The best way to maintain lung health is very surprising
It’s a spectacular phenomenon that we rarely stop to consider (well, if we stop for too long, we’d pass out). Every one of the 23,000-odd breaths we take each day pumps oxygen to the 37.2 trillion cells that create our body.
“Normal breathing is automatic, we don’t have to think about it,” says Jennifer Alison, a Professor of Respiratory Physiotherapy at the University of Sydney. “If you are healthy, it shouldn’t be of concern to you.”
Rather, when we need more oxygen, our body lets us know, often with a sigh or a yawn. Or, when we exercise, our muscles produce more carbon dioxide (metabolic waste) which stimulates receptors to take in more oxygen.
“The reason why we take that breath is to maintain carbon dioxide at a certain level,” Alison explains. “All the cells in the body operate at a certain acidity.
“It’s a nice balance – getting rid of the carbon dioxide and also giving your cells enough oxygen.”
The nice, rhythmic balance of breathing in and out is thrown out however by certain factors – like anxiety, ageing, lung disease, being tense, having poor posture, and not stretching.
Anxiety, for instance, can cause the muscles around the throat to contract, making it feel like breathing is constricted. Interestingly, although our throat can feel tight, anxiety opens up our lungs.
“When you are anxious there’s the tendency to overbreathe – it’s the flight or fight thing – where the adrenaline rush makes your airways open up,” Alison says.
Ageing can also affect breathing as the lungs get ‘floppier’ and people don’t expand fully, while lung diseases, where the airways or lungs are damaged can restrict the ability to breathe properly.
These factors may make us more conscious of our breath – or our inability to breathe properly – so we might think that taking deeper breaths is the answer.
Certainly, breathing techniques have been used for centuries by yogis to elicit certain effects on the mind and body.
Not smoking is another obvious answer, but if you want to breathe well and maintain good lung health, you might be surprised about what the answer is.
“The best way to maintain lung health is to stay active, don’t be sedentary,” Alison says. “You need to move every 20 minutes.”
The more muscles are deconditioned through a lack of exercise, the less efficient they are, which produces more carbon dioxide and therefore drives breathing even more as our bodies try to regain balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, Alison explains.
For this reason, exercise is important for both healthy people and even those with lung disease.
“We treat our [lung disease] patients like athletes – if you’re a marathon runner, with lots of training you develop more blood vessels around the muscles which deliver more oxygen,” Alison says of patients with lung disease.
“We want to get those changes in their muscles… after a program – working at the same level of exercise, they can do it with less breath.”
And with less effort and breath, we can all breathe easier.
Lung health in Australia facts
- One in seven deaths in Australia is related to lung disease – Lung cancer represents the leading cause of death (40% of deaths from lung disease).
- Commonly lung disease goes undiagnosed, as people are unaware of the symptoms i.e. productive cough, breathlessness.
- Indigenous people die of lung disease at a rate three times higher than non-indigenous Australians.
- Lung disease is not just cancer. It also includes asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchiectasis, cystic fibrosis, chronic cough, pulmonary fibrosis and more, according to the Lung Foundation Australia.
Breathing myths and facts
- We breathe through the nose because it warms, filters, and moistens the air before it reaches the lungs. We miss these advantages when we breath through the mouth.
- “It is a myth that ‘deep’ breathing, that is, meaning ‘big, large-volume’ breathing as it usually does, is good for you,” says breathing expert and physiotherapist, Tess Graham. “This belief may well qualify as public health enemy number one! The three big flaws in the advice to breathe deeply are that people tend to increase their breath size far above normal, dump out too much carbon dioxide and worst of all, believe that it is good for them to do so. This is a recipe for hypoxia – reduced oxygen in your cells. (When carbon dioxide drops too far, blood vessels narrow and restrict blood flow to vital organs and oxygen uptake by your cells goes down).”
- It is not a case of the more oxygen, the better. “We normally breathe in far more oxygen than we need or can use,” Graham says. “With normal breathing, a healthy person’s blood is already 97-99 per cent saturated with oxygen.”
- If you suffer anxiety, Alison “If you get people to take big, deep breaths they can overdo it. You’re blowing off carbon
dioxide more which can make you feel light-headed or dizzy.” Instead, she suggests holding the breath for a second or two. “It reduces the the rate of the breath – it’s a balance of rate and depth – and lets the carbon dioxide rise back,” Alison says. “Sighing out quietly and relaxing your muscles can also help.”
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