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Let's Reminisce: How we breathe affects our health
By Jerry Lincecum
Aug 10, 2020
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Breathing is not an activity that most people feeling confident about right now. Covid-19 has turned us into a planet of breath-obsessed people. We worry that we might be feeling a cough coming on or some tightness in our chests. But as hard as it might be to fathom, there is a silver lining here: Breathing is a missing pillar of health, and our attention to it is long overdue.

Most of us misunderstand breathing. We see it as passive, something that we just do. Breathe, live; stop breathing, die. But breathing is not that simple. How we breathe matters, too.

Inside the breath you just took, there are more molecules of air than there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches. We each inhale and exhale some 30 pounds of these molecules every day—far more than we eat or drink. The way that we take in that air and expel it is as important as what we eat, how much we exercise and the genes we’ve inherited.

This idea may sound crazy, but researchers have found that breathing habits are directly related to physical and mental health. Breathing properly can allow us to live longer and healthier lives. Breathing poorly, by contrast, can exacerbate and sometimes cause a laundry list of chronic diseases: from asthma to hypertension. Poor breathing habits can even change the physical structure of our skeletons, depleting essential minerals and weakening our bones.

Our ancient ancestors understood this. Almost every major religion and many cultures—from the Greeks to the Buddhists, Hindus to Native Americans—considered proper breathing essential to health.
But we have lost the thread of this idea. Think back to your last health check-up. Chances are that your doctor took your blood pressure, pulse and temperature and then placed a stethoscope to your chest to listen to your heart and lungs. But she likely never checked your respiratory rate or breathing habits.

Today, doctors who study breathing say that the vast majority of Americans do it inadequately. We can blame some of our poor breathing habits on morphological changes in the human skull. A smaller mouth and obstructed nose make it harder to breathe. Humans now have the sad distinction of being the most plugged-up species in the animal kingdom.
We can also blame our middle-aged bodies. Starting around 30, bones in the chest become thinner and collapse inward. We lose about 12% of our lung capacity by the time we hit 50, and then the decline speeds up. We’re forced to breathe faster and harder.

But it’s not all bad news. Unlike problems with other parts of the body, such as the liver or kidneys, we can improve the airways in our too-small mouths and reverse the entropy in our lungs at any age. We can do this by breathing properly.

The first step in healthy breathing is extending breaths to make them a little deeper, a little longer. Try it. For the next several minutes, inhale gently through your nose to a count of about five and then exhale, again through your nose, at the same rate or a little more slowly if you can. This works out to about six breaths a minute.

When we breathe like this we can better protect the lungs from irritation and infection while boosting circulation to the brain and body. Just a few minutes of inhaling and exhaling at this pace can drop blood pressure by 10, even 15 points.

By building healthy breathing habits we can stop the decline of our respiratory systems and increase our lung capacity. We can also reduce—or in some cases, reverse— maladies like asthma and allergies and even emphysema.

Which brings us to the second step in healthy breathing: Breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing not only helps with snoring and some mild cases of sleep apnea, it also can allow us to absorb around 18% more oxygen than breathing through our mouths. It reduces the risk of dental cavities and respiratory problems.

Covid-19 has forced modern medicine to look for new solutions, even in the wisdom of the past. Fortunately, a remedy for many of our chronic health problems is right under our noses. It requires no batteries, Wi-Fi, headgear or smart-phones. It costs nothing and takes little time and effort. It’s a therapy our ancestors self-administered for thousands of years with only their lips, noses and lungs. Let’s hope that this time around we don’t forget it.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com