Last night some massive wildfires started sweeping through nearby counties and I woke up with a tight chest and a burning throat. It smelled like a Bar-B-Que outside when I walked my dogs this morning. My daughter’s taking the dogs for another walk now and just reported, “It’s raining ash”.
Luckily I’ve learned skills to breathe as optimally as possible, and I want to share them with you now. Breathing smoky air downwind from fires is a risk for people with respiratory conditions and even others. My roommate said he woke up having trouble breathing and he has no history of troubled breathing.
Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases.
So how do we avoid or minimize inhaling fine particles into our lungs? Here are three functional-breathing habits:
1, Breathe only through your nose. The nose, unlike the mouth, has filters to catch fine particles. The first line of defense is nose hair. The second is cilia, very small hairlike strands in our nose that constantly wave back and forth to catch particles. Cilia sweep dusty and potentially dangerous molecules toward our throat rather than the lungs, collecting them in a glob of mucus that we either cough up or swallow.
The nose has other ways to clean air too. Nitrous oxide produced in the nasal passages sanitizes air. The nose also naturally warms up air to the temperature the lungs like to receive it.
2. Don’t breathe through your mouth, which is very common and a generally unrecognized health hazard, especially when the mouth is open anyway for talking, eating, and vigorous exercise. Air inhaled through the mouth goes straight to the lungs unfiltered and the smaller the particles of pollution, the deeper in the lungs they go. The lungs have mechanisms for ridding themselves of particulate matter but it takes time, involves inflammation and a lot of unpleasant coughing, potentially weakening the organ.
3.Breathe less air. Breathe just as much air as you need and no more. Get into a calm, centered space and start breathing gently. Since so many people naturally hyperventilate, especially in an emergency or when things aren’t going well, it’s very possible you may be over-breathing on a bad air day. Once you do this, you may recognize that breathing less makes you feel better. A good image to keep in mind is, “breathe like a baby”. You typically can’t see or hear a healthy infant breathing. In fact many parents have woken up a sleeping baby because there were no visible signs of breathing. We’re actually all supposed to be breathing like this. In many martial-arts competitions if the judges can see contestants breathing they lose points.
Practice these breathing skills every day to strengthen your respiratory capacity in an emergency.