The respiratory system is one of the most remarkable features of our bodies. Without even thinking about it, our body naturally does a task 20,000-30,000 times a day, everyday. Breath is life. The process of breathing is automatic and involuntary. It has the ability to activate our relaxation response, strengthen the immune and digestive systems, alleviate anxiety, promote a good night's sleep, and so much more.
After being (and still) coached by my husband who is a breathwork coach, working with a yoga therapist who specializes in breathwork, and receiving my own bodywork from a talented Rolfer, I have enjoyed observing improvements in my own quality, function, and movement of breath. Once I experienced how better breathing affected my health physically, mentally and spiritually, I felt the need to share the science and spirit of breath with whomever is interested to learn and experience it for themselves. Muscular restrictions, blood chemistry, and the impact of the autonomic nervous system can all affect the respiratory patterns. So let's look at how the breathing process works, what muscles are involved, and how we can improve this silent magician inside all of us.
Breathing in a nutshell:
We bring oxygen into the body by inhaling (inspiration) and send carbon dioxide out of the body by exhaling (expiration). Breath is dependent on the complex coordination of mechanical and chemical actions in the body.
Breathing is triggered by the brainstem. When we breathe air into the nose, little hairs inside the nose moisten it, heat it and clean it to keep dirt out of the lungs. The air goes down the pharynx, larynx and trachea and into the bronchi of the lungs. Air then travels through the bronchioles, and is then sent to tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchiols, called alveoili. Inside these little alveoili, a gas exchange takes place. The inhaled oxygen is diffused into lung capillaries in exchange for carbon dioxide. The body pumps this oxygen-rich blood throughout the body and the excess carbon dioxide flows from the lungs back out through the upper respiratory tract, and is exhaled.
The primary function of breathing is to oxygenate the cells of the body to be used for metabolism. Breathing helps us produce an exchange of gases in the lungs and tissues to produce energy and maintain pH.
The Biochemical Happenings:
The Nose Knows. Let's start at the nose, the main point of entry.
The nose offers many health supportive functions including filtering, warming, and moistening the air to prepare it to enter the lungs. It is the body's first line of defense, protecting us from noxious and infectious substances. The cilia and mucus layers, along with the lymphatic system, arteries, and veins, provide a protective barrier to keep out bacteria, microbes and airborne pollutants.
The high level of nitric oxide that lives inside the nasal passageway is a key factor in the efficiency of our breathing cycles. Nitric oxide, a smooth muscle dilator, is released from the maxillary sinuses and helps support oxygen uptake from both the nasal passageways and the empty space of the upper airways. This increases ventilation to the lungs.
The Respiratory Muscles:
Part of the efficiency of the breathing process depends on the freedom and coordination of the muscles involved. The muscles of inhalation need to be free to contract to change the volume of the ribcage so that air can flow into the lungs.
As we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves down, drawing air into the lungs. When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up under the ribs, helping to push air out of the body. The diaphragm is responsible for about 75% of inhalation.
In addition to the diaphragm muscle, there are a few other important muscles involved in the breathing process. Let's take a look at the muscles used for inhalation and exhalation.
The diaphragm is made up of 3 parts: the costal diaphragm which attaches to the border of the ribs and to the central tendon, the crural diaphragm going from the vertebral column to the central tendon, and the central tendon itself. When the costal diaphragm's fibers contract, they pull on the central tendon. This causes a fall in the pressure inside the thorax which leads to inflation of the lungs.
(Read more about the diaphragm in detail from my previous blog post.)
The Scalenes (neck muscles):
The Intercostal muscles:
Inspiration - diaphragm contracts and pulls down, intercostal muscles contract and expand the rib cage and air enters the lungs
Expiration - diaphragm relaxes and goes up, intercostal muscles relax and rib cage collapses and air exits the lungs
It's all connected...
The diaphragm is a part of the Deep Frontal Line as suggested by the work of Tom Myers of Anatomy Trains. There is a complex series of interconnected fascia and muscles that run through the whole center of the body, connecting muscles from the head to the toes. Below is an image of the deep frontal line, showing the connection between some of the breathing muscles we looked at earlier:
The movements of the rib cage are blended with positioning and movement of the pelvis, legs and shoulders. The pelvis and rib cage are linked through the lumbar spine, where several respiratory muscles attach. Movement of the pelvis affects movement in the rib cage-and vice versa- along with movement of the organs contained in the pelvis and thorax.
The iliopsoas and quadratus lumborum, which are both primary muscles for mobility and stability for the pelvic girdle, attach fascially to the diaphragm. Along the front side of the spine, from the base of the skull to the coccyx, we have what is called the anterior longitudinal ligament; and the crura (the little legs of the diaphragm) feed and ride on top of this ligament. The fascial connection in the whole spine and back directly affect our breath since if one of these muscles is tense, it may pull on surrounding muscles, creating tension in those muscles, and then those muscles pull on more muscles, etc.
The diaphragm works with the rest of the abdominal and pelvic muscles: the pelvic floor muscles and the transverse abdominus and to some extent the obliques. All of these muscles working together create a graceful jellyfish sort of lateral movement, moving in and out, as opposed to up and down chest movement.
