A conversation with Dr. Corinne Weaver, author of Learning How to Breathe, reveals a rather startling yet oddly not altogether surprising statistic: that we only use about one third of our lung capacities.  Such data is startling because it means that, despite knowledge gained at a young age that we live on earth because it is oxygen-rich and have thus far not discovered another planet with quite the same vital characteristic, we do not take in much of that breathable, life-sustaining source. That statistic is also not altogether surprising because we have spent the last one hundred or so years polluting our air, making it decreasingly desirable to consume, and becoming exhausted by an ever-increasing list of stressors that both physiologically alter our breathing patterns, subconsciously, and energetically deplete us of much desire to consciously breathe our way back into a better rhythm.   

Oxygen is an essential nutrient, though we do not often think of it that way. Like most aspects of nutrition, more or less defined as the things that we need to bring into our bodies because we do not produce them on our own, oxygen’s vital importance has somehow become underrated as healthcare has moved further away from the fundamentals that replenish and sustain life toward the reactionary, disease-treatment model. Hyperbaric oxygen administered in a chamber with controlled pressure is among the most intriguing treatments more recently developed, so the value of getting more oxygen (and better quality oxygen) to organs and tissues has at least been established. What would be incredible now is for the public to become more aware of the simple role that oxygen consistently breathed in greater quantities can play in regaining and sustaining health, as well as the detrimental effects that can be caused by improper breathing.   

Starting with the bad and then working our way to the good, when we do not breathe in enough oxygen, it is not unlike failing to drink enough water, itself another nutrient that, when not consumed in proper amounts, quietly wreaks havoc on the body. Oxygen is used by the body to make the energy that powers every internal process. Breathing in a third of our maximum capacity for oxygen consequently reduces the body’s ability to function optimally. It is such a basic thing, but often so simple that it is hard to get just how much it influences our overall well-being. Not breathing enough, bottom line, handicaps our health potential, contributing to a long list of ailments including lethargy, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations, and the production of excess stress hormones.  

The good news is that failure to breathe properly is an issue that can be remedied. In order to restore normal breathing, we have to reverse the primary habits that cause us to utilize only a third of our lung capacities. The first of said habits is not knowing how to breathe. Like reading, optimal breathing is an acquired skill.

Also like reading, breathing is a skill that we can only master with regular practice, so make time for it. Working on it during an already established routine, such as when looking at the phone for fifteen minutes right after waking up or when parking the car at work or when saying prayers before bedtime, is a good starting point. If you struggle to prioritize conscious breathing or want to incorporate better breathing in your routine but are not sure how, consider guided meditations, for which there are numerous smart-phone apps (YouTube is also a great resource). Guided meditations, lasting as short as five-minutes, command our attention and prompt us to breathe, helping nurture the healthy habit that increased breathing demands. Taking a yoga class is another option; there is perhaps no better discipline for improving breath-work.

Of course, elemental breathing is a task performed automatically by the body; such is the stimulus for the majority of the aforementioned third of our lung capacities being filled. The brainstem, the hub of the nervous system located where the head and neck meet, directly controls subconscious breathing. Unfortunately, the brainstem is often compromised when the alignment between the head and upper neck is lost (frequently due to trauma), consequently distorting the line of communication connecting the brainstem to the respiratory system and decreasing lung capacity in the most elementary way possible. Meanwhile, the anatomy protecting the brainstem being our structural foundation, that same misalignment forces top-to-bottom compensation throughout the rest of the body, altering posture and adding further restriction to breathing on account of the airways being designed in accordance with the original blueprint of the physical frame, not the adapted state. Therefore, it is a foundational step, when exploring how to optimize breathing, to ensure that our brainstems are functioning properly and that our postures allow for the airways to remain fully open.

From this moment forward, do not take oxygen for granted, recognize the inherent downsides to the decreased use of the lungs, and make a commitment both to ensuring that the body is fully capable of elemental breathing and to making time for working on breathing skills. Please, breathe like your life depends on it…because, honestly, it really does.

– Remember that the nose is best for inhaling and the mouth is best for exhaling.

– Be sure to engage the diaphragm when inhaling (the abdomen and chest should rise) so that the breath is as deep as possible; using just the lungs (seeing the chest rise and fall but not the abdomen) to breathe is like walking or running without swinging the arms, making breathing awkward and inefficient.

– Try to stay focused on the inhale/exhale rhythm too; conscious breathing can be very soothing to the body, so engage with a slow in-breath, hold it for a few seconds, and let it out calmly.

Dr. Chad McIntyre owns and operates the Triad Upper Cervical Clinic in Kernersville.  He emphasizes a proactive, goal-oriented, integrative approach to health rooted in strong patient education.

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