Breathing correctly helps fight ageing and disease – but are you doing it right? Dr Ed Park explains more
Breathing is the most crucial yet least considered aspect of living. Let me prove it. Try this: stop and hold your breath for as long as you can right now. Keep holding. Keep holding. How’d you do? Twenty seconds? A minute? That’s about how long most people can go without this particular tool. You can survive weeks without eating and days without drinking and sleeping; but you will be alive for only minutes without the ability to breathe. No oxygen and excess carbon dioxide is lethal. Breathing is something that you do more than 20,000 times a day but rarely think about. What if we could learn to optimise breathing in each moment, each activity, and throughout a life? Surely this would only benefit our health and longevity.
Sadly, despite all the science and wisdom surrounding breathing, most of us shortchange ourselves with just about every breath we take, and when you don’t breathe properly, you are probably ageing faster. It doesn’t have to be this way. As you’ll learn, by implementing simple breathing techniques, you can slow ageing and increase both the quantity and quality of your life.
Learning how to breathe to stay younger begins by becoming aware of the ways in which you may be breathing yourself older. It seems absurd to think we need to learn how to breathe, but is it really?
If I were to start recording you with a video camera and asked you to take a deep breath, you’d most likely expand your chest and suck up your diaphragm, causing your belly to suck in. I learned this as a doctor, asking countless patients to take a deep breath during exams. Perhaps, to the mind’s eye, that’s what a deep breath is supposed to look like, but it really is just a bad actor’s version of breathing. When you move air correctly, as you would while swimming, singing, or sleeping restfully, you breathe into your abdomen first, which must expand down, causing your belly to protrude rather than retract. A healthy breath of air is similar to water flowing into a drinking glass. Water fills the bottom of the glass (representing your abdomen) first, and the top of the glass is filled with water last (representing your chest). Let’s look at some useful tips for better breathing to improve your body’s ability to preserve your telomeres and thus to slow or even stop ageing.
Mouth breathing is not a good idea unless you are exercising vigorously, trying to dissipate heat, or scuba diving. In most situations, breathing through your mouth dries it out, which quickly causes poor oral hygiene, bad breath and cavities. If you are breathing through your mouth, perhaps because of blocked nasal passages, you are not getting three crucial benefits of nose breathing: warming, humidifying and filtering of particles. Here’s how your nose knows best:
Breathing into the mucus-lined curvy shelves inside your nose slows the intake of air and provides the opportunity to warm up the air before it gets down to your lungs. Breathing in colder air than necessary decreases the efficiency of gas exchange by triggering airways and blood vessels in the lungs to constrict.
Another benefit of breathing through your nose is its natural ability to humidify dry air. By humidifying the air, we prevent evaporative water loss from the mouth and lungs, which causes poor oral hygiene and impaired lung function respectively.
Mouth breathing puts a higher demand on your immune system because it allows particles like dust, pollen, airborne fungi, and even whole bugs into the air sacs of your lungs, where they are then only one or two cell widths away from directly entering your blood stream. These airborne critters, bad chemicals, and other crud place a burden on your immune cells by demanding that they respond by dissolving or ingesting them. If you inhale bacteria or particles that are too big to break up, the mucus we call phlegm will be excreted to coat them, and the cilia, or hairlike projections, in the air passages have to work extra hard to brush these invaders back up the chimney, as it were. It’s a lot of work. When you ask any organ to do a lot of work by replacing the cells, it ages the organ by replicative senescence. You are walking up the escalator, but the speed of the escalator has increased. That’s where nose breathing comes in. Your nasal passages provide the filter your mouth lacks. They are covered in fine hairs, nasal turbinates (curvy, bony outcroppings inside your skull), sinuses, and mucus to filter and deliver more purified air to your lungs.
Do you have chronic neck and shoulder pain? One common reason might be that a depressed or anxious mood is influencing your breathing and posture. When you are anxious, just like your poor ancestral caveman, who had to hide behind bushes from a tiger, you don’t take full, loud belly breaths. Unconsciously, you take shallow sips of air using just the accessory muscles of breathing in your neck and shoulders. This kind of chronic, anxiety-caused breathing puts constant tension on your neck and ends up causing rock-hard and painfully tender muscle bands over and deep to the collar bone, about halfway between your breast plate and shoulder. Neck breathing can also be caused or exacerbated by poor posture from sitting hunched or slouched at a desk for long periods of a time. When you are depressed, your posture tends to be collapsed. If your spine is not aligned correctly, the abdomen and chest are constricted and unable to expand properly, causing your inspiration to ‘cheat’ by expanding up and triggering your neck muscles.
The simplest way that we can improve breathing is by maintaining good posture. This usually means maintaining erect posture and sitting up straight while seated. While sleeping, lying on your back with adequate spinal support is preferred, as being on your side creates some lateral compression of the rib cage. Many people have obstructive sleep apnea, so if that is a problem, correct it with a positive airway pressure machine.
Once out of the womb and after taking his or her first breath, a baby naturally breathes properly. Unfortunately, babies aren’t great instructors, so other than observing them, you can’t learn a whole lot on the topic of breathing from infants. Plus, even if babies could teach a class, they wouldn’t be able to help you out with breathing techniques to quell anxiety, for maximum performance during sports or exercise, or for overcoming fatigue, and more. Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to optimise your breathing. Below and on the next page are some techniques, but you should experiment with getting to know how to breathe consciously.
This exercise is perfect to practise in the morning just after you wake up, or after a nap, when you’re feeling rested and relaxed. Sit or lie down comfortably. Visualise a ‘square’ of time with each side equaling five or six counts.
1. Relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
2. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel the hand on your belly rise and move outward. Focus on your belly rising and moving more than your chest.
3. Pause for five or six counts at the top of your inhale.
4. Exhale slowly for five or six counts. Feel your belly move inward as you press gently with the hand on your belly.
5. Pause for five or six counts at the bottom of your inhale to complete the square, then start again.
Feel free to experiment with changing the shape of the square to be more rectangular – if you want to pause for longer or shorter on certain sides – or even make it a trapezoid if you like! The magic comes from simply breathing consciously, not the specific shape or duration of the sides.
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