A very common slogan among asthma sufferers is “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters”, alluding to the desperateness of one who can’t inhale the life-giving air. Is life-giving air the full story on breathing? This article takes common breathing advice and gives reasons for its efficacy. It goes further and provides essential elements in breathing technique for better health.
Breathing is perhaps one of the most centrally integrated autonomous behaviours that reach well beyond a simple filling of the lungs. Garcia AJ writes in 2011:
“Breathing emerges through complex network interactions involving neurons distributed throughout the nervous system. The respiratory rhythm generating network is composed of micro networks functioning within larger networks to generate distinct rhythms and patterns that characterize breathing.”
The outworking of Garcia’s study can best be observed when a person is affected by strong emotions like fear & anger.
Mainstream advice for breathing is to override the autonomous control and consciously inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth slowly with pursed lips.
Dr Carla Naumburg PhD of ‘Ready, Set, Breathe’ fame suggests breathing exercises bring mindfulness into daily life. By remembering to breathe, a space is created to restore calm and reduce blood pressure and stress hormones so creating opportunity of situation control.
Professor Konstantin Buteyko (Russia 1923-2003) is credited for a technique characterised by slow and reduced breathing combined with spaced pauses of no breathing allowing Carbon Dioxide to build up to bursting point.
Breathing is a relevant component of the practice of Yoga. Yoga breathing techniques typically accompany either different poses or some form of meditation. Thus it is difficult to separate and ascribe the result to the breathing, poses or the meditation.
Pandit JJ, in 2003 tested 3 breathing techniques for optimum Oxygen uptake, as follows:
1. Three (3) minutes of tidal breathing
2. Four (4) deep breaths taken within 30 seconds
3. Eight (8) deep breaths taken within 60 seconds
The Oxygen uptake was the same for Items 1. & 3 and a higher efficacy than for Item 2. His work illustrates that breathing technique is important.
Enter Nitric Oxide (NO), a colourless gas with a half-life of merely seconds. Nitric Oxide (NO) was named “molecule of the year” in 1994 by Science Magazine.
In 1998 the Karolinska Institute awarded the Nobel prize to US pharmacologists Robert F. Furchgott, PhD, Ferid Murad, MD, PhD, and Louis J. Ignarro, PhD for their discoveries of the role of Nitric Oxide (NO) as being a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system.
NO relaxes the smooth muscle in arteries providing a larger flow area for blood, thus reducing blood pressure and bring more nutrients to where they are needed. The importance of NO in the human bodily functions cannot be overstated. Even though 1000’s of research papers have been written, World research goes on. NO is implicated in heart health, lower blood pressure, better quality of sleep and even erectile dysfunction.
NO is produced in the sinuses, the biggest being the maxillary sinuses either side of the nose. They are closed chambers except for a small soft-tissue opening called the ossium which is open the olfactory airways.
There is no right or wrong way to breathe – the autonomous brain function sees to it that you get adequate oxygen into your system. However, there are ways to breathe to get maximum NO into your system. Here are 7 pointers to help get this amazing gas into your bloodstream.
1. BREATHE IN FAST THROUGH YOUR NOSE.
Nose hair and constricted nose ducting ensure there is a negative pressure in the airways. This partial vacuum causes the sinuses to deliver a small amount of NO-laden air into your inhaled breath. The harder you breathe in the more NO the sinuses will deliver.
2. BLOCK ONE NOSTRIL AND BREATHE IN.
Blocking one nostril and in turn the other nostril will increase the partial vacuum to cause NO-laden air to be injected into your inhaled breath.
3. BLOCK BOTH NOSTRILS AND TRY TO BREATHE IN.
Close both nostrils and try to inhale. This creates the greatest amount of vacuum in your respiratory system allowing NO-laden air to be sucked from the sinuses. Of course you can only do this for a short time before resuming normal breathing.
4. BREATHE OUT SLOWLY THROUGH YOUR MOUTH.
NO needs time to be absorbed into your bloodstream. Accordingly it is good to hold your breath for as long as it is convenient. Alternatively exhale slowly to allow the lungs time to absorb the NO.
5. HUM OR SING
Lundberg et al showed in 2003 that humming increases exhaled NO by 700%. Other researcher found an even greater increase in exhaled NO during humming. Problem is that it is difficult to inhale while humming. Thus the sequence suggested is to hum for 3 seconds then immediately inhale..
6. PRETEND TO SNORE
To overcome the problem of simultaneously humming and inhaling, it is suggested to pretend to snore, making the sound as if you were snoring. The snoring sound frequencies are in the range of the maxillary sinuses natural frequencies approximately 110 to 350 Hz. Allowing the maxillary sinuses to resonate will pulse NO-laden air into the inhaled breath volume. Because snoring is an inhaling manoeuvre the NO will reach the lungs in greater volume.
7. VALSALVA MANOEUVRE
During a descent procedure in an aeroplane headaches are often avoided by use of the Valsalva manoeuvre. This manoeuvre involves closing both nostrils while attempting to exhale until the ear drums ‘pop’. This has the effect of pressurizing the sinuses which upon subsequent inhalation release the pressure and inject NO-laden air into the olfactory airways.
A. NO in the sinuses is a finite resource and can be depleted. How can it be replenished? Eat plenty of food rich in Nitrates eg Beetroot, Fenugreek, etc and give your body time to convert the Nitrates into NO.
B. Why not breathe in NO gas like they do for babies with pulmonary hypertension? The dosage of NO in a medical setting is carefully controlled. Exposure of animals to NO has caused drowsiness, unconsciousness and death.
C. Why not sit in a high traffic area and breathe in the NO produced by cars? Motor vehicle exhaust gases do contain NO. However, exhaust gases are a toxic cocktail of other gases such as Carbon Monoxide. The risk of poisoning far outweighs any benefits to be gained.
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