Growing up, I didn’t learn much about breathing in school. Everything I did learn about breathing science can be summed up with the following phrase:
We inhale oxygen and we exhale carbon dioxide.
And the only breathing advice that I ever remember receiving was:
Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Its funny to me now that so little is taught about what is arguably the most important thing we do each day. Most of my life I just assumed that as long as I was breathing, everything was fine.
It never even occurred to me until I was in my late twenties that frequent sighing, frequent yawning, frequent gasping, mouth breathing, upper-chest breathing, snoring, and even sleep apnea were all signs of dysfunctional breathing. As long as I was breathing, it meant I was alive, and so I never worried about it. I wish I had known from a younger age the ill effects of dysfunctional breathing.
By helping children understand some simple breathing concepts, we can give them some real tools that they can use to better their lives. The science really is pretty simple.
Carbon Dioxide Is Not A Waste Gas
The problem with teaching kids that ‘we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide’ is that it can lead them to believe that carbon dioxide is bad for us. It’s frequently even taught this way. Many less educated instructors label carbon dioxide as a waste gas. Many yoga studio website’s say things like, “come rid your body of the toxic waste gas carbon dioxide.” This simple misunderstanding can have serious long-term health consequences.
Carbon dioxide is not a waste gas and, in normal amounts, is not toxic. It is a byproduct of metabolism, but that does not make it a waste gas. The truth is, that at rest, we only exhale about 12% of the carbon dioxide that arrives in the lungs. The remaining carbon dioxide stays in the body where it plays many important roles (pH balance, histamine control, dilation of the airways, relaxation of the neurons, etc.), but none of its roles is greater than helping to provide our body’s cells with their most basic need: oxygen.
The most fundamental role of breathing is to provide oxygen to the cells of the body; and carbon dioxide is necessary in helping to get this job done. Carbon dioxide maintains the dilation of the blood vessels to ensure the ample flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Carbon dioxide also triggers the release of oxygen from the hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein inside the red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body until it is signaled by the carbon dioxide to release it to the cells of the body.
Breathe In & Out Through The Nose
Mouth breathing has become an epidemic. It has been estimated that over 50% of people now habitually mouth breathe. The mouth is not meant for breathing. The old advice of “breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth” not only does not make any sense but it is completely unnatural. The tongue is supposed to be resting on the roof of the mouth, held in place by a bit of suction. When the tongue is in its proper place, we can’t exhale through the mouth. So it would require that we either click the tongue off of the roof of the mouth for each exhale (not going to happen) or that we just leave the tongue unsuctioned from the roof of the mouth (much more likely). When the tongue is not suctioned to the roof of the mouth, it will begin to weigh down the lower jaw and can lead to mouth breathing. Breathing through the nose is important for many reasons. Here are three of the most important:
1. The Nose Prepares The Air For The Lungs
As we inhale through the nose, the nose warms, moistens, and filters the air. It has two filtration systems: the mucus and nitric oxide. The mucous membrane catches dust, dirt, and bacteria. The nitric oxide that is produced in the nasal cavity kills viruses and parasites. If we bypass the nose and inhale through the mouth, all the dust, dirt, bacteria, viruses, and parasites enter the lungs unfiltered. Every breath we take through the mouth is a stress on the body.
2. The Nose Reduces Breathing Volume
Our nose holes are smaller than our mouth hole. This means that when we breath through the nose, the nose creates some resistance and slows the breath down. So nasal breathing is generally going to be slower and smaller than mouth breathing. This means that nose breathing will help to maintain healthy carbon dioxide levels and improve cellular oxygenation. Exhaling through the nose is not only great for adding resistance to the exhalation, but it also allows us to keep our tongue on the roof of the mouth at all times—except when eating and talking of course.
3. Proper Tongue Placement Assists in Healthy Orofacial Development
When it comes to children, nasal breathing and proper tongue placement are necessary for proper orofacial development. The tongue and cheeks create opposing forces that maintain the nice U-shape of the upper jaw. The tongue gently pushes outward, and the cheeks (and lips) gently push inward. In habitual mouth breathing, the tongue drops from it proper place and is not there to counteract the inward forces of the cheeks and lips. Over time, this leads to a narrowing of the upper jaw as the U-shape becomes more V-shaped. This leads to crooked teeth and a narrowing of the entire face. To make matters worse, the tongue also weighs down the lower jaw. This will cause the lower jaw to be set back which narrows the airway and makes snoring and sleep apnea much more likely. The photo below shows the transition that can happen in a young person as they make the transition from nasal breathing to mouth breathing.
Breathing Science Can Be Counterintuitive
It is no wonder that breathing science is so misunderstood. It really is quite counterintuitive. There is oxygen in the air, so it would seem that if we breathe more air, we should get more oxygen into the body. But the truth is quite the opposite.
Breathing more air (a.k.a. hyperventilation) does not increase oxygen in the blood to any significantly degree, but it does rid the body of more carbon dioxide. To put it simply, heavy breathing does not increase oxygen in the body, but it does decrease carbon dioxide levels.
Low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood cause the arteries to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow throughout the body. Low levels of carbon dioxide also cause the hemoglobin to bind more tightly to the oxygen and release less to the body’s cells. So not only do we get less blood flowing throughout the body, but the blood that does arrive doesn’t release as much oxygen to the cells. This is a big deal. Because:
All chronic pain, suffering, and diseases are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cell level.
This is from Dr. Arthur C. Guyton who literally wrote the textbook on Medical physiology. So just by breathing more air, we can starve our cells of oxygen.
The amount of bad breathing advice and bad breathing methods available could (and probably do) fill volumes. I call them “bad” because they are not rooted in breathing physiology and can even be dangerous. Recently, I heard a breathing guru (who shall remain nameless) talking a student through the guru’s main breathing exercise which involves extreme hyperventilation. As the student follows the instructions and begins to hyperventilate, the breathing guru tells the student that if he passes out, it’s ok, because it just means that he went “deep”. I couldn’t believe it! This guru, who influences hundreds of thousands of people (maybe even millions), and teaches them to hyperventilate, doesn’t understand simple breathing physiology. Passing out is not a sign of going into a “deep” meditative state, it is a sign of severe cerebral oxygen deprivation.
What Our Kids Should Be Learning
In school, kids are taught about money, but they are not taught how to use money or how to be wise with money. With breathing it is the same. Kids are taught that breathing happens and that we breath to get oxygen in the body, but they are not taught how to use their breath to achieve desired outcomes. The two most important things that we can teach kids in school are the following:
1. When You Breathe More Air, You Get Less Oxygen
If kids were simply taught the inverse relationship between breathing volume and oxygen availability to the cells, this would be a big help. This would help them to get the most out of a yoga class even if the instructor is poorly educated and it would help them not to fall prey to a breathing “guru” who doesn’t understand breathing science. It would also help them deal with stress. They would know that when they are stressed out they should not take a big deep breath, but that instead they should slow down and calm the breath.
2. Breathe In & Out Through The Nose
Gently reminding kids to keep their mouths closed and breathe through the nose could have a hugely positive impact on their health. Nose breathing in children leads to better orofacial development, better sleep quality, better focus/attention in school, better control of emotions, and better oxygenation of the brain.
While it is a goal of mine that these things be taught in all schools, it is even more important that we as parents educate ourselves so that we can educate our kids. It has been estimated that over 90% of people breathe dysfunctionally. That means that there is a lot of work to do.