Breathing is the most vital function we have. Each breath provides the body with new oxygen. Trillions of body cells need that oxygen to make the organs function properly. In the process of the cell metabolism carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced, a gas that leaves our body with each exhalation.

With healthy breathing, body cells receive enough oxygen and CO2 is adequately discharged.

How do we breathe?

We breathe because our breathing muscles alternately tension and relax again. The muscles cause the lungs to get bigger and smaller again, so that air flows in and out of the lungs. The inside of the lungs is covered with hundreds of millions of alveoli. Through these alveoli the inhaled oxygen is absorbed into the blood. The oxygen is then transported by the blood circulation system to all tissues and organs.

Our breathing changes continuously and automatically. The rate and depth of the breathing is related to the degree of physical exercise, the amount of stress (due to infection, emotions, trauma or illness) and the body temperature. Although at specific moments we can consciously control it, the breathing system works autonomously for the rest of day and during the night. Teaching the body to breathe differently – calmer and lighter – requires doing breathing exercises.

When your breathing is disordered the body cells do not get enough oxygen, which in turn may lead to health issues over time. What inconveniences or problems you develop depends on what you are vulnerable to in the first place. In practice, we see people with a variety of conditions with disordered breathing.

Importance of breathing

Breathing provides the body of the necessary oxygen and is therefore closely linked to the other systems in our body. If the breathing is disordered, sooner or later this will affect other body functions as well. Sometimes this only causes discomfort, but it can also have more serious consequences.

The relationship between breathing and some other body systems is described below.

Blood circulation causes the blood to flow to and from all tissues and organs throughout the body. The heart is the ‘engine’ of this circulation. The arteries are the connection from the heart to the organs. The veins bring the blood from the body back to the heart.

Importance of breathing

Breathing contributes to the blood supply to the heart, both from the lungs to the heart and from the body back to the heart. During inhalation the lung volume expands and the blood vessels in the lungs dilate (‘vasodilation’). This has  a sucking effect: the blood supply to lungs increases and with it the blood supply from the body to the heart.

There is a clear link between breathing and the functioning of the cardiovascular system. For example, people with high blood pressure have a higher breathing rate when they experience stress. They also breathe less with the diaphragm and more at the top of the chest. The autonomic nervous system becomes unbalanced and leads to vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels) which requires the heart to work harder to pump the blood around. The ‘high’ breathing also causes reduced oxygen uptake in the alveoli.

Breathing exercises that slow down your breathing rate and lower the breathing volume, bring the autonomic nervous system back into balance. Blood pressure and heart rate will drop again and oxygen uptake improves.

The oxygen balance is the ratio between the supply of oxygen and the amount of oxygen the heart muscle needs to perform. The heart muscle is a small organ, but consumes a relatively high amount of oxygen. If the oxygen supply through the lungs is deficient, the organs or tissues will get too little oxygen and nutrients. Besides, a shortage of oxygen also reduces the pumping function of the heart itself, and it can damage the heart muscle.

Importance of breathing

The lungs are the only access road to the heart muscle. The alveoli in the  lungs  are surrounded by blood vessels that absorb the oxygen from the inhaled air and give up carbon dioxide (CO2).   A good gas change in the alveoli – the exchange between oxygen and CO2  – has a direct effect on the oxygen supply of the heart muscle.

When breathing is fast and shallow, mostly located in the upper chest, then not all air reaches the alveoli. The incoming air ‘lingers’ in the respiratory tract (bronchia and bronchiole). This part is also known as the anatomically ‘dead space’. In here, there is no gas exchange and therefore the blood cannot absorb oxygen. But when breathing is slower while using the diaphragm deep into the abdomen, oxygen uptake is much better. This gives the heart muscle more oxygen and makes it perform better.

The blood circulation has an important function in transporting oxygen, nutrients, waste, heat, etc. The blood can only do this properly if the acidity of the blood is balanced. That’s at a pH value of about 7.4 (where 1 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely basic). With a pH below 6.8 and above 7.8 the blood can no longer perform its function properly and body cells die. Both the transport function of the blood and the maintenance of acidity are closely linked to breathing.

Importance of breathing

Breathing has a direct effect on the acidity. Disordered breathing like chronic hyperventilation creates imbalance. The body has two ways to respond to this. The first is ‘buffering’ and the second is the creation of acids:

  1. Buffering: The main buffering is called the pCO2 bicarbonate buffer system. Someone who chronically hyperventilates exhales extra CO2, making the blood more basic. This is called ‘respiratory alkalosis’. The body captures this by converting H2CO3 into more hydrogen (H+) and bicarbonates (HCO3-). The bicarbonate leaves the body through the kidneys (we urinate it), but unfortunately takes many minerals, such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. As a result, the amount of minerals in the blood decreases. For example, magnesium deficiency leads to cramping of the muscles. In addition, the composition of the blood changes (such as less CO2 and more H+) put the exchange of vitamins, hormones etc. at risk.
  2. Production of acids: If the buffering system wears off over time and the pH of the blood threatens to increase, then the body will produce acids such as lactic acid. This is called ‘metabolic acidosis’. Lactic acid is made, for example, when during exercise the blood is no longer able to supply enough oxygen. This lactic acid is directly decomposed into lactate and hydrogen (H+). During anaerobic cel metabolism, the lactate (converted into glucose) is used for the production of energy. Fatigue and muscle pain (‘acidification’) occurs when so many hydrogen ions are emitted into the muscles that the acidity decreases further. This again has a disruptive effect on many processes in the body.

