“You can survive 3-weeks without food.
You can survive 3-days without drinkable water.
You can survive 3-hours in a harsh environment.
You can survive 3-minutes without breatheable air.”
- Survival Rule of Three's
Well it’s been a bit since my last post, but I’m back! I’ll admit, I’ve been working pretty unsuccessfully on this post over the last couple months. I managed to bust out my last post (which you can read here) in a single morning while getting coffee with my wife. I felt compelled to write, and I pretty much knew exactly what I wanted to say. With this post, it’s been a process. I’ve known the topic I wanted to cover for a while, but my struggle came from the fact that it’s a topic that I am in no way an expert. After several attempts at rough drafts I’ve come to the conclusion that this topic will take quite a while to cover fully. There are in fact, entire books dedicated to this subject. As I’m not qualified to write such a book, I’ve decided to settle on a series of blog posts. I’ll be updating this series as my knowledge and my own experience grows.
To really kick off this blog on wellness, I wanted to start with the most important stuff. Whenever someone starts a health/wellness journey they almost always start with fitness and nutrition. While those are excellent places to start, there’s a much more important starting point that’s almost always neglected: breath.
Paul Chek, an exceptionally well-respected health professional, whose expertise encompasses fitness, nutrition, massage therapy, mobility, spirituality, shamanism & plant medicine, has stated that a majority of the population (especially in the western world) has a breathing dysfunction. He’s mentioned in interviews that he’s never met an athlete (whether elite professional or teen-aged) who did not have problems with their breathing patterns. I am definitely not the exception. I’ve been an athlete my entire life, and physical activity continues to play a prominent role in my life. At the age of 31, I’m finally addressing a major problem in my physiology: my ability to breathe properly. Part 1 of my series on Breathing will dive pretty deep into some of the physical aspects of disordered breathing and the impacts on overall health and workout performance.
Note: This post gets pretty science-y, so if you'd like to skip all of the detailed stuff and get to the pain points, skip down to the TLDR section.
The Beginnings of My Breathing Disorder
My issues with breathing started when I was very young. I found out a couple years ago through experimenting with an elimination diet that I have a sensitivity to the type of casein protein found in dairy. Being a true child of the 90’s, I bought into the old, “Milk. It does a body good,” slogan. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that I drank roughly 6 glasses of milk per day. When I consume too much dairy, my mucus glands overproduce, and breathing through my nose becomes impossible. With that casein sensitivity and that much dairy in my diet, I probably didn’t breathe through my nose for years!
Okay, so I couldn’t breathe through my nose. What’s the big deal? While growing up breathing almost exclusively through my mouth, I retrained my nervous system to resort to mouth breathing (basically, the more you do something, the more those neural pathways fire. The more those pathways fire, the more your body naturally resorts to them because they essentially get stronger and become the dominant pathway). You might be thinking, “why is this bad? My mouth is way bigger than my nose. Wouldn’t breathing through my mouth mean I’m taking in more air?” If this is indeed what you thought, you’d be 100% incorrect.
As you can clearly see in the above picture, thanks to the bulk of the tongue, your nasal cavity is actually much larger than your mouth. Your nasal cavity is also lined with more blood vessels and has folds in its tissue (called turbinates) that help condition the air you breathe (increases the humidity and temperature so the air isn’t as harsh on your lungs). By breathing better conditioned air you help protect your lungs and help prevent illness.
So as a child, I was hampering my health a bit by breathing through my mouth. I set myself up for a few more colds/upper respiratory infections. Plus, due to my mouth being smaller than my nasal cavity, my body wasn’t taking in as much air with each breath. This meant I had an elevated respiratory rate to compensate for that lack of oxygen with each breath. We've already established my mouth breathing was primarily caused by my food sensitivity. I also want to note that there are many other contributing factors to an elevated respiratory rate, like high stress levels, increased environmental toxins, and EMF exposure (which probably didn't start contributing a ton until the internet/wifi became more of thing).
Anyway, back to breathing! As a child mouth-breather, I had faster, more shallow breaths. Shallow and fast breathing over-activates your body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze system). Having an overactive sympathetic nervous system over a prolonged period of time can actually alter the baseline activity of your brain (this is called your brain’s default mode). A default mode that’s wired more toward sympathetic activity throws off your body’s Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA-axis - the portion of your autonomic nervous system in charge of regulating your adrenal glands and your stress response) which leads to over-excitability, anxiety, and issues with circadian rhythm (fun fact: I’ve had all of these at various points in my life).
