Oxygen For The Body

Oxygen for The Body While the human body can survive a few weeks without food, and perhaps a few days without water, it can’t do without oxygen for more than a few minutes. Oxygen is an essential ingredient in the reactions which burn food to make energy, and any shortfall in the supply of this gas can therefore impair our sense of vitality and well-being. Not only that, but all the body’s cells require oxygen to function normally. From the cells in the liver which neutralise toxins from the gut, to the cells in the glands which secrete essential hormones into the blood stream, one thing they all have in common is their need for oxygen.

Oxygen is supplied to the body through the act of breathing. Breathing is something we generally don’t have to think about, so there’s a tendency for us to feel it’s something we do perfectly well. However, experience shows that many of us don’t breathe nearly as well as we might, and this can have a significant impact on both our physical and emotional health. Learning and practising proper breathing is, quite simply, fundamental to abundant health and vitality.

The essential role that oxygen plays in the function of the body’s organs is most evident in conditions such as heart attacks and stroke. Here, parts of the body become starved of oxygen due to an interruption in blood supply leading to death in the body’s tissues. Also, in conditions where the lungs fail to absorb adequate amounts of oxygen from the atmosphere such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, breathlessness, fatigue and a reduced capacity for exercise and activity are the result. Let’s make no mistake about it, oxygen is of prime importance to life and health.

Beyond the physiological roles that breathing appears to fulfil, other benefits lie. In Eastern medicine, breathing exercises are often used as an integral part of many different therapies which link mind and body. In many traditional forms of therapy, including yoga, t’ai chi and ki gong, proper breathing is believed to help harmonise the whole self and is thought to offer diverse healing effects. Breathing exercises are often used in treating conditions and symptoms as diverse as high blood pressure, menopausal hot flushes, migraine, panic attacks and depression. Many individuals find that practising efficient breathing has a calming, balancing effect on their mood and sense of well-being, but also leaves them feeling energised and focused.

Are you breathing right?

While many of us assume breathing is something we do perfectly well, this may not be the case. We know that the efficiency of basic systems in the body can vary enormously between individuals. For instance, while some people have cast iron digestions, and are able to break down and absorb any food without ill-effect, others may not be so lucky and therefore run into problems with nutrient deficiency and food sensitivity as a result. While certain individuals may have strong immune systems and get through the year without so much as a sniffle, others may be susceptible to just about any bug that happens to be lurking in their immediate environment. The same is true of breathing. Some people get all the oxygen they need for optimum health through their complete and efficient breathing habits, though many others don’t. To understand what efficient breathing is all about, and what can go wrong, it helps to know a little about the structure and function of the lungs.

The act of breathing

Breathing fulfils two main functions in the body. As we know, all the cells in the body require oxygen to function, and the act of breathing allows this gas to be absorbed from the air into the blood stream. While the cells use oxygen, they also generate a waste product – carbon dioxide. The other main function of breathing is to allow the body to rid itself of this unwanted gas. The process of oxygen absorption and carbon dioxide elimination by the body is sometimes referred to as ‘gas exchange’.

The structure and function of the lungs

Oxygen is taken into the body from the air via the lungs. Air which is inhaled through the nose and/or mouth first travels down the windpipe (trachea) to enter two tubes called the ‘bronchi’, each of which takes the air into the lung itself. The bronchi divide again and again, forming a branching network of tubes which get ever smaller in size as the approach the outer reaches of the lung tissue. Finally, these tubes end in the form of tiny sacs called ‘alveoli’. It is in the alveoli that gas exchange takes place. Surrounding the alveoli is an intimate network of tiny blood vessels known as capillaries. Oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass back and forth between the alveoli and the blood in the capillaries, and this allows the lungs to perform their function of gas exchange.

When oxygen is breathed into the lungs, some of it will transfer across the wall of the alveoli into the blood contained in the capillaries. This blood (known as ‘oxygenated blood’) eventually travels to the heart in a vessel called the pulmonary vein. The heart then pumps this blood to the body’s tissues, where the oxygen is used, and swapped for carbon dioxide. This blood (known as ‘deoxygenated blood’) travels back to the heart, so that it can pump it once again to the lungs. In the lungs, the carbon dioxide leaves the blood stream and enters the alveoli, after which it can be removed from the body as the lungs breathe out. On the in-breath, more oxygen is absorbed into the blood stream from the air, and this then travels to the heart to be pumped to the rest of the body. And so this cycle repeats.