Healthy breathing maintains the oxygen delivery to the cells and CO2 concentration in the body, as well as the transport function and acidity of the blood.

The body is in constant need of water containing dissolved substances such as minerals (‘electrolytes’ or salts such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium). The body consists for the most part of water, and the body water needs to be constantly refreshed. Every 30 days, the total quantity is refreshed. The body is balanced when the total amounts of water and minerals, as well as the relationship between the two, remain constant.

A shortage of water has serious effects. For example, mucous membranes can become too dry, which increases the risk of infection of organs and tissues. The blood can also become more viscous, which makes the heart muscle less well blooded and supplied with oxygen.

Importance of breathing

The water balance is influenced by breathing, among other things. During inhalation, the air in the respiratory tract is moistened and during exhalation that moisture is lost in the form of water vapor. On the one hand, the humidity determines how much water you lose with breathing, on the other hand, the way you breathe has also a effect. Mouth breathing while inhaling and exhaling leads to more loss of water. Chronic hyperventilation – breathing too much air all the time, leads to an even greater loss of water. This has a negative effect on the functioning of the lungs, as the lung tissue must be moist to allow optimal gas exchange.

The moisture balance is better maintained when breathing lighter and inhaling and exhaling through the nose. With nasal breathing the nasal mucus allows moisture to pass off to the inhaled air. In addition, the air is moistened by evaporation of tear fluid that is discharged from the eyes through the tear ducts.

The nervous system ensures that the body reacts quickly and adequately to stimuli from outside or from within our body. Our senses, our nervous system and our muscles work closely together. Sensory impulses – smells, flavors, sounds, images and bodily sensations – are directed to the central nervous system (the spine and brain). There they are processed, stored and converted into impulses for the musculoskeletal system and internal organs such as respiratory muscles, airways and lungs.

Importance of breathing

Breathing is like a power switch to the autonomic nervous system. This system has two sections with opposite functions. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates relaxation and restoration. That is why it is also called the ‘feed and breed’ system. The sympathetic nervous system sends stimulating signals to the organs to get them ready for action, and is also known as ‘the fight or flight’ system.

Our lungs are covered with nerves that extend both parts of the autonomic system. However, the different nerves are concentrated in different parts of the lungs. Many nerves connecting the parasympathetic system are located in de lower lobes. That is why long and slow breaths are relaxing. When breathing slowly, molecules of air are sent deep in the lungs, activating parasympathetic nerves which send messages for the organs to rest and digest. And with long breaths out, molecules stimulate an even more powerful parasympathetic response.

The nerves of the sympathetic nervous system are spread out at the top of the lungs. So when breathing short and fast in the upper chest, the molecules of air activate the sympathetic nerves which send messages to ‘fight or flight’. This sympathetic response is activated within a second. The body redirects the blood flow from organs like stomach and bladder and sends it to the muscles and brain. Adrenaline peaks, heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict and heart rate speeds up.

The body is built to stay in a stage of sympathetic response only for short burst and only on occasion. After excitement it takes an hour or more to return to a state of relaxation. Disordered breathing however, with many short breaths in the upper chest over het long period, constantly switches on the sympathetic nerves, which makes people ending up light-headed and anxious and feeling exhausted.

Keeping the body at the right temperature is vital for optimal function. Each body cell continuously produces heat through cell metabolism using oxygen. Body temperature is the result of the production and release of heat in the body itself. The heat is optimally balanced at a core temperature is 37 °C.  At this temperature, all kinds of body processes run optimally.

Importance of breathing

The body loses its heat partly through breathing. Through the mucous membranes of the lungs, the body can lose a lot of heat. When you imagine the lungs spread out on the floor, they cover an area of about 80-100 m2. Through this enormous surface area, the blood in the lungs is continuously brought into contact with the outside air. Especially if the inhaled outside air is cooler than the blood, more heat is being lost.

The best way to warm incoming air is nasal breathing. The superficially located blood vessels in the nose cavity transfer the heat of the blood to the inhaled air. This is very fast and prevents the lung tissue from cooling down too quickly. For example, inhaled freezing air is heated by the nose to about 33 °C. Compared to mouth breathing, the large nasal cavity heats the incoming air much better and retains more heat in the upper airways.

Request a free consultation