Breathe Your Way to Better Health

We all do it every day all day. But how many of us are actually doing it correctly? We’ve all likely heard snippets of the Wim Hof (AKA iceman) and his breathing techniques that allow people to sit on the freezing cold snow without developing frostbite. It seems miraculous. Breathing, as a function, kind of is miraculous.
Breathing is an autonomic function; this means that our body does it automatically without us having to put too much thought into the process. However, this does not mean that you cannot change your breathing patterns and, in fact, this can be one of the fastest ways to derail looming anxiety. The benefits of breathing stretch well beyond the nervous system and are critical to health as a whole; when we breathe, we’re balancing the chemical composition of the body and healing all of our tissues.
The evolution 
When we were cave people, we had perfect teeth, spacious sinuses and a very well-defined jaw. As our diets changed to incorporate foods that were higher in sugar and softer to chew, we chewed much less and our brains grew thanks to the sugar. The evolutionary result of this simple change was that our brains took up valuable space leaving our sinuses and the dimensions of our mouth as a whole to shrink. One of the main muscles that we rely on for chewing, the masseter, lost strength. Teeth began to crowd, mouth breathing became prevalent and sinusitis became rampant.
Mouth Breathers Beware
We have long known that breathing through your mouth is not ideal for health. The reasons for this splay from increased cavities to dehydration to sleep apnea. In fact, mouth breathing rivals sugar consumption in its ability to create cavities. Alternatively, when we breathe through our nose, we create 6x as much nitric oxide which, in turn, allows us to absorb more oxygen into the tissues. Oxygen is a potent healer and when our capacity to create nitric oxide dwindles, our immune system, circulation, weight, mood and sexual function will all be impacted.
Can you shift from mouth breathing to nose breathing? Yes, you can. It requires investigation to determine why you become reliant on mouth breathing in the first place (chronically congested sinuses, anyone?), removing the obstacle and then relying on a few techniques to retrain your brain and your body.
Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
– Mary Oliver
Breathing into Life
As you might have guessed, the way we breathe largely dictates the way we live. Perhaps the most clear example of this is what is known as “email apnea”; this speaks to our tendency to breathe very shallow when we are thick into work (responding to emails, text messages.) Most of us move through our day without a single full breath.
The Perfect Breath
So, how should you breathe? If you are a mouth breather, take this as your sign to begin your journey to breathing through your nose. Otherwise, how you breathe largely depends on what you are trying to accomplish for the physical body. There are breath techniques to calm you down, techniques to mitigate pain and techniques to help you reach deep sleep. But the perfect breath is called the 5.5 breath (AKA resonant breathing.) This type of breath places the heart, lungs and circulation into a place of coherence or maximal efficiency. It is as simple (or as challenging) as inhaling for 5.5 seconds expanding the lungs and belly and then exhaling for 5.5 seconds.
This topic is of particular interest to myself and many of my colleagues as recently there has been an influx of research regarding the oral microbiome and how critical it is to maintaining proper health. However, long before the oral microbiome or the microbiome in general, the elders of our medicine knew that breath was a necessary component to health. I have a suspicion that we are on the very cusp of understanding how we can breathe our way to better health.
I leave you with a quote that I heard several times over from a naturopathic elder and that I continue to tout in the yoga studio and the clinic space:
 “Never underestimate the healing capacity of your breath.”
Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:
Breathe+ App : this neat app allows you to set your breathing pattern and then practice it
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