Just Breathe

Every breath you take.”   “Take my breath away.”  “Just breathe.”

Popular music celebrates and recognizes breath as the powerful force it is.  Without it, we are nothing.  Most of us breathe effortlessly, sometimes it can be a struggle with certain illnesses, and this brings the importance of breathing to our focus if it is difficult. 

The average human breathes about 7,300,000 times every year, 20,000 times every day.  In and out is one breath.  That averages about 14 breaths per minute.  In and out, in and out.  We do it all day, every day, 24/7/365.  And we rarely think about the gift that it is.

The COVID pandemic brought this amazing human ability to the spotlight.  As a disease primarily of the respiratory system, it caused millions of people respiratory distress.  Sadly, thousands in our country, and millions worldwide succumbed, and their breathing capabilities were not able to sustain life. 

It seems so simple, just breathe in, and breathe out.  And keep doing it all day, every day.  Without even thinking about it.   This is a function of our autonomic nervous system; it simply does the work for us without us telling it to.

Sometimes, however, breathing is the only thing we can do.  When life seems to overtake all our other human functions, breathing is the one thing we must do.  And we must slow it down, because when we are stressed, our breathing tends to speed up and become more shallow. This decreases oxygen to the brain, and increases anxiety. 

Simply breathing deeply in and out activates the parasympathetic part of the nervous system, and tells your brain that it is okay to relax.  It lets the brain know you are safe, and you don’t need to “fight or flight.” 

If you are a singer, or have had any professional voice lessons or therapy, you likely know what “singing/breathing from the diaphragm” is.  It is the process of expanding the lower lobes of your lungs, filling them with air.   

The human body is designed to take air in deeply, sending it down to the lower lobes.  However, most of us have learned to breathe in a more shallow fashion, and we leave these large reservoirs with little work to do, when they should be fully engaged. 

If deep breathing is done properly, the stomach should inflate like a balloon.  Placing your hand on your stomach will allow you to feel the correct expansion.  By placing your other hand on your chest, you can monitor its movement as well.  Ideally, the chest should stay still, while the stomach expands.

Because most of us have un-learned this method, it may seem difficult.  As infants, we all started out breathing deeply from the stomach.  Watch a baby as it sleeps, and you will see the stomach naturally rise and fall.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, most of us as adults have compromised this natural ability, and changed our patterns of breathing to a more shallow fashion, expanding only the upper lobes of the lungs. 

The nose knows,” it is said.  Breathing in through the nose is the way our bodies are designed to work.  It is why the nostrils are moist with mucus, and are lined with hair.  These factors are part of the grand design, even if it is not pleasant to think about or talk about.  The mucus and hair are designed to trap particles and other invaders, acting as an important filter for the air we breathe in before it goes to our pristine lungs.  Breathing through the mouth can easily dry out the mouth and throat, especially in colder weather.  Mouth breathing has also been shown to cause bad breath, sleep apnea and snoring. 

When the air comes in through the nose, our throats open wider to allow more air, because they know it is just air.  If the air comes through the mouth, the airway narrows, knowing it could be food and/or water, so the muscles are on guard to protect the airway. 

While the following facts may not seem important, they contribute to our understanding and reverence for the lungs:

  • *If the surface of your lungs was laid out flat, it would cover a tennis court.
  • The lungs are the only organs that can float in water.
  • The average adult can hold their breath for less than one minute.  Some divers, however, are trained to hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. 
  • The left lung is slightly smaller than the right to accommodate the heart.
  • Waste is eliminated from the body when you exhale. 
  • Lungs are made of a spongy tissue that stretches easily and keeps it shape.  The right lung has three lobes, the left has two.  The lobes expand like a balloon when you breathe in, and deflate when you breathe out.
  • Normal lungs are pink, while a smoker’s lungs are gray or bluish. 
  • The diaphragm is a shelf-like muscle that lies at the bottom of the lungs. It creates suction and pushes down as you breathe in, opening space for air in your lungs.   Smokers experience loss of muscle in the diaphragm, while non-smokers typically have a healthy, dome-shaped diaphragm. 
  • The doctor who specializes in lung function is a pulmonologist. 

**

Breathing is a gift.  Without it, we are nothing.  Artificial respiration via a ventilator that sadly, so many people were forced to rely upon due to COVID, is a poor substitute, but has saved some people from death.  The natural process of breathing is truly a miracle, supplying our bodies with oxygen. 

Make the most of it.  Breathe deeply into the lower lobes of your lungs.  Engage in this breathing to reduce stress, which most of experience on a daily basis.  Take good care of your lungs by NOT smoking.  If you do, it’s never too late to quit.  Your lungs will thank you.  And, if you can breathe easily, give thanks for this gift.