The act of breathing and the process of gas exchange depend on the mechanics which get air in and out of the lungs. Inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out) is controlled by muscular contractions in and around the chest.
The chest cavity is essentially made up of the spine at the back, the sternum or breastbone at the front, and ribs on either side which connect the two. After breathing out, the curved ribs hang down somewhat, rather like bucket handles. Between the ribs there are muscles (called the ‘intercostal muscles’) which contract during inspiration. The effect of the intercostal muscle contraction is to draw the ribs up, increasing the size of the chest which in turn causes air to be drawn into the lungs (inspiration).

Apart from the intercostal muscles, there are other muscles involved in the act of breathing, the most important of which is the ‘diaphragm’. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped thin muscular sheet which lines the base of the chest and separates it from the abdomen. During inspiration, the diaphragm contracts and flattens, and this causes air to be drawn into the lungs.

Broadly speaking, individuals can be classified as chest breathers or diaphragmatic (belly) breathers. Chest breathers tend to breathe in an out using mainly their intercostal muscles. The breaths tend to be shallow and often relatively short. In chest breathing, air is drawn into the smaller upper parts of the lungs, but may never make it into the lower reaches of the lung where much of gas exchange takes place. In Eastern medicine, this type of breathing is viewed as inefficient and incomplete.

Belly breathing on the other hand is viewed as both healthy and important to well-being. Here, instead of the intercostal muscles doing the bilk of the work, it is the diaphragm which contracts to draw air into the lungs. In diaphragmatic breathing, inspired air can make its way into the expansive lung tissue at the base of the chest. Belly breathing goes a long way to optimising the process of oxygen absorption and carbon dioxide removal.

Assessing your breathing

This simple exercise will enable you to get a good idea about whether you are predominantly a chest breather or belly breather:
Put your left hand in the middle or your chest with your right hand over your navel. Breathe normally. Look at your hands and take a note of which hand moves more when you breathe. If your left hand is moving more than your right, it is a sign that you are a chest breather. If your right is moving more than your left, however, it is likely that your breathing is essentially diaphragmatic in nature.

Is inefficient breathing your problem?

The questions in the following questionnaire are designed to help you assess the efficiency of your breathing. Score each question as indicated, and then add up your total score.

1. Having done the exercise above, do you rate yourself as a:
chest breather?- 8 points
belly breather? – 0 points
somewhere in between? – 4 points

2. Can walking up just one or two flights of stairs make you very breathless?
never – 0 points
sometimes – 2 point
often or always – 4 points

3. You are sometimes aware of the need to take a big breath of air at rest?
never – 0 points
sometimes – 2 points
often – 4 points

4. Do you consider yourself as a:
generally relaxed individual who is not prone to bouts of anxiety or stress? – 0 points
highly strung and anxious individual who quite often feels anxious or stressed out – 4 points
somewhere in between – 2 points

5. Count the number of breaths you take in a minute at rest (no sooner than a hour after any form of exercise). Do this three times during the day and average the result. Is the number of breaths you take in a minute:
between 5 and 9? – 0 points
between 10 and 15? – 3 points
16 or more? – 6 points

Interpreting your Score

0 – 8: your answers to the questionnaire suggest that you have good breathing habits, and that poor breathing is unlikely to be an issue in your weight or health issues

10 – 16: your answers to the questionnaire suggest that your breathing habits may benefit from the breathing exercises outlined in this chapter.

more than 16: your answers to the questionnaire suggest that your breathing pattern is not healthy and that you would almost certainly benefit from practising the breathing techniques outlined in this chapter on a regular basis

Hyperventilation and health

As we discussed earlier in this chapter, many of us can take rapid, shallow breaths that simply do not allow enough oxygen to be absorbed into the system. Another effect of hyperventilation is that we can end up with lower than normal levels of carbon dioxide in the body. Now, while carbon dioxide is essentially a waste product, we do need some of it. Why? Well, one thing about carbon dioxide is that it is acidic. The more carbon dioxide we have in the blood, the more acidic the blood is. If through hyperventilation carbon dioxide levels drops, then the blood becomes more alkaline. Now for a bit of physiology: Due to something called the Bohr effect, as the blood becomes more alkaline, less oxygen is released from haemoglobin in the red blood cells into the tissue. Basically, when we over-breathe, our tissues become starved of oxygen.

Over 40 years ago, a Russian scientist by the name of Professor Buteyko developed a breathing system designed to reduce over-breathing and reduce the effects of chronic illnesses including asthma and emphysema. The Buteyko method is becoming increasingly recognised as a useful tool in the treatment of ill-health.

