than expand outward. If you watch a baby breathe, you will notice that his abdomen expands outward with each inhaled breath and contracts with each exhale. As we grow in adults, we only use the bottom 2/3 of our lungs while the upper 1/3 is not filled. This predisposes people to infections and disease. Full deep breaths are exercise for the lungs and provide necessary oxygenation, as well as nutrients, to all the organs of the body. If the alveoli, or lung cells are not fully expanding then they are susceptible to bacterial invasion due to stasis. Ensure that you are taking full breaths by expanding your abdomen with each breath and fill the top portion of your lungs. When exhaling, release the C02 in the top third of your lungs first, then continue to exhale the air in your contracted abdomen last.
2. Am I breathing rhythmically?
Breathing should be slow, controlled…or rhythmic. It should also be through the nose as breathing through the mouth can lead to sore throats and can often indicate sleep apnea, especially when one is supine. This guarantees that you are expelling toxins and metabolic waste properly. If your exhalations are too short, you are preventing your body’s natural ability to expel endogenous and exogenous toxins. Rhythmic breathing is also key to meditation and alpha brain wave states that are vital when connecting to the higher self for answers.
3. How is my posture?
This is a big one! Most of us have poor posture. Think about how many shoulder injuries and rotator cuff or total shoulder replacements occur each year. As the world gets more and more stressful and difficult, the human body compensates and protects itself. If you’re like me, this means most of us have internally rotated shoulders that hunch inward to protect our heart space. A chest that caves in or hunched shoulders not only leads to physical misalignments and back pain, but makes it difficult to take a full breath. Turn your attention to posture and breath as this can give you automatic relaxation. You should be able to look down and see open, broad shoulders (drawing shoulder blades together) and a rising and falling belly.
Correct and mindful breathing can lead to a fuller and longer life. Incorrect breathing can easily be converted to proper rhythmic abdominal breathing as this is our natural state! This increases oxygenation of the blood, internal organs and brain. It improves circulation, massages the biliary tree and detoxification organs and brings instant calm to the nervous system.