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Of course, you’re already aware of the importance of breathing -- it’s a basic necessity of life. But did you know that a simple change can turn ordinary breathing into a boon for your health?
Here's a good example: A patient who I'll call "Candace" to protect her privacy, learned about proper breathing after a nasty car accident. Candace suffered two broken ribs when another driver hit her car head-on. Broken ribs are sometimes treated by placing an elastic bandage around the patient's chest. The bandage is fairly snug, so even though it stretches a bit, it can interfere with breathing, as can the pain of inhaling deeply with broken ribs. As a result, Candace developed the bad habit of shallow breathing, using only her upper chest to inhale.
Once the ribs were healed, Candace continued breathing just with her upper chest. Within a few months, she came to see me. "For some reason, I just can't take a deep breath and that has me worried," she explained.
Candace feared that there was something wrong with her lungs, possibly from the car accident. A pulmonary function test revealed that her lung capacity was not great. An x-ray showed no damage to her lungs, though, and her ribs had healed nicely. But as we talked, I became convinced that Candace needed to re-learn how to breathe.
To do that, we worked on "belly breathing," a technique that allowed Candace to breathe deeply again. It's a skill we're born with that tends to be forgotten as we grow up. It took Candace a few weeks of practice to regain her belly-breathing abilities, but it was well worth it. As she summed up, "It's such a relief to be able to take deep, cleansing breaths again. And the interesting thing is, the deep breathing has helped me manage stress much better than anything else I've tried."
Better Breathing, Better Health
Like so many things that happen in the body, we take breathing for granted. It's automatic, so we don't need to do anything, right? Not really. Yes, breathing happens without much input from us, but that doesn't mean we are breathing correctly or effectively. In fact, for most people, automatic breathing is shallow breathing -- just enough to keep them going. But you can do so much more by learning (and practicing!) better breathing techniques. Of course, it's vitally important to make certain the air you're breathing is free of pollution and damaging particulates. But first, let's look at the benefits of healthy breathing.
Here are just a few examples of what you can achieve with a healthy dose of oxygen by proper deep breathing. Recent studies have shown: • Ten minutes of deep, diaphragmatic breathing after a meal reduced blood sugar levels, increased insulin, and decreased production of damaging free radicals. A similar study with athletes found that deep breathing after an exhaustive training session resulted in less exercise-produced free radicals.
• Fibromyalgia patients experienced significantly less pain when using deep, slow breathing.
• Home-based deep breathing training minimized depression symptoms in a group of patients with heart disease.
• A type of deep breathing used in yoga has been found helpful in treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a related study, deep breathing during yoga practice improved breathing in patients who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
• In a clinical trial that compared the effects of mental relaxation exercises with slow breathing on patients who have high blood pressure, the slow-breathing group achieved the best results in reducing blood pressure.
Flip the results of these studies around and you can see that breathing problems can be linked to a long list of health issues. In addition, research with individuals suffering from various types of dysfunctional breathing conditions showed the serious impact of oxygen deficiency. The fallout included an increased risk for older women of developing dementia or cognitive impairment as well as greater risk of death and coronary artery disease among middle-aged and older men. In my own experience, I've found that whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed, taking a few minutes to breathe deeply helps me clear my mind and focus. Clearly, better breathing has real benefits!
How To Breathe
When we think of breathing, we tend to think of lungs. But the process actually involves much more, including several muscles, such as the diaphragm. An underrated member of the breathing team, the diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. For most people, taking a deep breath means filling the upper chest with air. But the lungs need more than that. They need an active, engaged diaphragm.
One of the basics of proper breathing involves expansion and contraction of the diaphragm -- in other words, letting your tummy stick out. Maybe it's because of all the talk about "six-pack abs" these days, but we seem to be hooked on holding in our stomachs. That's fine if you're modeling swimwear. But most of us aren't, so we're missing out on a vitally important practice simply due to vanity! I've also found that one of the real challenges of teaching people belly breathing is that they're not accustomed to using their diaphragms. Fortunately, it only takes a little practice to get the hang of it.
The best way to do that is by lying on the floor, on top of a yoga or exercise mat, blanket, or a towel. Let your back relax into the floor. If that's uncomfortable, try placing a pillow or rolled up towel under your knees. Keep your shoulders flat, as though you're standing up straight, and stretch your torso and neck into a comfortable position. There's no need to overdo it; just lie back, so your chest is open and your back feels relaxed and comfortable.
In Goes the Good Air
For this exercise, focus on inhaling through your nose to allow the incoming air to be filtered and warmed on its way to your lungs.
