These last few days, I kept reading about the importance of staying active. Magazines and newspapers keep warning us over and over again about the danger of living a sedentary life. To avoid that constant threat, we are often not required to do much intense physical activity; we only need to move. When done regularly, yoga is one of those exercises that allow your body to remain at work. Still, its benefits extend far beyond its evident efficacy in keeping us toned. Yoga requires that its followers bring their consciousness back to their breathing. By inhaling and exhaling mindfully, they can check in and adjust their breathing rhythm if need be. When done purposefully and adequately, yoga can allow us to maximize oxygen absorption. However, this process is not so transparent for all of us, so let’s dive in even further.
Breathing happens and, most of the time, we do not even realize it. It is one of the few mechanisms performed both consciously and unconsciously. Thus we often are driven to ignore that it is even there in the first place. Breathing is always present, always waiting to surface back into our consciousness. Possessing two different methods of regulation is a clear indication that both hold necessary functions for our survival. However, before we can attempt to explain them, we must first describe the fundamentals of breathing.
Breathing, also called ventilation, is a process that enables the exchange of carbon dioxide, produced by our metabolism, with oxygen readily available in the air. Although our atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen (78%), there is still a vast amount of oxygen (21%). To allow the transfer of this oxygen to our blood, we must first inhale. When I breathe, I often let air in through my mouth since my nose is frequently blocked. Even though both these orifices are good options to draw in air, some say that breathing through the nose is preferable. It seems that the nose with its filtration power can serve as the first line of defence against encountered pathogens.
Then, the oxygen makes its way to the lungs, where its transfer to the blood will occur via passive diffusion. Passive diffusion only means that the gas will move towards the lowest concentration sites without any help. In other words, the oxygen will move from our lungs to the blood. Not dissimilar to swimming in a river following the same direction as the current. The carbon dioxide will simultaneously be ejected from the blood into our lungs once again by passive diffusion.
Our respiratory system has a fascinating structure that is reminiscent of an upside-down tree. Starting with the larynx (or the voice box) that forms the foot of the tree, the trachea would then be its trunk. The branches would be the bronchi and the leaves, the alveoli. However, there is one last structure that this analogy does not encompass, the pharynx. This organ serves to deliver food to the oesophagus and air to the larynx. The larynx will prevent food from entering the lungs. A little bit like a second nose, the trachea will purify, warm up and humidify the air before it reaches the lungs.
The air will then get directed to the bronchi playing similar roles as mentioned for both the nose and the trachea. Moreover, its principal function is to guide the air to the alveoli. In the alveoli is where the gas exchange by passive diffusion will happen. Together, all these elements form a simplified image of the respiratory system. If we want to go deeper into the subject, we must talk about the ciliated cells scattered all around the nasal cavity (inside the nose), the trachea and the bronchi. Those ciliated cells, along with the mucus, are the ones that are responsible for filtering, warming up and humidifying the air. They accomplish this feat by directing the mucus, produced by some specialized tissue of the nasal cavity, towards the stomach. Once in the stomach, it is digested by gastric acid along with any potential pathogens.
So if you ever wondered what was responsible for causing our runny nose during cold weather, the answer would be our ciliated cells. The chilling temperature slows down the speed at which the ciliated cells are working, thus causing a surplus of mucus in our nasal cavity. This event is then even further amplified by the water in the air we exhale. This gasified water tends to condensate in our nostrils at low temperatures forming water droplets.
The oxygen absorbed through the lungs will go to the red blood cells that were once carrying carbon dioxides. The exchange is a very lucrative business as it allows us to remove nearly 70% of our waste products while collecting a phenomenal amount of oxygen. All things considered, the efficacy of this system depends very strongly on internal cues. Physiological messengers, like hormones, or signals can alter the speed and the volume of our breathing. This modulation is the one to blame for the huffing and puffing we do after climbing up a steep hill. I just went for a nice walk this afternoon, and I have unfortunately come to realize that my cardiovascular system is no longer as efficient as it once was. Anyhow, my walk, or any physical activities for the matter, recruits muscles. To activate those muscles produces a lot of waste, like carbon dioxide for one.
When carbon dioxide accumulates in our body, it creates acid. Chemoreceptors then perceive this change alerting our respiratory system to work harder. We need to expel this gas while recruiting more oxygen, as we require oxygen for energy (ATP) production. But physical activities are not the only elements that can alter your breathing; anxiety can do that too. This effect is the result of stress hormones, catecholamines and corticosteroids. The former will produce more rapid breathing to adapt to the sudden requirement for energy supply. The latter will do the opposite; slow down the breathing while also making it more shallow.
So when I catch myself stuck in a sudden wave of anxiety, I try to remember to breathe deeply (also called diaphragmatic breathing). Doing this exercise allows our breathing to come back to its regular rhythm by compressing the diaphragm. Squeezing the diaphragm leads to the activation of the parasympathetic system, causing an effect of general relaxation. The diaphragm is a muscle confined under the lungs and is also the one engaged in our sporadic hiccups. The hiccups are a product of the diaphragm contracting out of rhythm. The closing of the larynx and the vocal cords follow each spasm, which can cause the sounds we may hear. The most plausible role of the hiccups is to create a sharp intake of air in the lungs in between two breaths. This extra effort draws in more air than regular breathing.
There are two main strategies to stop the course of hiccups. Either putting cold items in your mouth (like gargling cold water or sucking on an ice cube) or increasing the level of carbon dioxide inhaled (breathing from a bag or holding our breath). I prefer taking a deep breath and holding it in. It works every time. What more about breathing can I say? Breathing in itself might be easy, but controlling it is another thing. If you don’t pay enough attention to it, it will positively fall into its default mechanism of autonomous functioning, and you might not like the outcome. As a word of advice, a regular breathing check-in cannot hurt, and you should probably do it as often as you can afford.
I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.
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