So how does breathing affect muscle tension?
When the diaphragm's movement is not working efficiently, you have to use the other surrounding muscles to help make room for air. One type of compensation involves the crura and the scalenes working together to make up for the lack of diaphragm's function. This can result in chronic contraction of spinal extensor muscles.
When the chest takes over the breathing process, the diaphram is then working with other muscles like the pecs, traps, levator and scalenes to assist it in breathing which is less efficient and can lead to triggering the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight). Whereas, in diaphragmatic breathing, the parasympathetic system is triggered, where the system can relax.
When we breathe consciously into the diaphragm, we can help the muscle to relax to a natural tonus, as well as massaging the vagus nerve which runs through this area. Getting good vagal response by breathing into the diaphragm helps us to regulate our nervous system and relax our bodies and mind.
While chest breathing, however, this vagus nerve is not massaged or activated, thus keeping the system in a sympathetic reaction. Furthermore, with chronic mouth breathing, as opposed to nose breathing, the musculature of the upper body become overactive and hypertonic. In particular, the traps, pectorals, and scalenes could all become locked in a shortened position. This can manifest as headaches, sore and tight shoulders and traps and more.
Our posture also plays a vital role in our breath and muscle tension. Posture is simply how our bodies respond to gravity in any space at any time. It's in a constant state of adjusting and adapting to shifts in relation to gravity. Our posture also affects our emotional and mental states...
The Mental and Emotional Connection
Where in the body people store their tension from stress or emotion is a very individual thing. Some may feel tension in the upper back from stress, others maybe clench their jaw. What is across the board though for all humans, is that breath and emotion are linked. If there is repression of an emotion, it may be felt as tension in a particular muscle. If that muscle happens to be the diaphragm, for example, it will affect the breath. Once breath is limited, our biochemical response changes, creating a negative feedback loop.
With shallow chest breathing, for example, our "fight-or-flight" response is triggered. Imagine public speaking and the feeling one may get when they feel their heart pounding, breath quickens, and you may even feel the need to vomit. With constricted diaphragmatic movements, chronic tension can develop, which can also block the lung's ability to expand fully.
When we look at anxiety, it can be seen as a form of long-term, low-grade stress. Feelings of anxiety may present as strain on the heart and lungs as one struggles to deliver oxygen to their body while under extended fear. This activates the chest and can cause panic attacks, where one experiences tightness or pain in the chest and is unable to think beyond the pressing fear of the moment.
When we look at how breath affects our mental states, we can make note of how over breathing, or hyperventilating, can decrease our CO2. This decrease in CO2 further decreases oxygen in the brain, which causes neurons to randomly and uncontrollably fire, creating a racing, anxious mind.
As put by Michael of Triangle Breathwork in his article, the physiological cause of anxiety, while most of us are familiar with the extreme hyperventilation associated with a panic attack, few people are aware that chronic low-level hyperventilation leads to anxiety. Someone with an anxiety disorder is breathing more than is healthy, and by learning to breathe less they can quiet their mind.
To bring it back to the nose...as mentioned in the Restoring Prana book by Robin Rothenberg, she mentions a study which found that people who are anxious typically present with nasal congestion and are likely to have lower than normal arterial levels of CO2. Nasal breathing has been shown to increase partial pressures of both O2 and CO2. Slow breathing through the nose, at a low volume, elevates arterial CO2 levels, which can greatly help alleviate nasal congestion.
We can work to develop a deeper awareness of our internal sensations, and listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us.
How to practice better breathing
Low, slow and light, and through the nose. By breathing slowly and lightly, and imagining the air is flowing into the lower parts of the lungs, we can have the most sustainable and efficient breathing. Since there is more blood at the bottom part of the lungs, there is more efficiency of gas exchange, more oxygen coming into the arterial system, thus more CO2 being released into the venous system to be breathed out.
By re-training the medulla oblongata to reset its settings of the level of carbon dioxide to what they should be, or our body truly needs, We can increase the amount of oxygen delivered from the blood into the tissues by breathing less and moving more.
It's not about getting more oxygen into the body. It's about how much carbon dioxide is inside to help the oxygen be released into the body from the bloodstream and into the cells. So how can we aid in this process?
Formal practice and informal practice: formal practice could be doing breathwork exercises for a certain amount of time per day, and informal is the rest of the time, a daily 24/7 practice of staying conscious and aware of the breath, all of the time.
Yoga, breathing practices, meditation and daily conscious efforts can improve our breathing functions.
Breathwork creates an immediate connection between the mind and body, and focuses on a basic component of human life. By developing healthier breathing habits we can reduce or even eliminate destructive patterns of chronically held tension and feel better in our minds, bodies and spirits. It just takes some self-awareness and setting new habits through practice, patience and compassion for yourself to get into a flow that works for you.
If you are interested in incorporating gentle breathing meditations and techniques, or if you would like to learn more about breathwork coaching or the science of breath, visit my husband's site, www.trianglebreathwork.com.
If you are interested in practicing breathwork or simply calming the nervous system through massage and yoga, feel free to reach out. I look forward to being on your wellness journey :)