Fast, shallow breathing also causes an over-reliance on the secondary and tertiary respiratory muscles to power respiration. These secondary and tertiary muscles would include the intercostals, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, and the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles. With the exception of the intercostals, which are the muscles lining each of your ribs, these other small muscles typically only aid during deep breathing. These muscles also extend up through the neck and attach to your skull. When these smaller accessory muscles become active during respiration, the rib cage is pulled up and expands outward to expand the lungs. Over-reliance on these smaller muscles over time causes excess muscle tension. Since these muscles run up through the neck and attach into the skull, you get stiff neck muscles and tension headaches. Since these muscle also interact with the shoulder, their over-activation alters the normal physiological function of the shoulder blade/girdle. Another fun fact about me: my shoulders are hypermobile and lack stability. I'm more prone to shoulder injury if I'm not careful (I actually subluxated my left shoulder 4 times during my freshman football season, and of course I didn't tell anyone because I was really smart when I was 15). Due to years of not addressing my altered neck and shoulder physiology, I have full blown thoracic-outlet syndrome (sounds way worse than it is). This fun fact about me just furthers the evidence that my breathing is off, and shows just how important proper respiration is to optimal health.
So people with poor respiration are typically relying on small muscles to breathe, and these muscle being overactive tend to throw off proper physiology in the upper extremity. But what about people that actually have proper breathing patterns? Well, in these rare individuals those small accessory muscles stay pretty much relaxed, and respiration rests primarily on a much larger muscle known as the diaphragm.
Properly engaging the diaphragm results in the lungs being pulled down to inflate (as opposed to trying to puff out against the rigid rib cage). This downward expansion pulls oxygen deeper into the lungs, allowing for adequate oxygen absorption. When someone has an improper breathing pattern the large diaphragm becomes underactive due to the takeover of the secondary and tertiary respiratory muscles. Over time the nervous system adapts, and that improper breathing pattern becomes the normal breathing pattern. This altered pattern (aka breathing through your chest) results in shallow breathing where only the upper portions of your lungs are exposed to new air. Basic respiratory anatomy: the upper segments of your lungs are significantly smaller than the lower segments. With only the upper segments participating in oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, you need to breathe more frequently to take in air (this is how mouth breathing causes an increased respiratory rate).
So an increased respiratory rate is characteristic of an imbalanced HPA-axis. It also tends to lead to excess tension and flawed physiology of the shoulder girdle due to over-reliance on secondary muscles. If all of that doesn’t sound bad enough. Mouth breathing has another big downside. As I’ve alluded to a couple times in this article, when you provide your nervous system with consistent stimuli, it’ll adapt its overall function. Another cool fact about the human body: this adaptability doesn't just exist in the nervous system. It exists in all of the body's systems: including the musculoskeletal system.
I’ve learned pretty recently that as your body grows and develops throughout childhood, your facial bones will actually adjust to how your body breathes (your skeletal structure also adjusts to your diet...which’ll definitely be a future topic, and my childhood diet probably contributed to the issues I’m about to mention). Mouth breathing in early childhood results in narrowing (increased convexity or rounding forward of the facial bones) and lengthening (increased height of the lower jaw and an increased separation of the lips) of the face. This results in the front teeth (incisors) sticking out (proclinating) due to decreased space in the mouth, and often leads to dental/orthodontic issues (1). Nasal breathing in childhood is associated with a wider nasal cavity due to the widening of your zygomatic and maxilla bones (more commonly called your cheek bones and upper jaw/hard pallet respectively)(2). If you predominately breathe through your nose, your facial bones in the upper jaw widen, which forces your mandible (lower jaw) to widen in response to retain functionality when chewing. This jaw widening allows for optimal spacing in your mouth for your adult teeth to grow in, which is something I definitely did not have as a child. Another fun fact about me: I had braces twice. I had several teeth removed just to provide space for my teeth to adjust the first time I had braces. Then, once all of my adult teeth grew in, I had braces again to fully straighten everything out. These orthodontic issues are major proof of my respiratory dysfunction as a child.
