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Sage Center, formerly Sage Holistic Health and Wellness, is a collective of independent holistic therapists whose goals are to make the world better. Schedule Now Call or Text 541-304-5022 - 2205 Adams Avenue, La Grande OR. Your Breath January 2019 by Elle Hutchins SNHS (Acupressure, Holistic Nutrition, Herbalism) How Breathing Works Our lungs are pretty amazing. Our lungs oxygenate our blood, remove carbon dioxide, remove other glasses, and pretty much make living possible. They work using voluntary and involuntary muscle, which means we can control our breathing just by thinking about it, and thankfully, we do not stop breathing when our attention changes focus, or when we fall asleep. (That would be a rather large catastrophe!) Our lungs, breathing, is vital to our continued existence in this corporeal form, and the simple act of breathing helps boost the metabolism, helps our body process the stress hormone cortisol, helps us focus, and helps us mentally prepare or physically prepare to do something strenuous. (Think about giving birth, running a marathon, or lifting weights.) Understanding the mechanics of breathing helps us understand what we are doing when we use our focus to control our breath. Understanding how breathing works helps us to understand why we need to breathe correctly for the situation, and understanding breathing as a whole can help us gain control over our bodies, emotions and our lives. How does breathing work exactly? We have two lungs, one on each side. One side has 3 lobes, the other side has 2 lobes, in order to make room for the heart (Wagh, 2014). The lungs do not move by themselves, they are just basically layers of cells, and capillaries around bubbles of air. Imagine a sponge you might find in the kitchen. You will see that mostly, it is made out of holes. Now if these were lungs, each of those little holes would be a little bit connected to the other holes and eventually would connect to tubes that are called the bronchioles, and the bronchial tube and the throat, nose and mouth. That is the important part that allows the air to get from the outside of you to the inside of you. Look at the sponge again. Around each of those little air pockets is a thin layer of cells and if this were actually lung tissue, on the other side of that layer of cells lining that air pocket, would be capillaries. These are the smallest of the small arteries and veins. This literally is where, in the lungs, the air crosses into your blood (Waugh, 2014). On the other side of those capillaries is another layer of cells in the shape of a pocket and more capillaries, and so on. The lungs are the place where air is exchanged, but the lungs themselves cannot pull the air in or push it out. That is the job of your breathing muscles (Waugh, 2014). The muscles that are responsible for pulling the air into and out of your lungs are the small set of muscles between your ribs, called the intercostal muscles. The other muscle you use to breathe is your diaphragm (Waugh, 2014). The diaphragm is a flattish, longish muscle that connects to the underside of your rib cage. Take a deep breath in. You can do this because your diaphragm is pulling down making space in your chest cavity and air rushes in. When your diaphragm pushes up the air rushes out of your lungs. The diaphragm moves down and it makes a space that gets filled with air (Waugh, 2014). Breathe out as much air as you can, then exhale a little more. Did you feel a tightening by your solar plexus? Try again and you can learn how to feel this muscle, you can literally feel yourself breathe. If you are still having trouble, try putting your hand on your solar plexus, just below your rib cage, kind of where your actual stomach is. Keep your shoulders still and breathe with your hand on your stomach. Feel your hand move out and in as you breathe. This is a great mindfulness meditation to do and feeling yourself breathe is all you do (Verni, 2017). Easy peasy! For those still having trouble, something theater teachers and music teachers do is ask you to lay on the floor on your back. Put a book on your stomach and try to breathe in a way that only the book moves, not your chest or shoulders. When we are infants, we all breathe this way, but as we grow, we start chest breathing. Some learn to chest breathe in early childhood as a way to control their emotions in a traumatic or abusive household. Preteens and teens learn to chest breathe instead of belly breathe because girls are told to tighten their stomach, or hold their stomach in, and boys are told that “real” men do not have emotions. Teen years accentuate this by asking, generally boys, but not always, to “flex” their stomachs as if to prepare for being punched, and girls generally are told to do this to strengthen their abdomens or so they will look skinnier. (And sucking in the gut makes a person look better