Do you need the Buteyko method?

Professor Buteyko developed a test designed to measure depth of breathing and the consequent levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. It is called the ‘control pause breathing test’:

Breathe in gently for two seconds.
Exhale gently for three seconds.
Close your mouth, pinch your nose and hold your breath
Start timing
Stop timing when it becomes difficult to continue to hold your breath.

According to Professor Buteyko, less than 10 seconds suggests a very significant problem with hyperventilation. Between 10 and 25 is also significant, though less severe. 25 – 40 seconds generally means some attention to needed. More than 45 seconds is good and more than 60 is excellent.
The Buteyko method is taught by specially trained practitioners. It normally involved a series of five or more hourly tuition sessions. More details about the Buteyko Method can be obtained via the website www.thebuteykoshop.co.uk.

Belly breathing exercise

If you have identified yourself as a chest breather, it will almost certainly help you to learn the art of proper, belly breathing. Even if you think you breathe mainly from the diaphragm, the following exercise is likely to help you make your breathing even more complete and efficient.
Breathe gently in and out through your nose. Breathe out all the air from your lungs, pause briefly, and begin to breathe in again. Concentrate on taking long, smooth, unhurried breaths.

As you breathe in push your belly out, as this will ensure you are filling the whole of your lungs with air. When your lungs feel comfortably full, pause briefly again, and then breathe out through your nose. Repeat this cycle always making sure that your belly is moving in and out as you breathe.
If you’re not used to deep breathing exercises, and particularly if you tend to chest breathe, you might be pleasantly surprised at just how quick and effective this is for reviving your energy and clearing your head. Just 10 breaths are all that it normally takes for the benefits of deep breathing to be felt.

Although belly breathing takes some conscious effort to begin with, practice usually makes perfect. In time, you may well find that deep, diaphragmatic breathing becomes second nature to you.

I generally recommend that individuals who are learning belly breathing start with 10 good breaths, three times a day. In most cases, this really does seem to be enough to get things started. Within a couple of weeks, individuals normally feel like they’ve got the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, and may be extending their 10 breaths to 20 or more at a time without even thinking about it. From time to time, it’s a good idea to do the hand test to see whether or not you tend to belly or chest breathe at rest. You may be surprised to find that your old chest breathing habits give way to healthier and invigorating belly breathing in time.

More breathing exercises

There are a couple of breathing exercises which I quite like myself and often teach to clients. They are based on belly breathing, but use pauses between inhalation and expiration to maximise the effect.

Breathing in threes

Take a good long belly breath and count ‘one thousand, two thousand’ etc in your head while you do this. Once you have inhaled fully, hold your breath for the same number of counts as it took you to inhale, and then exhale completely over the same number of counts again. For instance, if you inhale to the count of six, hold your breath for six counts, exhale for six counts and then repeat this cycle. I generally recommend 10 – 15 cycles, repeated three times a day.
To begin with, you may need to adjust your count until you find a length of time you are comfortable with. If you go too slowly to begin with, you may find that you start to run out of breath and are unable to complete the exercise. If your breaths are too quick, you are unlikely to get the maximum benefit from them.

Breathing in fours

Breathing in fours is very similar to breathing in threes. The only difference is that after exhalation, the breath is held for the same count as the other components of the cycle. As an example, breathe in over six counts, hold for six counts, breath out for six counts, hold for six counts and repeat. Breathing in fours is a little more challenging than breathing in threes, and is something to progress onto once you’re comfortable with the easier exercise. I recommend 10 – 15 cycles, repeated three times a day, once you’re proficient.

Summary

• Oxygen is an essential ingredient in the reactions which convert food into energy
• Insufficient oxygen or inefficient breathing may stall the metabolism and lead to problems with low energy and reduced vitality
• Inadequate oxygen might also impair the function of any of the body’s cells
• Inefficient breathers tend to breathe into the upper chest, while efficient breathers tend to breathe into the lower reaches of the lungs using the diaphragm
• Hyperventilation and problems associated with it including asthma, can often be helped by a specific breathing technique known as the Buteyko method
• Learning diaphragmatic or belly breathing is a good first step in developing healthy breathing habits
• Once belly breathing is mastered, moving on to more ambitious exercises such as breathing in threes and breathing in fours can help maximise the effect
• Good breathing habits can be an effective way to enhance health and vitality, and may also be beneficial in terms of harmonising body and mind.

 

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