Breathing for Optimum Health and Wellbeing

Elephant seal breathing, Antarctica

I read an article early this month on the Buteyko Breathing Technique, sometimes called the Buteyko Method and have been adopting some of the thinking from this into how we breathe to perform Pilates exercises.  Based on the past few weeks of testing this modified approach on myself in my daily practice, I’ve certainly noticed some benefits, i.e. better circulation, no nasal congestion, greater sense of calm/stillness in the body.  I’m therefore planning to introduce the odd minor change to the way we breathe during the Pilates exercises I teach in class.  I’ll go into exactly how later on in this news piece. First, here’s some background information…

Useful Insights into the Breath and its Role in Stress Management

Breathing is often underestimated as a means of achieving optimum health and wellbeing. Breathing properly can improve the oxygenation of the body, especially the brain, and is a powerful way of relieving stress and anxiety.

When stressed, the breath becomes faster, deeper and noisier.  Similarly, we breathe more often through the mouth and with the upper chest rather than the diaphragm when we’re anxious.  To induce a state of calm it’s best to breathe slowly, using the diaphragm. You also need to breathe less, and breathing through the nose has important benefits.

The Role of the Nose in Breathing

The nose directs around 30 different functions in the body. Nerves in the nasal passages (which connect to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus) sense everything about your breathing and use that information to regulate the functions of your body.

For example, the nose releases nitric oxide during breathing, which is carried from your nose into your lungs. Nitric oxide is a gas that plays a significant role in homeostasis (maintaining balance) within your body.  Nitric oxide also sterilizes the air carried into your lungs, opens up the airways and increases the amount of oxygen taken up and carried around the body in the blood.

Maintaining the Right Balance of Carbon Dioxide in the Body

Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, it’s important to maintain a certain amount of it in your lungs.  To do that you need to maintain a normal breathing volume, which we’ll consider more fully in the next section.

The faster and deeper breathing associated with someone who is feeling stressed, results in too much carbon dioxide being lost.  This causes the smooth muscles embedded in the airways to constrict. When this happens there’s a sense of not being able to get enough air in.  The natural reaction to this is to breathe more intensely, which causes an even greater loss of carbon dioxide and constricts the airways even further.

Over-breathing or breathing which is too deep, e.g. taking deep breaths through the mouth in an attempt to take in more oxygen and clear the head, can make you feel quite light-headed.  This is due to eliminating too much carbon dioxide from the lungs.  This causes the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the blood flow to the heart.  This results in less oxygen being delivered throughout the body.

Man breathing, Buteyko Method

Breathing Less to Be More Healthy

According to medical textbooks, normal breathing volume is between 4 and 7 litres of air per minute, which translates into 12 to 14 breaths a minute.  Clinical trials involving asthma sufferers show they breathe between 10 to 15 litres of air per minute, and people with chronic heart disease tend to breathe between 15 to 18 litres of air per minute.  This suggests breathing less is a sign of better health.

Conversely, the more you breathe, the more likely you are to experience significant health problems. Your tolerance to carbon dioxide is part of this equation as good carbon dioxide tolerance equates to higher levels of health and fitness.

When your body and brain have a normal carbon dioxide tolerance, your breathing will be light and smooth because your body is not constantly trying to get rid of excess carbon dioxide. Surprisingly, the main catalyst telling your body to take a breath is not lack of oxygen, it’s an excess of carbon dioxide.

You always need a certain amount of carbon dioxide for normal functioning. If you have normal carbon dioxide levels, you will have good tolerance to it, which means you’ll be able to hold your breath for longer. Also, when you exercise, your body generates more carbon dioxide, and if you have good tolerance to it, your breathing rate will remain much lower than someone with poor tolerance.  This of course puts less pressure on the heart and lungs.

Implications For Breathing During Pilates

  • Don’t over-breathe or excessively force the breath.
  • Take a shorter inhale through the nose.
  • Exhale through the mouth (again, not excessively or with too much force), drawing the navel to spine for the duration of the out-breath to engage the abdominal muscles.
  • Observe the pauses between the breaths, some of which may be longer for large movements so they can be performed with control.
  • Breathe normally between exercises.

Ooh good, another chance to post a Prodigy track…which means that Keith Flint bloke again…yikes!  Brace yourself…breathe with me…

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