The link between life and breath has always been clear, but it took modern science to reveal the mechanics at the cellular level. Our cells are nourished by food and water but they need oxygen to break them down. Cells also excrete another gas, carbon dioxide, as waste. The body’s circulation of these gases is called respiration. If respiration is compromised, cells get weak, sluggish, and die prematurely.
Our Lungs and DiseaseOur lungs drive respiration in two ways. First, they act like bellows, mechanically pumping air in and out of the body. Second, they transfer this air into and out of our blood with microscopic sacs called alveoli.
According to Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health, lung diseases typically target one of these two functions. Asthma, for example, is a bellows problem: Airways become tight and inflamed, making it harder to inhale or exhale. In contrast, emphysema, a condition marked by scar tissue in the lungs, destroys alveoli.
“You actually get destruction of the air sacs, so your tennis court gets smaller and smaller in size,” Beuther said.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and other lung-related issues all impair our breathing in different ways. Various heart conditions can also leave us short of breath. But Beuther says you can have a perfectly healthy heart and lungs and still be gasping for air.
The Infrastructure of BreathThe lungs don’t work alone. Air exchange at the cellular level requires a full-body infrastructure: tiny blood vessels that can reach each cell. If the infrastructure deteriorates, so does cell function.
You may not notice the deterioration until you’re required to do something particularly strenuous. When you ask more from your muscles than they’re used to, they need more air circulation for the extra exertion. This is what causes all the huffing and puffing—your lungs are pumping harder to meet the demand of struggling cells.
Your lungs are working overtime, but respiration may not be able to reach the cells because there isn’t enough infrastructure to service them. “Imagine a neighborhood full of houses, but no streets. Trash builds up, and packages don’t get delivered,” Beuther said.
“It’s easy to deliver things to the house, and the trash gets picked up regularly,” Beuther said. “You can train to do better at that.”
Shedding excess fat also makes it easier to breathe. Beuther says fat can constrict the space that lungs need to fully expand, thus confining our bellows.
Breath and the BrainEvery cell needs oxygen, but those in our brain need the most. Brain cells use about three times the oxygen of muscle cells. If the brain gets just a little less oxygen than it requires, it can result in poor judgment, lack of coordination, and dementia.
Since the brain is so sensitive to oxygen levels, it’s no wonder that breathing is also intimately tied to our emotional state.
“There have been some studies that show that when you retrain someone’s breathing patterns, you can reduce their anxiety,” Tauberg said.
Emotions, in turn, may also influence our breathing. In traditional Chinese medicine, a philosophy in which each organ is associated with a different emotion, the lungs are tied to grief and sadness.
Grief is a natural reaction to pain and loss, but it can also be hard on the body, and the longer we hold on to it, the more damage it can do. Modern science has only recently come to understand how emotional stress can impair the immune system, but it’s an idea Chinese medicine has understood for thousands of years.
Tips for Better BreathingSeveral factors have an impact on the quality of our breathing. Fortunately, we can take steps to address these and better ensure we get the air we need.
But bad air isn’t just a matter of our personal habits. Much of our modern airspace is filled with substances that are toxic to our cells. Emissions from industry and vehicles, synthetic fragrances, and the chemicals off-gassing from numerous products in our home and office all contaminate the air we breathe.
“If you look at cities with poor air quality, the health of our lungs suffers. We need to think of lung health as a public health issue,” Beuther said.
“The upper back typically increases in curve by 10 degrees by 60 years of age,” Shapiro said. “In addition, all our spinal ligaments typically become stiff and lose the elasticity of our youth. This combination of spinal deformity and ligament rigidity has been demonstrated in research to decrease our lung capacity, and thus has a negative impact on our endurance, strength, and health.”
The cure is simple: sit up straight and stand tall.
Place a hand on your abdomen. Inhale through the nose while gently pushing the abdomen out. Exhale slowly through pursed lips while gently pushing inward and upward on the abdomen with your hand, to help empty the lungs completely, pulling the navel to the spine.
“In addition to strengthening the abdominal muscles, it will help regulate breathing if one becomes short of breath, particularly during an activity. This type of breathing will also help one to get through an activity where one experiences shortness of breath,” Michaels said.
Beuther believes that the most important thing for keeping lungs healthy is to stay active.
“More exercise can lead to better breathing,” he said. “The lungs, like a lot of our body, are a ‘use it or lose it’ situation. When you go and exercise—a run, a brisk walk, or climbing stairs—you're taking deeper and more frequent breaths. Those deeper breaths stretch the lungs and that stretch is healthy for the lungs.”