in form fitting shirts and dresses.). Regardless of whether this was your experience in childhood (hopefully yours was not like this), there is a correlation about being emotionally measured, tightly controlled, and how a person breaths (Schmidt, n.d.). Society tends to ask us to breath in small, shallow breaths. Belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing both refer to the method of breathing such that your chest and shoulders are not doing the work. Dr. Winde, a general family practitioner who used to practice in La Grande Oregon in the late 1990s used to say that when one belly breathes, one takes a little stress off the heart because the diaphragm, when it is relaxed presses up against the heart and assists in moving blood. Whether this is true or not, the diaphragm is right next to the heart and stomach. Rhythmic flexing and stretching does move the stomach and may play in aiding of digestion and it may have other roles we have not explicitly studied yet. Finishing the mechanics of how we breathe quickly, once the air touches the cell membrane on the inside of the lungs, air moves from a high concentration to a low concentration into the capillaries and blood. The same capillaries and blood excrete gasses across that same cell barrier, and the muscles of respiration move that stagnant air out and make space for new air to move in. There is always a certain amount of air in the lungs, and if the lungs do not fully expand and contract, some of the stagnant air can remain in the lungs. The blood needs a certain ph balance and when carbon dioxide mixes with water, it forms a weak acid. (This same acid is how plants can dig into the soil, break rocks over time, and how pine and spruce trees acidify the soil.) If you have too much or too little carbon dioxide in your blood, you can mess up your body’s ph, and you can slow down your metabolism to a crawl (Schmidt, n.d.). (Slowing down the metabolism is bad because metabolism is literally how your mitochondria make the ATP and glucose that allow your muscles to contract and how you break down the stress hormones that make you feel jittery.) If you have too much carbon dioxide in your blood you will speed up your heart rate, and you can give yourself the same feelings you get when you have a panic attack. (Literally breathing using a paper bag to stop hyperventilating, unless a doctor told you to do it, can make your panic attack worse, or give you a panic attack even if you did not have one to start with because of the concentrating of carbon dioxide in your blood (Brouhard, 2017). So in short, your nose, mouth and throat (also called your pharynx) is connected to your trachea and bronchioles which look like upside down tubes. These end in what look like little air sacs all through your lungs (Waugh, 2014). The lungs themselves are stuck to the chest wall on the inside of your rib cage by a membrane and some fluid called serous fluid (Waugh, 2014). When you puncture a lung, what you really have done is made a hole in the membrane so the fluid and the side of the lung does not stick to the inside of the chest wall. The lung falls down, deflated. (Luckily in most cases, with time and a little intervention, the lung can fix itself, and if you puncture a lung, please go seek appropriate medical help, so you don’t get pneumonia.) The ribs have muscles between them, and when they expand and contract, and when the diaphragm, which is connected to the underside of the ribs and the lungs, when the chest cavity opens up, then air rushes in, when the chest muscles contract and the diaphragm pushes up, the air rushes out (Waugh, 2014). Air, once it is in the lungs, crosses over a thin, single cell layer membrane and goes directly into the blood, where it is carried into the heart and through the body. Carbon dioxide and other gasses, leave your body and blood by crossing through into the air sacks in the lungs and is pushed out of the body by your breathing muscles, the muscles of respiration. You do not need to think about breathing to make it happen, but when you do think about it, you can change how quickly you breathe, how deeply you breathe, and whether you use your chest muscles breathe or your diaphragm to breathe. What does breathing correctly mean Babies are belly breathers. Dogs, cats, and most mammals are belly breathers. (I will not say all animals, because there are, undoubtedly, counter examples, and I have not personally gone to investigate every single mammal or animal that exists in the world currently or in the past, nor do I know of any study completed to date that has.) What we do know is that athletes in their peak performance, dancers, musicians and actors, yogis, tai chi and chi gong practitioners, among others who must have excellent breath control breathe with their diaphragm (Waugh, 2014; Verni, 2015). The easiest way to learn to breathe diaphragmatically is to stand in front of the mirror