That breath feeds life-giving oxygen to every cell in your body. When you inhale, the air that enters your nose (ideally) travels down the pharynx, larynx, and trachea, all the way to the structures in your lungs called bronchi, which ramify further into bronchioles.
Along the way, your nose’s blood vessels warm the air; mucus along the way moistens the air for better gas exchange; and your nose hairs, mucus, and cilia in the trachea clean it up.
From the lungs, oxygen is diffused into the blood and transported throughout the body with each beat of your heart. The carbon dioxide waste from the many chemical processes involved in this gas exchange is diffused into the blood, then back to the lungs, which expel it as you breathe out.
Is there a right way to breathe?
We mostly inhale and exhale through the nose. Most of us breathe in a shallow way, without engaging the diaphragm, which is an essential participant in the breathing process. When engaged properly, the diaphragm helps the respiratory system, as well as the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems, and, of course, the brain.
“Most of us don’t experience the full capacity of what is available to us in our body’s breath,” says breathing coach Alisa Kort, founder and director of Breathexperience Canada. That is not conducive to ease and relaxation, she explains, or having a better sense of oneself.
Cue in that open-window breathing, or a deep sigh that you engage in. That’s what you’re after, says Kort. “Becoming aware of our own habitual breathing gives us the choice to breathe better, which ultimately translates into better health,” she adds.
How does breathing affect your brain?
Breathing and relaxation go hand in hand. With deeper breaths, your parasympathetic nervous system (known as “rest and digest”) takes over. Heart rate and blood pressure go down, as well as cortisol levels.
High stress engages the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). Breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure go up and stress hormones flood your body. When the stressor is gone, the parasympathetic system helps restore the peace, unless the body stays in a state of permanent stress. That’s when conscious deep breathing can help.
By consciously slowing down our breathing, we engage the parasympathetic “brake,” which lowers blood pressure and reduces cortisol levels.
Breathing tips to calm stress
“There is no one-size-fits-all,” says Kort, “because every breath is different from the next, but everyone will notice positive changes very soon after they start experiencing the sensation of their breath movement.”
Slow your breathing. Aim for six to 10 breaths a minute, ideally breathing in through the nose. You’ll feel calmer with lower blood pressure and heart rate, and your ability to manage stress and sleep will improve.
Try yoga. Through rhythmic breathing and meditation, yoga can have a positive effect on the amygdala (emotion centre), hippocampus (memory centre), and prefrontal cortex (personality centre). Sustained yoga breathing has also been found to improve cardiovascular disease and respiratory issues, such as asthma, and help people diagnosed with diabetes.
We’re born knowing how to breathe
Watch babies breathe. You’ll see their bellies move up and down with each breath, even more dramatically when crying. “Their whole body breathes, because their diaphragm moves everything; it is fully involved in breathing,” says Kort.
As they grow, allergies, plugged nasal passages, or jaw misalignment can cause children to breathe more through their mouths.
In the short term, that can translate into a higher risk of cavities, bad breath, and atopic dermatitis. In the long term, mouth breathing can lead to malocclusion (misalignment of the teeth) as well as sleep disorders, including sleep apnea.
Do adults do it right?
Although breathing is the most natural thing in the world, we often develop poor breathing habits along life’s journey. Habits that can constrict natural breathing can develop from asthma and poor posture while sitting or using devices, to obesity and heart disease.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which is defined as a breathing obstruction to the lungs that lasts for longer than 10 seconds, can cause a cohort of health issues—for the person with the breathing obstruction and everyone affected by the snoring that accompanies the sleep disorder.
If you suspect sleep apnea
Talk to a specialist who can help you identify the causes and suggest some oropharyngeal exercises that will help your nose regain its place in the breathing hierarchy. Eager to get started before that appointment?
Adopt habits of regular exercise and stretching. They are shown to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation while calming the overactive sympathetic nervous system—all associated with sleep apnea.
Self-consciousness notwithstanding, try singing (off-key works, too!). It can improve sleep and reduce daytime tiredness levels.
How does breathing affect our golden years?
Sleep disordered breathing, which affects almost 60 percent of older adults, can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s. Circadian rhythms also become more fragmented, which can impact memory, mood, and cognition. Hypoxia caused by sleep disordered breathing can lead to cognitive impairment.
Enter physical exercise and yoga: both can improve sleep quality. Aside from helping you sleep, better breathing through physical exercise can improve balance, reduce stress levels, and boost lung capacity.
A last word of advice
Don’t think of breathing as needing fixing, because we don’t want to become fixated on watching our breath, says Kort. Instead, allow it to permeate your body. Think of breathing as something that is constantly there, rather than an activity that you do according to schedule.
Breathing is what sustains life—it’s only natural that we put our whole being into it.
Can cannabis help?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) research is investigating the many potential benefits of cannabis, including for multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain. Cannabis use is also being studied for its ability to improve sleep quality and decrease the need for sleep medication.
Supplements to help you breathe easier
Ashwagandha is a known adaptogen that has been shown to lower cortisol levels to help relieve stress.
Rhodiola rosea extract may help increase resistance to stress and fatigue.
L-theanine is derived from green tea and is often used for stress, anxiety, and sleep, as well as mood improvement.
That’s a lot of CO2!
The scale of the human body’s capacity to bind and transport oxygen to the tissues is astonishing: each hemoglobin molecule can transport four oxygen molecules; there are up to 300 million hemoglobin molecules in each of the almost 30 trillion red blood cells that are circulating in the body at any given time!