“If I’m still alive, I guess I’m breathing well enough!” is a refrain I often hear.
I can certainly agree that, especially these days, if it doesn’t look like something is broken, I don’t have enough time, money or energy to incrementally fix it “just because”!
But many people’s breathing IS broken even if they’re not identifying it as such. They’re just not aware of the signs and symptoms of poor breathing habits, which include digestion, sleep and cardiovascular issues, not just respiratory problems. (For more insight, see www.BreathingRetrainingCenter.com/symptoms) Breathing myths are getting in the way of many people experiencing good mental and physical health through easier and more comfortable breathing.
Other popular but false beliefs include:
- “Just like animals, humans are born knowing how to breathe.”
- “It doesn’t matter if I’m mouth breathing or nose breathing — as long as I’m inhaling air into my lungs, there’s no difference!”
- “Bigger inhalations mean my body is getting more oxygen.”
Now let’s address these one by one.
Just like animals, humans are born knowing how to breathe.
Is breathing an instinctive, innate, hard-wired behavior that doesn’t have to be learned or practiced? An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to the proper stimulus. All mammals have lungs and need to breathe air to survive, so this myth is partly correct. But all mammals also breast feed — and we know that not every baby takes to the breast easily!
The truth is that as social creatures, we’re influenced by the breathing patterns of people around us. We’re picking up our mother’s breathing pattern in the womb. If our mother has a respiratory illness or anxiety, or simply poor breathing habits, that’s how we’re likely to breathe too from the get-go. So yes, nature may make sure we’re breathing no matter what, one way or another…but whether we’re breathing efficiently, optimally or well is another story!
It doesn’t matter if I’m mouth breathing or nose breathing — as long as I’m inhaling air into my lungs, there’s no difference.
Our nervous systems have two distinct branches, and one or the other is always turned on, depending on the circumstances. Ideally, we’re spending 99.95% of the time in the chill, “rest-and-digest”, all-is-well state. When there’s an emergency, we shift into the fight-or-flight mode that mobilizes our senses into keen alertness and readiness to move quickly and engage our strength.
Nasal breathing is associated with the relaxed, easygoing state, and mouth breathing is optimally only engaged in acute emergencies. Our breathing is managed by the most primitive part of our brains that operates on autopilot. In an emergency, we act on instinct and that instinct tells us to mouth breathe, which sets into motion a hypervigilent attention that keys us up.
Here are unfortunate circumstances that can keep someone mouth-breathing for years, until they are educated not to:
-A baby is born with a problem and is whisked to intensive care. In the hospital, the baby is connected to all sorts of tubes, including perhaps one to the mouth. As an infant, that child doesn’t ever have the experience of closing their mouth yet because there’s been a tube keeping it open their whole life! Upon going home, that child is likely to continue mouth breathing, which will affect all sorts of other things, like ease of breast feeding.
-If the mother mouth breathes while pregnant, that affects both the mother and child’s blood pH. So upon birth, the child used to that blood pH may breathe in a way to maintain that homeostasis. Kids can also attune to the normal or abnormal respiration rate of people holding them,
-At some point, a child is going to suffer their first cold. At the time, they will probably start mouth breathing because their nose is stuffed. Their return to nasal breathing goes easier if it’s clearly facilitated. So that experience can start us with a mouth-breathing pattern for the rest of our lives if it isn’t caught.
-Something traumatic happens. We start mouth breathing. The situation is not something with a clear beginning, middle and end. If it doesn’t end, our mouth breathing doesn’t have much of a chance of transitioning back to nasal breathing smoothly on its own either. Our emergency-response system, like those of animals, was developed when our main problem was predators. If we were going to be eaten, it happened fast. If not, life went back to normal quickly. Now humans living in complex societies have complicated money, job, and social problems that can last for years.
In any emergency that precipitates mouth breathing, the body “temporarily” ceases digestion, elimination, thinking, cell repair and other normal functions in order to focus on getting blood to the muscles to fight or run away. This continues until the nervous system relaxes and reverts back.
Adding to all this, there’s a new modern conundrum: Nowadays if we breathe in pollutants with our mouths, which doesn’t have a filter like the nose, a larger percentage of inhaled particles may possibly obstruct our blood vessels and cause a heart attack or stroke, according to the World Health Organization.
So prolonged mouth breathing beyond an acute physical emergency, diminishes our health big time.
Bigger Inhalations Are Better: They Mean Your Body Is Getting More Oxygen
It’s common knowledge that eating too much food doesn’t mean good nutrition, and this principle applies to breathing also. Breathing too much air doesn’t mean good breathing, nor does it even mean that extra oxygen is delivered to the tissues, for complex biochemical reasons. The holistic body in all things aims to operate efficiently.
If you ever use a pulse oximeter, you’ll see frequently that the oxygen level in the bloodstream is often more than 95%. That’s way more than enough.The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen, and it’s been measured that our exhalations contain 16% oxygen, so we don’t even absorb all the oxygen we take in.
Oxygen is carried in the blood by hemoglobin. Getting hemoglobin to release oxygen to the cells is a finely tuned equation. Once hemoglobin and oxygen are joined, they form a tight bond and conditions need to be ideal in order for them to separate, and that is a matter influenced by blood pH, the carbon dixoide-oxygen ratio , carbon dioxide pressure and other biochemical factors.
In a nutshell, oxygen is almost always circulating in the blood to be released to the cells, which make all their own energy. They can make energy from digested, stored “food” without oxygen, called anaerobic respiration, but they can produce lots more energy with it.
The everyday breathing that releases oxygen is relaxed breaths through the nose, appropriate for the current activity level. That normalizes breathing pH and actually faciliates the release of oxygen. Major physical effort requires large, full breaths. For many of us who are sedentary much of the day, small breaths are best and produce the best oxygenation.
If I’m alive, I’m breathing well enough.
Breathing is the litmus test that definitively proves we’re alive! The body will do everything in its power to make sure we remain breathing.
It will contort our posture to make sure the angle of our breathing tube can accept some air. We will breathe as fast and deep as the body determines we need to, even if that means we spend all our time and energy breathing to the detraction of everything else. That would mean that for some people, their life is diminished to only making sure they are breathing. If you check out our Symptoms of Dysfunctional Breathing list, you’ll see many symptoms that on the face of them don’t seem related to breathing at all. They’re related to the shutdown of normal functioning during emergencies in the fight-or-flight state of the nervous system.
Have you ever bought into any of these myths?