We can live several days without water and several weeks without food, but only a few minutes without oxygen. And yet we do not pay attention to our breathing.
We have become so disconnected from our natural habitat that even something as essential as breathing, we do it wrong.
About 2.5 billion years ago the Great Oxidation occurred, rapidly raising the level of oxygen in the atmosphere.
All forms of life were altered, giving rise to the first aerobic organisms, capable of using this new gas to produce energy in their mitochondria. Over time, the complexity of respiration increased, all the way to the sophisticated human cardiorespiratory system.
The Cardiorespiratory system
The breathing process begins with the contraction of the diaphragm and expansion of the lungs, taking in air from the atmosphere.
21% of this air is oxygen, and in the lungs it binds to hemoglobin in the blood. This oxygen-laden blood is pumped through the heart through the arteries, reaching all of the body’s organs.
Cells use oxygen to produce energy, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result. CO2 travels back to the lungs through the veins, and is expelled when you breathe out.
Why you should breathe through your nose
Our australopithecine ancestors had a flat nose with a frontal air inlet, similar to other current primates, such as gorillas or chimpanzees. Over time, our nose changed, forming an external septum and vertical nostrils, looking down.
This novel nose was already apparent in more recent ancestors, such as Homo Erectus 1.6 million years ago.
Major evolution milestones of the nose: Chimpanzee -> Australopithecus -> Erectus -> Sapiens.
Our particular nasal protrusion was not accidental, it fulfilled a vital function: When entering with an angle of 90°, the air is humidified to a greater extent by maximizing its contact with the mucous membranes. Without this feature, the arid air of the African savannah would quickly dry out our lungs, limiting our aerobic capacity.
On expiration, that same twisted path allows the body’s own moisture to be recaptured, minimizing water loss. Our nose was one of the many adaptations that gave us a differential advantage over other animals: walking long distances without rest.
In addition to its thermoregulatory and humidifying role, the nose acts as a filter, blocking bacteria and polluting particles. As if that were not enough, nasal breathing increases the production of nitric oxide. This gas rose to fame in 1992 by appearing on the cover of Science magazine, with the recognition of “Molecule of the year”. Shortly thereafter, the Nobel Prize in medicine went to researchers who demonstrated its important role in cardiovascular health.
In short, we have evolved to breathe through the nose, but more than half of the people on this planet breathe through the mouth, and the consequences are disastrous.
Problems with breathing through the mouth
Function influences shape, and the anatomy of our face worsens when we breathe through our mouth.
In the 1980s, several studies in monkeys showed that by forcing mouth breathing in these animals for years, they developed multiple dental disorders, and their jaws were altered.
Today we know that the same happens in children. Breathing through the mouth appears associated with facial deformation, abnormal jaws and malocclusion. It is especially important to correct breathing during the first years of life, the main formative period of the mouth.
Breathing through the mouth also produces dryness and a decrease in salivary pH, leading to more cavities and worse general oral health.
Mouth breathing is also a risk factor in the development of asthma, in addition to impairing aerobic and cognitive capacity, additionally interfering with the correct activation of the diaphragm.
Finally, breathing through the mouth induces overbreathing, the next problem we analyze.
Issues with breathing too much
Besides bad breathing, we breathe too much. Most people hyperventilate, and this appears associated with disorders such as asthma or coronary heart disease.
We are used to seeing oxygen as positive and CO2 as negative, but the important thing is balance.
In fact, your brain doesn’t pay much attention to oxygen, because normal breathing already saturates the blood with oxygen (between 95 and 99% in most cases). The really important thing is not how much oxygen you carry in your blood, but how much you can use, and this depends in part on the presence of CO2, due to the so-called Bohr effect.
Christian Bohr discovered in 1904 that hemoglobin more easily releases its oxygen in the tissues as CO2 rises. But if you breathe a lot, especially through your mouth, the CO2 stays low and the hemoglobin releases less oxygen. Among other perverse effects, this elevates asthma attacks and anxiety.
Paradoxically, breathing too much reduces the availability of oxygen at the cellular level, and reduces our tolerance to CO2, making us breathe more and perpetuating the cycle.
What do I mean by low CO2 tolerance? Because the brain mainly monitors the accumulation of CO2, not oxygen. The respiration stimulus does not really arise from a lack of oxygen, but from an apparent excess of CO2. But an excess of sensitivity to this gas makes us feel the desire to breathe without real need.
Improving your tolerance to CO2, while reducing breathing, will improve your health and sports performance. One way to do this is with the Buteyko method.
The Russian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko, analyzed the breathing of hundreds of patients during the 1950s. He observed that as the disease worsened, breathing accelerated.
His reasoning was then the following: If the disease alters breathing, perhaps controlling the breath will alleviate the disease.