Breathing = The Base for Optimal Health
Okay, so I’ve provided a lot of fascinating information here. Knowing me, it was probably too much. You’re most likely thinking, “I never knew any of this. I also kinda don’t care. Why is it that everyone should start their health/fitness journey with breathing?” Well I’ll finally answer those questions. :-P
From a fitness standpoint, you can’t exercise without breathing. Okay technically you can do anaerobic training (like running all-out sprints) which is training in an oxygen depleted state. This type of training is super limited and requires you to catch your breath afterwards (so breathing is still required). So anaerobic training requires breathing in between intervals. Aerobic training (training in an oxygen abundant state) requires breathing while performing the movement. Weight/resistance training can fall in either category depending on the type of lifting, how much weight you’re using, your tempo, and how many reps you’re doing. All of fitness has its basis in breathing.
Don’t you think it would make sense to optimize your breathing BEFORE engaging in any of these activities? Wouldn’t it be nicer to not get super out of breath every time you exercise? What about catching your breath following a really intense workout? Doesn’t it sound nice being able to fully catch your breath and return to a normal breathing pattern within 1 minute of stopping your exercise?
The answer to all of those questions should be a “yes” for everyone. Proper breathing makes life easier. Engaging your diaphragm properly during normal everyday breathing results in a lowering of your respiratory rate. This helps lower sympathetic nervous system activity. We live in a chronically stressed-out world, so we could all use a little less sympathetic nervous system activation. Breathing through your nose is associated with an increased activation of the diaphragm, which further contributes to a decrease in sympathetic tone (and a consequent increase in parasympathetic tone). I’ll be writing a future post about sympathetic-parasympathetic balance, but for now just know that more parasympathetic nervous system activity means an overall lowering of your body’s stress response.
During exercise, nasal breathing also helps to keep sympathetic nervous system activity from getting too high. Plus, breathing using the much larger nasal cavity means you can inspire more air, which means your diaphragm and intercostals won’t need to work as hard to bring in adequate oxygen. Nasal breathing helps activate the diaphragm to do more of the work of inspiration, which results in deeper breaths. Deeper breathing allows for more of the lungs to participate in gas exchange since the lower lobes of the lung are engaged. More gas exchange means more oxygen getting into the blood. More oxygen in the blood means the heart doesn’t need to work as hard. A lower heart rate results in a lower rate of perceived exertion (exercise feels easier), so you can then start increasing the intensity of your workouts. More intense workouts leads to more calories burned, which leads to more fat being burned, which leads to healthier body composition.
Fitness aside, breathing through your nose helps improve your overall health by providing the first line of defense for your immune system against airborne pathogens. You have significantly more mucus membranes lining your nasal cavity than you do your mouth. Mouth breathing is basically like opening up a highway for pathogens to reach the lungs. Sure, every now and then you see a police officer pull someone over on the highway. That’s pretty comparable to the protection the mucus membranes in your mouth/throat provide against inhaled pathogens (side note: the structures of your mouth and throat are designed to help fight off pathogens that you might eat...not breath). Nasal breathing is like a winding country road with a ton of potholes, speed traps, and overzealous police officers for pathogens. The strong ones will be significantly slowed down. The weak ones will be completely stopped. Best case scenario, your body stops the germs in the nasal cavity, and you have a runny/stuffy nose for a couple days. Worst case scenario, you have a nasty bug that makes it into the lungs causing an upper respiratory infection. With nasal breathing, you’ll end up with significantly fewer germs that make it to the lungs, so your body won’t have to fight it off as long.
Conclusion and Moving Forward
Okay, we’ve finally reached the end of Part 1. I’ll be updating this series of posts as my own experience and knowledge about this subject expands. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll go into some of the other (mental/emotional) benefits of breathing. From there I’ll be taking a deep dive into major hippy territory and I'll discuss the spiritual aspects of proper breathing (this is a major area where I'm still very much a beginner). Finally, I'll talk about different practices to actually improve your breathing and how best to incorporate these breathing exercises into a daily or weekly practice. I’ll also be branching off from this topic into other areas. Already I’ve alluded to breathing’s connection with your body’s stress levels, so topics like that will be receiving their own posts.
Let me know what you think about breathing (if you actually have thoughts on it) by commenting below! Also, feel free to leave some comments about topics you're interested in and you think I should cover, or some constructive criticism about my writing. FYI: English was most definitely not my favorite subject...and that probably shows. :-P
Mike Schappell is an interesting guy. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Kinesiology, a Master's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (with a Neuroscience concentration), and has been an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer for over 5 years. His growth as a trainer and fitness professional has lead him more toward the fields of nutrition and overall lifestyle change. He is currently working on expanding his fitness knowledge through continued research and further certifications, and is actively working toward a certification in Holistic Lifestyle Coaching through the CHEK Institute.