Now, place your hands on your tummy. Inhale slowly through your nose. As you inhale, make an effort to push your stomach out, instead of your upper chest. Your hands should feel your stomach lifting. If, like many people, you are not accustomed to using your diaphragm, this may feel strange or uncomfortable at first. Just give it some time and allow your diaphragm to strengthen. Eventually, belly breathing becomes second nature.
When you've filled your lungs, slowly squeeze your stomach back in toward your spine, forcing the air out of your lungs as you exhale. We aren't used to putting much effort into exhaling, so that may need practice. Ideally, it should take longer to exhale than to inhale. Some people prefer exhaling through the mouth, while others like to use the nose. Personally, I think exhaling through the mouth is more effective. But either way, you should hear an audible 'whoosh' sound when exhaling. The more air you expel, the more fresh, clean air you'll be filling your lungs with on the next inhale.
Remember, the trick here is to breath slowly. You should not be breathing hard, as though you've run a few miles. It may help to count to 4, 5 or whatever number of seconds you're comfortable with while inhaling, then trying to extend the exhale a bit longer. This is not a competition, so don't strain -- just allow your stomach to expand, and, if you can, exhale a bit more slowly.
At first, I recommend practicing for only a minute or two at a time, to let your body become accustomed to the extra oxygen. For some individuals, more oxygen may create a sensation of lightheadedness. If this happens to you, it does not mean anything's wrong. Your body simply is not accustomed to breathing deeply. Stop and try again later. Eventually, you'll be able to work your way up to several minutes of deep, slow breathing every day.
If you're having trouble with the concept, watch a sleeping baby breathing and you'll see how effortless belly breathing can be. After learning the process, you'll be able to skip lying on the floor and practice deep breathing at your desk, while watching TV, or making dinner. Avoid belly breathing in polluted surroundings, such as in the car or in areas near heavy traffic. You do not need lungs filled with those toxins!
Environmental Toxins and Our Lungs
In last week's issue, I mentioned that we can only live without water for a few days. And as I'm sure you're aware, we can only live without oxygen for a matter of minutes. Our cells require oxygen to function, and carbon dioxide is released from the body when we exhale.
"I really enjoy your Newsletter--well written and informative!"
Many people assume that if they don't smoke and avoid working in a profession involving hazardous, air-borne chemicals, their lungs are just dandy. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Our noses and lungs are equipped to deal with some airborne enemies, catching some larger particles before they can set up shop in our bodies. In addition, mucus-producing glands capture other invaders, then remove them by making us sneeze, cough or blow our noses.
But lots of toxic visitors make it past our personal filtration systems simply because our lungs are not designed to operate in today's polluted environment. Secondhand smoke may be less of a problem than it was 10 years ago, but clean air is getting harder and harder to find. And much of the damage to our health is due to microscopic particles in the air that are nearly impossible to avoid.
One Quick Fix: Green Plants
While looking for ways to maintain healthy air in space stations, NASA scientists discovered that a number of common houseplants, including English ivy, several types of dracena, and ficus trees, help minimize indoor pollution. As I'm sure you know, plants produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. But the NASA scientists found that plants absorb other toxic gases, too, including formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene -- all very common in furniture, carpets and other items found in today’s homes and offices.
Unfortunately, we can't count on plants to scrub all of our air clean. And not all plants work equally well with all toxins. No plants tested thus far, for example, seem to remove tobacco smoke, and there are plenty of other substances in the air that may escape this process, too. But if, like me, you enjoy bringing a little of Mother Nature's beautiful gifts into your home or office, you'll be doing yourself a favor by adding some green plants to your environment for fresher, cleaner air.
A Few Words About Air Filters
If you decide to purchase an air purifier, doing some homework first can pay off. For example, make sure you buy a unit that's appropriate for the size of the room where it will be used. Some people are sensitive to noise and, if you're among them, be aware that some units are whisper quiet, while others are noisier. If the unit you're interested in needs replacement filters, find out how often they need replacing and how much those cost, so there are no expensive surprises down the road.
There are some exceptionally effective air purifiers available today, with the ability to remove everything from common microorganisms (bacteria, mold, fungi) to pollen, dust, pet dander, chemicals, and gases. Getting the right unit can make all the difference. Currently, I am thoroughly researching several different types of air filters, so please bear with me while I do some homework. I'll announce my findings shortly.
Now that you understand how you and your family can benefit from better breathing and pure, clean air, I do hope you'll join me by taking a few simple steps to make sure you're getting plenty of both.
Thrive in Health & Wellness,
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.
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