and watch yourself. Take several long, slow deep breaths. Note whether it is your chest doing the moving, your shoulders or your stomach. Switching how you breathe feels weird, but try. Controlling the way you breathe is similar to learning how to lift properly, learning how to stand or walk in a way that makes you more stable. Belly breathing is just another way for you to be in control of who you are and how you breathe (Schmidt, n.d.). Lay on the floor with a book on your stomach. Try to breathe just moving the book. When you feel like you are getting good at it, exchange the book with your hands. Try the same exercise sitting on the couch while you watch TV or read on your hand held device. Like most things, practice makes perfect, and if you are also a beginner at mindfulness, this is a great way to practice both at the same time! Why is there a “correct” way to breathe Ultimately the correct way to breathe is breathing in a way that makes you happy. However, maybe you want to learn to breathe diaphragmatically because it can help you with weight loss (Schmidt, n.d.). This is not to say that you can exchange vegetables for doughnuts and nutritious food for pizza and ice cream, what it does mean though, is that as you are able to exchange more oxygen in your lungs, you improve your body’s access to oxygen. The reason you need oxygen in the first place is so that every cell in your body can have their mitochondria use the food you eat and convert it into usable forms of energy (glucose) and ATP (Schmidt, n.d.; Waugh, 2014). The food that does not get converted can become fats and cholesterol and toxins. So simply breathing reduces toxins at the cellular level, and removes toxins through one of the major ways your body naturally cleanses itself. If you need a visual, imagine using only cold water and soap to wash your hands. Soap is harder to remove. But, if you use warm water, your hands get cleaner because the soap is easier to rinse off. Athletes belly breathe to have more access to energy, and move oxygen to all parts of the body. Lactic acid forms in the muscles when glucose is being used by the muscles, but there is not enough oxygen. Lactic acid is formed as a by product. Musicians, actors, public speakers and others use belly breathing to gain more control over their voice. Another way of stating that is, they have more control over the volume of air entering the lungs, so they have more power over how long they can hold a note. Controlling how much air one has in one’s lungs, specifically the greater lung capacity offered by belly breathing, allows one to command more power, speak and communicate more clearly simply because they do not run out of air (Waugh, 2014; Schmidt, n.d.). Finally, like the athletes who need more oxygen in each of the muscle cells so that using glucose and other sugars for energy does not create the bi product of lactic acid, strong emotions pump lots of chemicals into the body, think adrenaline and stress hormones (Schmidt, n.d.). Our bodies metabolize these chemicals, and we can know that is true because if you get excited about something like a surprise gift, or you are afraid because there is a huge spider in the back of the closet, you do not feel those feelings forever. Those feelings go away by those chemicals being metabolized by our body. That is actually a good things, because imagine always feeling like a bear is chasing you down the street! Interestingly, Teresa Schmidt, in her lecture about Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Pain Syndrome suggests that it is exactly that, stress hormones not being metabolized, that causes so much of our pain and anxiety and depression (n.d.). She showed, in her work, exactly how failure to breathe properly and hyperventilating are strongly correlated by people who experience chronic pain, stress, chronic anxiety, and chronic depression. She said that if you do suffer from any of of those problems, look at a clock and count the number of breaths you inhale in one minute. If you are taking in more than 20 in a minute, that is the definition of hyperventilation (Schmidt, n.d.). She recommends that in addition to conventional therapy, deep breathing will significantly improve one’s experience of being in the world over time. In other words, belly breathing helps the body metabolize negative emotions to regain emotional balance (Schmidt, n.d.). People who are chronic chest breathers and breathe more than 20 breaths in a minute are messing up their body’s ph, by not getting enough oxygen. The lungs are not fully expanding and exchanging the air in the deeper parts of the lungs, and are neither giving their muscles the energy they need to contract or using the chemical they need to actually contract the muscle, and making exercise more uncomfortable by building up lactic acid (Brouhard, 2017; Waugh, 2014). Chronic chest breathers, because of the toxic buildup of stress hormones, benefit