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Optimal Breathing for Health & Fitness

If you attended the new class at 5:30pm last Thursday, you will have had a ‘fun’ experience with nasal breathing. If you didn’t attend but saw the Facebook posts about it, it may have piqued your interest. Over the next few blog posts, we will be looking at how the quality of how we breathe has the potential to impact our health and performance in all manner of ways, whether you are a casual CrossFitter, someone hoping to run their first 10km, or someone who is seeking to gain a competitive edge over their competition.

Breathing is largely an unconscious act. It provides oxygen to our body without which, the cells would begin to die in a matter of minutes. With something that is so innate, it’s surprising that we can make such a mess of it. Over time, we have become a population of mouth breathers, otherwise known as 'over-breathers'. Chronic stress, sedentary lifestyles, poor fitness, bad diets, and more have contributed to poor breathing habits and these poor habits have been linked to everything from lethargy and poor sleep, to weight gain and cardiovascular disease.

Let's begin this blog series by looking at the functions of the nose, the benefits of nasal breathing, and what you miss by breathing through your mouth.

The nose has a variety of functions related to regulatory systems within our body. The nose is a very important gateway to our brain, it is lined with structures called olfactory bulbs which have a direct line of communication to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for many functions in our bodies, particularly those that are autonomic, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, appetite, and sleep cycles. The hypothalamus is also responsible for generating chemicals that influence memory and emotion. So, our nose is much more than just something you use to smell. The air we breathe should begin its journey by passing through the nose. The nose has evolved to be the first line of defense of the immune system, with a filter system of tiny hairs called cilia. The role of the cilia is to filter, humidify and warm or cool the air (depending on the temperature) before it enters the lungs. Some estimate that cilia protect our bodies against about 20 billion particles of foreign matter on any given day.

Once air passes through the nose it travels through the windpipe towards the lungs. Our windpipe is covered in mucus, another way the body prevents unwanted particles from reaching our lungs. As the air enters the lungs and into tiny air sacs called alveoli, the red blood cells exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen and carry this to the cells of the body, while carbon dioxide is expelled as we exhale.

With that, oxygen is also extracted during exhalation. As our nostrils are smaller than our mouths, we exhale more slowly through the nose giving the lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air we’ve already taken in. With this slow exhalation there is also a backflow of air into the lungs, all meaning we have a more efficient process for taking in oxygen.

Another very important feature of breathing through our noses is nitric oxide. Cells in our sinus produce this gas, which, when carried into the body through the breath, has numerous functions such as combating harmful bacteria and viruses and regulating blood pressure through causing vasodilation (more on this in Part 2!).

Hopefully, you are beginning to see the importance of breathing through our nose just for day-to-day health (never mind performance), but what do we miss out on when we breathe through our mouth? When there is proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange during respiration, the blood will maintain a balanced pH. If carbon dioxide is lost too quickly – as in mouth breathing – oxygen absorption is decreased, which can result in fatigue, lethargy dizziness, or even fainting. A certain level of carbon dioxide is required in the blood and tissues to facilitate oxygen transfer, this is known as the Bohr Effect. If we breathe through our mouths, we expel too much carbon dioxide making oxygen dissociation from red blood cells difficult, so even though we may breathe in lots of oxygen, it has a hard time reaching the cells where it is required.

Air that we inhale through the nose passes through the nasal mucosa, which stimulates the reflex nerves that control breathing. Mouth breathing bypasses these reflexes and makes regular breathing difficult, which can lead to snoring, breath irregularities, and sleep apnea. These are just some of the benefits of breathing through our nose, in the next part of this blog series we will look into what "over-breathing" actually is and how this can impact your performance when training. Before then, start to implement a simple change by breathing through your nose as you go about your day.

This takes regular and focused attention at first, but if you keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose, it will quickly become a habit.

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