He treated thousands of patients with good results, specializing in asthmatics, and in the 1980s the Russian authorities included the Buteyko method in the health system.
Is it really effective or is it just another alternative therapy that works on placebo? Both of them. Despite the fact that its creator claimed that controlling breathing could cure more than 100 disorders, there are only serious studies in relation to asthma, where its effectiveness has been demonstrated. It also seems to improve sleep apnea.
Despite the scant scientific evidence on other disorders, many of Buteyko’s principles are sound, and controlling something as essential as breathing never hurts. One way to improve your breathing is with the control pause test.
Control Pause (CP) Test
The Control Pause (CP) test, aka Butyeko Breath Holding test, allows allows us to evaluate our breath hold time. This is the process:
- Sit up straight, without crossing your legs.
- Inhale through your nose normally (not deeply). You should only activate the diaphragm, without expanding the rib cage or moving the shoulders. Now exhale and then pinch your nose to block the air intake.
- Start the timer and hold your breath until you feel a clear need to breathe.
- Stop the timer and inhale as normal. If you need to inhale deeply you’ve held your breath for too long. Remember that it is not about holding out as long as possible, especially if you are hypertensive.
- Ideally it would be something like this, you gently inhale and exhale before holding your breath, and then return to normal breathing at the end.
The length of time you comfortably held your breath is called the control pause, and it gives us an idea of the health of your breathing:
- Under 10 seconds: Very poor. Indicative of significant respiratory disturbances and low exercise tolerance. Probably some chronic illness.
- 10-20 seconds: poor breathing, you should pay attention to it.
- 20-40 seconds: Normal respiratory function but with a considerable margin for improvement. The majority of people will be In this range.
- 40-60 seconds: Good respiratory function and reduced risk of disease. Good sports performance.
For example, in this study, asthmatics improved their symptoms as their control pause increased from 13 to 22 seconds.
You can also take advantage of your walks to carry out a variant of this test: inhale and exhale normally, and after releasing the air, count the steps until you feel the first need to breathe. You may not be able to take more than 8-10 steps without breathing at first, but you will gradually improve until you reach 40 or more.
The goal of exhaling before holding your breath is to reduce oxygen saturation, creating a physiological state more similar to living at high altitude.
To improve on these tests, and therefore make your breathing more efficient, you must breathe through your nose as long as you can, night and day, paying attention not to hyperventilate.
Breathing should start at the diaphragm, without creating movement in the chest or shoulders. Improving your posture also helps. By hunching over our desks we are not allowing adequate expansion of the lower part of the lungs. Bad posture produces bad breathing habits.
Breathing and sports performance
In many sports, the limiting factor is not muscular, but pulmonary. VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can process, and it is a relevant indicator, which can be improved both through classical aerobic training and HIIT.
However, in advanced athletes, with similar VO2max levels, there is another more important parameter for predicting performance: running economy, defined as oxygen consumption at a submaximal speed, similar to the average of a competition. After all, racing is not at maximum intensity.
Improving running technique, strength training and taking advantage of hypoxia strategies improve this indicator, but also using breathing techniques. For something the best athletes have more tolerance to CO2.
Emil Zátopek, the so-called Czech locomotive and winner of multiple Olympic medals, practiced holding his breath, long before we knew the benefits of it, increasing for example the production of the hormone EPO.
In short, the more you can breathe through your nose when training, the better. At maximum efforts you will feel the need to open your mouth, but try to avoid it. According to a recent study, there is no loss of power or performance when breathing only through the nose. If you don’t believe me, ask the Tarahumara, the famous ultra-distance runners, immortalized in Born to Run, who always breathe through their noses.
As always, there are exceptions:
If you are used to breathing through your mouth, or have an anatomical obstruction, your performance will be reduced by switching to nasal breathing.
In moments of maximum effort it is normal to breathe through the mouth as well. It would be equivalent to activating the “turbo” of an engine to maximize performance at a specific moment, but not as a common strategy.
The more you practice nasal breathing during everyday tasks, the easier it will be to take advantage of it during training. If you breathe badly at rest, you will breathe badly during exercise.
Breathing and sleep
Breathing through your mouth at night increases the risk of snoring and sleep apnea, as well as damaging oral health. One way to reduce these risks is by sleeping on your side, and the other by breathing through your nose.
There’s just one problem: it’s hard to pay attention to your breath while you sleep. But there is a solution: tape your mouth at night.
Although there is a difference of opinion, many people have managed to improve their symptoms by covering their mouths when going to sleep, using for example a hypoallergenic tape, and at least one study confirms its effectiveness.
If you notice nasal obstruction, try using strips like Breathe Right.
In any case, when practicing breathing exercises during the day, night breathing would also improve, with less need to resort to tape.