Powerful and Often Overlooked Aspects of Breathing

Breathing is pretty important – it is vital to our survival! Hopefully, that is not big news to you.

Did you know that breathing is much more than just inhaling oxygen into your body? By the time you finish this article, you will pay more attention to your breathing, and maybe even change how you do it.

First, we need to understand that we are designed for survival and not happiness.

Breathing has been a vital part of our survival. Not only does it supply us with oxygen, but it has had a crucial role in giving signals to our body about our surroundings. Way back  when our ancestors were living in the bushes of Africa, we were living for survival and had to constantly look out for threats. We only had two goals; get enough food and keep our tribe safe. This is where breathing comes in.

Picture yourself living in the wild in Africa. How would you breathe if you looked around and did not see any threats? You probably guessed right – your breathing would be calm and you would breathe in a way that the air goes all the way down in your lungs, maximizing the oxygen uptake.

Now, picture that you are walking and suddenly you see a lion. How would you breathe in this situation? Would you take a deep breath and relax? Ehh… NO! You would automatically begin to breathe shallow and fast. When you take shallow breaths, the body is slightly starved of oxygen. This will cause your heart rate to go up and the body to produce adrenaline – so that your body is ready to react in an instant if needed.

In short, if your breath is calm and relaxed, you send signals to your body that the surroundings are safe. If your breathing is fast and shallow, you signal that there is something that is threatening and that you may need to act fast!

It’s not strange that so many of us are stressed on an ongoing basis. We are hunched down over our desk and hammering the keyboard to our computer all day. This makes us breathe shallowly, sending signals to our body that there is a threat nearby. The body then produces adrenaline and cortisol. What do we experience when we see a bill or an unwanted phone call? Our heart rate goes up! Causing stress.

Our bodies are supposed to experience stress for a short duration, so that our body can react quickly to a physical threat. Now, many of us experience anxiety over something as trivial as an email, a letter in the mail or a headline in the newspaper.

This is kind of depressing if you think about it, but there is a simple solution to improve this. We have to remember that our instincts were developed to survive in the bushes of Africa. Now, at least in most of the western world, few things threaten us physically. If we are bit more conscious about the way we breathe, we can drastically reduce the amount of stress we experience during the day.

The first HACK you can do is to breathe more with your belly. It will ensure that the air flows deep down in your lungs and make sure we get a lot of oxygen from each inhalation. Do that, and you will experience a immediate shift in your emotional state. This is why one of the first things you learn in stress management is to take deep breaths.

So far, we have only covered one part of what breathing can do. To understand the next (and maybe more powerful?), we need to talk about another gas that is involved in breathing. Which is carbon dioxide.

Maybe that does not sound exciting… Sometimes, I have to remind myself that not everybody is a geek like me. Play along and you will see what I am talking about.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is what we are breathing out. You probably have been taught that CO2 is just a waste product of our body. This is only a half-truth. CO2 plays a vital role in stabilizing the gas balance in our body. If the level of CO2 in our body is too low, this can actually lead to poor oxygen intake.

Most breathing practices want us to breathe fully. It will momentarily relax the body, and feels good. Here we bump into a little problem – we breathe too much.

To understand the effects of excessive breathing, we can look at what happens when we hyperventilate.

When we hyperventilate, we exhale too much CO2 from our body. Now,  because of the lack of CO2, our body is less capable of benefiting from the O2. Therefore we will get more anxious, and we will begin to breathe even more because we “can’t get enough O2”. Our blood vessels will contract due to the lack of CO2. We will then become dizzy and can get cramps in our muscles because our cells are not getting enough O2.

That is why it can help to breathe in a paper bag when we are hyperventilating.

If we hold our breath, the amount of CO2 increases and our blood vessels expand. The blood pressure will go down, and we will actually experience a state of relaxation.

INCREASING OUR CO2 TOLERANCE TO INCREASE OUR OXYGEN UPTAKE

There are more benefits to holding our breath. The spleen acts as a blood bank. It can either contract or release red blood cells during periods of increased oxygen demand or decreased oxygen availability.

When we hold our breath, a large number of red blood cells are released from the spleen which increases the hemoglobin concentration in the blood from 2 to 5%. (Jelkmann, 1992)

Hemoglobin is in the red blood cells and helps us to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of our body.

Studies have shown a 3.3% increase of hemoglobin concentration following five breath holds. (Isbister, 1997)

To put it in simple terms, increased CO2 tolerance will increase oxygen uptake.

There are many benefits to having a sufficient level of CO2 in our body. Here are some of them;

  • It can calm the nervous system and can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. (Krnjevic, Randic, & Siesjoe, 1965)
  • It improves digestion by stimulating hydrochloric acid production in the stomach. (Davies, 1951)
  • It helps our cells stay healthy by helping oxygen to pass into the cells. A healthy and oxygenated cell is more likely to burn energy efficiently. If a cell can’t produce enough energy, it can cause the cell to become precancerous. (Warburg effect) (Vander Heiden, Cantley, & Thompson, 2009)

HOW TO INCREASE OUR CO2 TOLERANCE

By now you are probably thinking “holy guacamole, I need to increase my level of CO2”. Training your CO2 tolerance is simple, but it not easy.

The way to train your CO2 tolerance is to hold your breath. The only challenge is; holding your breath is not pleasant. I suggest that you take it easy in the beginning and slowly build up your tolerance.

To help you on the CO2 tolerance journey, here are two breathing techniques you can try out.

Breathing technique 1: 5-5-5 breathing

Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds.

Repeat 10 times.

Breathing technique 2: Box breathing

This is almost the same as the first technique. The only difference is that you hold for 5 seconds after breathing out.

Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds.

Repeat 10 times.

When you get more experienced with the techniques, you can try to increase these times.

Because these techniques are so simple, they are also easy to forget. The best way to develop a new habit is to link the habit to something you are already doing. Here are some suggestions

  • after you wake up
  • before eating lunch
  • before eating dinner
  • before going to bed

Find something that works for you.

Pick one of these techniques and try it!

I want to know how you feel – please comment below.

If you want to develop your breathing practice even further, try out the Wim Hof Method. It combines breathing, cold exposure, and mindset to make you stronger. We have no affiliation with Wim Hof – this is just a solid tip!

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1 thought on “Powerful and Often Overlooked Aspects of Breathing”

  1. Great article, Jørgen.

    Now that I am coming to the end of my Wildfit 90 Day challenge, I need to be more conscious of continuing with my breathing exercise. I had heard of the box breathing technique, from Ben Greenfield, and now reading your article, I will endeavour to use it as my breathing exercise protocol.

    Thank you and best regards,

    David

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