from mindfulness related to breathing, partly because their brains get to have a break and partly because they are getting rid of the hormones that result from stressful situations (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). Breathing correctly or diaphrammatically lets you use energy more efficiently and gets more energy to your muscles. Belly breathing gives you more control over your breath so that you can sing louder, deeper, and communicate more clearly and efficiently which entertainers need. Belly breathing makes you more powerful because you have control over your body, so you have the energy to do what needs doing. Diaphragmatic breathing evens out the highs and lows of emotion and helps literally decrease stress because your body can break down those toxins. Using our breath Breathing and meditation are a great pair, because whether you are a chronic hyperventilation and need a paper bag to help control your breathing (only do this if a licensed respiratory specialist or doctor has instructed you to do so, as it can significantly increase the carbon dioxide levels in your blood, leading to a greater panic response and acidifying your blood (Brouhard, 2017)). There are so many ways of being mindful and meditation, but whether one has never meditated a day in their life, or meditation and contemplation are a way of being, using the time to practice one’s breathing is a simple and powerful way of doing both (Verni, 2015’ Goleman & Davidson, 2017). One can simply sit or lie down somewhere comfortable, set a timer, and simply breathe in and out. Some people breathe in for a count of two, three, or seven, hold the breath, then breathe out for the same count. Just focusing on slowing down your breath, feeling the air enter and leave your lungs, and only moving your belly is a great exercise. Slowing down your breath and belly breathing will have all the benefits described, but just as importantly as what is happen biochemically in the body, you can block out all the noise in your brain. Giving yourself something to focus on, giving your brain the problem of breathing to solve, is sometimes all the space you need to put between you and a difficult emotional situation. Space can allow your brain to solve the problems you are trying to solve, without your thinking getting in the way (Verni, 2017). Some people think of it as switching mental gears. The problem is still there, but you are making your brain do something else. You are grounding yourself or just tabling that other problem while you give your brain the space it needs to adjust (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). Summary No matter who you are or what you are doing, your lungs are rather mission critical. Whether or not you want your body to physically work more efficiently, you want to quiet your mind and give your brain some space to process what needs processing, or you are in pain and want to make a positive changes, paying attention to your breath is a simple, cheap and easy way to start. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease the stress response, make people feel more resilient, and so much more. Mindfulness is a simple meditation that is actually an action. Set an alarm and pay attention to your breathing for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and you have done your meditation for the day. When you pay attention to how your lungs work, it is just one more level to understanding your breathing, so you can have just a little bit more self control and self understanding. Focusing on your breathing gives you power back to respond to environmental stressors and gives you the power to make your activities more efficient and your body chemistry optimal. Mindfulness while you practice your breathing, is an easy, down to earth way to affect positive change in yourself. Works Cited Brouhard, R. (2017). Treating Hyperventilation Syndrome With a Paper Bag: Can you Treat Hyperventilation Syndrome With A Paper Bag?. Retrieved Oct 6, 2018 from Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes You Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Random House. Schmidt, T. (n.d.). Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Pain Syndromes: Evidence-Based Functional Interventions and Examination. Retrieved August 13, 2018 from Verni, K. A. (2015). Happiness The Mindful Way: A Practical Guide. New York: Penguin Random House Waugh, A. (2014). Ross and Wilson: Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness. New York: Elsevier Elle Hutchins is a Holistic Health Therapist, Herbalist, Acupressurist and Reiki Master. She has fiction and her non fiction works include: Medical Terminology, and Pathology Workbook: A supplemental book for students of bodywork and massage therapy. She teaches classes on herbalism, nutrition and wellness, naturally treating pain and reflexology out of her office at Sage Holistic Health and Wellness.