A closer look at our breathing
Without getting too nerdy or technical, it’s sometimes interesting to understand a bit more about how our bodies work. In this article we’re going to have a look at breathing and how it happens without us even thinking about it.
Every day you take about 25,000 breaths. When resting, your lungs process a few litres of air per minute, but this can increase to over 100 litres a minute when you exercise vigorously.
This is made possible because our lungs are extremely elastic organs consisting of spongy tissues which contain 300 million tiny air sacs. Spread out your lungs would cover an area roughly the size of a tennis court.
Your lungs absorb oxygen from the air you breathe in through the air sacs and transfer it into your bloodstream, sending it to every cell in your body. Your cells need oxygen to work and, as they do, they produce carbon dioxide which is a waste gas. This is released back into the bloodstream and sent back to your lungs where it is breathed out of your body.
The mechanics of how our lungs work are very simple. Their ability to contract and relax as we breathe is controlled by the muscles of breathing, assisted by the fascia that surrounds and supports them. Your main breathing muscle is your diaphragm which is a dome shaped muscle that sits under the bottom of your ribcage and divides your chest from your abdomen. In normal breathing it is assisted by your intercostal muscles which sit between your ribs and help maintain the shape of your ribcage.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and flattens out which pulls your lungs down and pushes your ribs up and out. This creates a pressure vacuum inside your lungs, pulling air into your body. When you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes back into its dome shape, your ribs contract in and down and this pushes the air back out.
Control of your breathing happens in the deepest and oldest (from an evolutionary point of view) part of your brain called the brainstem. It monitors the level of stretch in your lungs and the levels of the different gases in your bloodstream. As you breathe in, stretch monitors in your lungs are activated and trigger your brainstem to start the process of breathing out before your lungs become overstretched.
Changes in the gas levels in your bloodstream can happen naturally, for example, at times of stress where your fight or flight response is triggered. This causes an automatic increase in your breathing rate, which raises the level of carbon dioxide, which is then followed by a further increase in the force and speed of your breathing to clear this out of your body. Sometimes this can lead to hyperventilation where the increase in breathing causes too rapid a reduction in carbon dioxide levels which can lead to lightheadedness, tingling in the fingers and sometimes even fainting.
Changes in our breathing can also occur as a result of infections or viruses that affect the lungs, including bronchitis, pneumonia or Covid-19, as well as longer-term conditions such as asthma, emphysema or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder).
Whether short or longer term, the effects of any lung condition are to reduce the elasticity of the lung tissue making it more difficult to breathe easily. In these situations your body uses other muscles to help with breathing and coughing. These include muscles in your neck, the intercostals between the ribs and even some of the muscle linings in your lungs. Most of these muscles are not used to working under pressure and can easily become tight or even strained as a result of the extra workload. This can lead to pain in your chest, ribs and neck, and even arm and hand pain.
Simple self-help for your lungs
Whatever the current health of your lungs, there are simple ways in which you can help yourself to breathe more easily and which don’t involve taking up running or other strenuous aerobic activity:
- Myofascial release treatment and self-treatment can help to release restrictions that may have formed in the tissues of your neck and chest.
- Breathing exercises such as singing, whistling, laughing or even annoying your family by buying a kazoo are all aerobic activities that can help improve your lungs without even having to leave your house.
- Relaxation breathing such as fascial breathing can help to calm your nervous system and relax your body. The principle is simple – make yourself comfortable either sitting or lying down and breathe out for slightly longer than you breathe in. This could be a count of 5 in and 7 out, or shorter depending on how comfortable your breathing feels. Try this for a few minutes, gradually increasing the count and the time.
Regular self-care such as this can help to relax your body and help your lungs to work as efficiently as they possibly can.