There is something that we do every day, all day, and is completely vital to our survival, yet we never give our attention to it: the breath. We take for granted that, because breathing is done automatically, we do not have to think about whether or not we are breathing in a healthy manner or not. The idea itself seems silly, right? Well, perhaps not. Our breathing has a profound impact on our physical health, and how we breathe seems to matter. Additionally, dysfunctional breathing is more common than you might expect. 9.5% of the general population has been identified as having some sort of dysfunctional breathing pattern (Jones et al., 2013). This number climbs to 30% for asthmatics, and even higher to 75% for those suffering from anxiety (Courtney, 2016). Clearly, our breathing patterns not only relate to our physical health but influences our mental health as well. It is important to consider then, how one can improve their breathing patterns to improve their health.
In the 1950s, a breathing reeducation (BRE) program called The Buteyko breathing technique was developed by Dr. Konstantin (McKeown et al., 2021). The basic tenets of the program are as follows (Mckeown, 2019):
- Determining chemosensitivity to carbon dioxide using breath-hold time
- Restoring nasal breathing on a permanent basis
- Adopting correct tongue resting posture
- Slowing the respiratory rate towards normal
- Restoring diaphragmatic function
- Achieving normal minute ventilation
The science and research regarding these topics are very complex and are far too much for a single blog post. Regardless, a brief overview of some of these will be provided to help get you started on a path to having healthier breath. The first point is in reference to a test you can do to determine how healthy your breathing pattern is. Below are instructions on how to perform this test:
- Get your stopwatch on your phone ready
- Hold your breath after a normal exhalation and time your natural breath hold in seconds. Don’t try and hold your breath for as long as possible, rather you are looking for a number of seconds in your breath-hold period (after exhalation) until you feel the natural need to breathe, just before getting “oxygen hungry”! This could be a catching the throat, a flutter of the diaphragm, or just the natural urge to breathe.
- Watch this video:
If your hold is under 25 seconds you may have breathing pattern disorders such as asthma, breathlessness, coughing and wheezing…both during rest and exercise.
- Depending on genetic predisposition, you may also find you also experience blocked nostrils, disrupted sleep, snoring, fatigue, anxiety or panic.
- Each time that you improve this breathing score by five seconds, you will feel better, have more energy and reduce breathlessness during physical exercise.
- It is important to note that many elite athletes also have low scores here, often less than 20 seconds, so it’s not about physical fitness, rather breathing efficiency, which you can absolutely begin to train!
Now, why is nasal breathing so important? Well, it relates to resting tongue posture and airway size. Especially as it relates to sleep quality, the size of the airway is important in regards to how easy it is for the pharyngeal airway to collapse (McKeown et al., 2021). Therefore, the larger the airway space, the better. One easily controllable aspect of our body that influences airway space is the position of our tongue. During nasal breathing, the tongue more naturally raises up to the roof of the mouth (Onerci, 2013). The opposite happens during mouth breathing; the tongue will fall backwards and reduce the pharyngeal space (Onerci, 2013). This makes breathing more difficult, engages the thorax more rather than the diaphragm, and can lead to sleep related issues (McKeown et al., 2021). Therefore, a core aspect of BRE, and an easy way to improve breathing patterns is to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, as much as possible.
Learning and conditioning oneself to breathe through the nose accomplishes many of the goals present in the Buteyko breathing technique. Another important aspect relates to breathing frequency. Breathing frequency highly relates to our autonomic nervous system balance, and is important for many reasons. It has been suggested to improve heart rate variability, baroreflex sensitivity, sympathovagal balance, and gas exchange within the cardiovascular system (Russo et al., 2017). Many of these observations have been observed when breathing reaches a rate of 0.1Hz (6 breaths per minute) (McKeown et al., 2021; Russo et al., 2017). Interestingly, this same breathing frequency is observed in Zen meditators (Cysarz & Büssing, 2005). Perhaps indicating why meditation is so helpful in achieving similar effects in causing autonomic nervous system balance. Hence, we should be mindful of our breath, and try to not hyperventilate.
Breathing is the most important activity we perform in our lives. Additionally, the pattern at which we breathe has surprisingly great impacts on our health.
Here are 8 simple steps everyone can take to slowly improve their BOLT score and overall breathing pattern that can foster a healthier body and mind.
- Hold your breath whilst exercising or practising yoga for up to periods of 40 seconds. (Listen)
- Tape up your mouth whilst sleeping or exercising (with myotape or similar). This may be challenging at first, but give it time and the idea is to reduce the size of enlarged adenoids and improve erectile tissue of the nose which can take up to six weeks!
- Hold water in your mouth whilst exercising (Listen)
- Slow breathing through the nose, expanding a soft belly and try and utilise the highly neglected lower third of your lungs. (Watch)
- Recognise the importance of chewing or masticating your food more with Mindful eating. Over the ages, our bone structure has changed and heads have become significantly smaller making us less likely to breathe through our nose, affecting the structure of our maxilla which changes when we chew for the better!
- Diet affects the skeletal development of our mouths, particularly children’s mouths early in life. Eat wholesome, chewable and unprocessed foods.
- Breathe less, reducing your rate to 5.5 or 6 breaths per minute. This can be done using simple breath control or using a mantra or a hum on the outbreath.
- Change your posture through yoga asana – head over heart – strengthen your upper back and rhomboids, open your chest and pectorals and consciously place your head directly over your heart in a lovely straight line!
Nasal breathing is for anyone wanting to achieve more restful sleep, a better microbiome, better immunity, better concentration, reduce physical pain and to achieve meditative states in your everyday waking and sleeping life!
Courtney, R. (2016). A Multi-Dimensional Model of Dysfunctional Breathing and Integrative Breathing Therapy – Commentary on The functions of Breathing and Its Dysfunctions and Their Relationship to Breathing Therapy. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy, 06(04), 4–6. https://doi.org/10.4172/2157-7595.1000257
Cysarz, D., & Büssing, A. (2005). Cardiorespiratory synchronization during Zen meditation. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 95(1), 88–95. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-005-1379-3
Jones, M., Harvey, A., Marston, L., & Ne, O. C. (2013). Breathing exercises for dysfunctional breathing/hyperventilation syndrome in adults. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD009041.pub2.www.cochranelibrary.com
Mckeown, P. (2019). The Buteyko Technique: News. JDSM, 6(2). https://doi.org/10.1113/JP276206
McKeown, P., O’Connor-Reina, C., & Plaza, G. (2021). Breathing Re-Education and Phenotypes of Sleep Apnea: A Review. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 10(3), 471. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm10030471
Onerci, T. M. (2013). Nasal Physiology and Pathophysiology of Nasal Disorders. In Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-37078-6_15
Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O’Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298–309. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.009817