Updated: Sep 6, 2019
Did you know that dysfunctional breathing mechanics is the root cause for a large number of serious diseases and musculoskeletal conditions? Although breathing seems like an easy and automated task, research shows how more than half of the population today isn't breathing the way we are designed to, and this discrepancy has brought many consequences. (Study)
During inspiration, the diaphragm should contract and move the organs downward, while our intercostal muscles should expand the ribcage in order to increase the volume of the thoracic (chest) cavity. This decreases air pressure below that of air outside the body, and as air moves from regions of high pressure to low pressure, air rushes into the lungs. 21% of this is oxygen, which binds to the haemoglobin in red blood cells, and is pumped by the heart through arteries so that it can reach all organs in the body. Our cells then use this oxygen to produce energy, and release carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result. During expiration, the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles should relax in order to restore the volume in the thoracic cavity and force out the CO2.
What causes dysfunctional breathing?
Breathing is the most important function in the human body. We can live without without food and water for several days, but we can only survive a few minutes without oxygen. We have therefore created emergency mechanisms to compensate during moments where oxygen cant be obtained efficiently. The following are the 2 main breathing compensational mechanisms:
Humans are designed to breathe thought the nose, but in some instances, nasal obstruction or other stressful events may compromise this process. The mouth can then serve as an alternative to deliver the essential oxygen our bodies need in order to survive. However, this alternative is only designed to take over for short periods of time until the underlying issues are addressed. Despite this, more than half of the population chronically breaths with the mouth, and this has been linked to serious health issues.
Mouth breathing simply bypasses many stages of the breathing process. First of all, nose hair acts as a filter, blocking bacteria and contaminating particles. As we inspire, air is humidified and warmed as it passes though the mucous membranes in our nasal cavity, and as we expire, the same path recaptures the bodies moisture and minimises the loss of water. Within the nasal cavity, the air also mixes with nitric oxide, which does two important functions: it kills deadly bacteria, and works as a vasodilator on the airways, your arteries, and capillaries.
The cause is usually nasal obstructions mainly due to allergies, food sensitivities, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, or respiratory infections. However all these occur as a result of physiological and biochemical imbalances at a high deeper level probably due to discrepancies in diet and lifestyle. That means that in order to address this condition, we must take a holistic approach that solves the issue at a foundational level.
Secondary breathing muscles recruitment:
The diaphragm and the intercostals are the primary breathing muscles. Apart from being the most efficient breathing muscles, they also play an important role in stabilisation, as they work with the TVA (deepest core muscle) and pelvic flooring order to control intra-abdominal pressure and reduce the stress on the spine. During stressful moments of high physical activity or metabolic demand, other muscles can help elevate the ribs in order to increase the amount of air that can enter the body. These muscles are referred to as secondary breathing muscles and include the upper trapezius, scalenes, sternocliedomastoid, levator scapulae, and pectorals minor, and although they can definitely help during emergency situations, we are not are designed to recur to the chronically. The problem occurs when we are constantly in a bad posture, as this doesn't allow enough space for the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to laterally expand the ribcage, or when we are exposed to high levels of stress, as this tends to excite the secondary breathing muscles making us breathe fast and superficially. With time, the secondary muscles tend take over and the diagram intercostals get inhibited disrupting our breathing mechanics.
Main effects of dysfunctional breathing:
Breathing forms part of of autonomic nervous system , which is responsible for controlling the actions in our body that we do not regulate through conscious thought. As we are designed to only use our secondary breathing mechanisms during emergency situations, dysfunctional breathing sends a signal the the autonomic nervous system that we are in a stressful situation. The body then responds by increasing the stress hormone cortisol as well as raising blood pressure, increasing heart rate, transferring blood away from the gut to the muscles, and suppressing the immune system and repair functions to allow all the energy to be directed towards dealing with the stressor. This stress response was designed for short periods of stress, like when we needed to hunt or run away from a wild animal in the past. But If we breathe dysfunctionally around 23,000 times a day, we trick the body into thinking we are chronically under threat. This may lead to many issues and is why they say stress is the root cause of any disease.
Both compensationary mechanisms lead to fast and shallow breaths which affects oxygen absorption at a cellular level. Although we take in more air with fast breaths, there is actually an inverse relationship between speed of breathe and oxygen absorption. This is because fast breaths decrease levels of CO2, and absorption of oxygen depends of the levels of CO2. If CO2 is expelled too rapidly, we cant effectively absorb oxygen leaving our cells deprived. This disables us form producing high amounts of energy, leaving feeling tired during the day and affecting our concentration and mental performance. Yawning is actually an emergency attempt to get more oxygen. In addition to this, physical performance is also substantially decreased with every performance parameter including VO2 Max and economy being affected. (study) Most importantly however, long term oxygen deprivation due to dysfunctional breathing has bee linked to all sorts of series diseases including: heart problems, lung issue, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. Its not a mystery why nose breathing creates a back-pressure that holds air in a little longer, and deep diaphragmatic breathing slows down breathing rate so oxygen has more time to be absorbed.
As the secondary breathing muscles take over, they become chronically tight while their antagonists get inhibited. The diaphragm, intescoastals and TVA also become dormant, and all this leads to length tension imbalances and a rounded forward position which can result in injuries, pain and discomfort.
Believe it or not, Mouth breathing interferes with the natural development of the jaw and can actually change the shape of your face.This is especially true for children because they are still growing. Studies show how its associated with facial deformation, abnormal jaws and bad occlusion. (Study)(Study)
4 Steps to improving breathing:
1.Focus on slow and deep breathing through nose:
The first step is to be conscious of how you breathe when you are awake. Training yourself to nose breathe while awake guides the way you breathe while sleeping. Just as secondary breathing sends a stress signal to the brain, slow and deep breathing through the nose does exactly the opposite and is the best way to lower stress.
If you are extremely concerned about mouth breathing at night, you can tape your mouth before going to bed with a non allergenic tape. However, it most cases by consciously focusing on nose breathing during the day and following the next steps I will provide, it will be enough.
2. Improve posture
Poor posture and dysfunctional breathing go hand in hand. A poor rounded forward posture wont allow space for the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to laterally expand the ribcage. Breathing will therefore not be able to improve unless we address the bad posture. On the other hand, posture wont improve either if we don't address breathing. Constantly recruiting our secondary breathing muscles creates chronic tightnesses in those muscles, and the length tension imbalances caused by this will just keep coming back regardless of how much rehab or massages you get. The only long term solution is to improve posture and breathing mechanics simultaneously.
3.Strengthen the diaphragm:
The following is an easy exercise to train the diaphragm to function correctly:
Begin in the supine position, lying on the back and facing up.
Your feet should be on a wall, with the knees and hips bent at a 90 degree angle
Neck and spine should be in a neutral position.
Place the hands on the sides just above the pelvis but below the ribs.
Breathe in deeply though your nose for about 3 seconds
The air should expand the lateral portion of the stomach pushing your hands out.
Then take a brief pause and exhale for about 4-6 seconds
Repeat several times and emphasis as much lateral expansion as possible
4. Improve Health Holistically:
Most nasal obstructions occur signs of much deeper biochemical imbalances. In order to solve this, we need to address our health at a foundational level by aligning our diet and lifestyle with the environment our genes and biology are designed to thrive in. For more information on how to do this, read this Post.