Stressed? Anxious? You know the drill. Stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and everything will be better. Or will it?
The Myth Behind Deep Breathing
From relationship counsellors and new-age yoga instructors to personal development gurus and television “experts”, the whole world seems to be in praise of this simple relaxation technique. Although the deep breathing fad has only taken off in recent decades, it is by no means a new discovery. Breathing exercises have been around since the ancient times; however, its fundamental basis has shifted from breathing less, to breathing more.
In simplest terms, breathing can be broken down into inhaling oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. The myth arises when oxygen is labelled as “good” while carbon dioxide is labelled as “bad”. In truth, our bodies’ require both of these gases. However, because of the common misconception, we’re led to believe that we should be breathing deeper in order to increase our oxygen levels and decrease our carbon dioxide levels.
Those in favour of deep breathing argue that because of the hectic lifestyles we’ve adopted, we’ve developed an unhealthy habit of breathing too shallowly. By taking a big deep breath, we’re supposedly reversing this bad habit, thus calming us down. This assumption is scientifically flawed and exceedingly hazardous to our health.
What Does Science Say?
Research shows that many health conditions, including but not limited to panic attacks and bipolar disorders, aren’t caused by breathing too little, but by breathing too much. Deep breathing, in medical terminology, is known as hyperventilation, and is arguably the leading cause of sudden rise of sicknesses such as asthma, heart disease, and cancer in the past century. Dr. Artour Rakhimov explains below:
When we increase the volume of air we inhale, we have to exhale an equal amount. Therefore, when by breathing in more oxygen, we are also eliminating more carbon dioxide. What few people realize is that our bodies require carbon dioxide in order to use of oxygen. I’ll spare you the long explanation; in essence, low carbon dioxide levels causes blood vessels spasm and an unfavourable Bohr effect, consequently starving our tissues of oxygen.
But what about exercise? Obviously, we breathe heavier when we’re working our muscles. Does this mean exercise is harmful?
Not at all. During exercise, the more rapid rate of carbon dioxide loss is accounted for because our muscle cells burn glucose faster, creating more carbon dioxide. If we define deep breathing as the amount of carbon dioxide produced versus the amount of carbon dioxide expelled, exercise actually hinders deep breathing. The increased carbon dioxide production contributes to the focused, “in the moment” feeling you get during an intense workout.
The Real Problem
Whenever something scary or unexpected occurs, our bodies start pumping out carbon dioxide in anticipation of an increased carbon dioxide production by our muscle cells. This was once invaluable evolutionary mechanism that allowed humans to survive in the wild. However, with the progression of civilization, our lives have become much more sedentary. Today, our breathing patterns often become heavy and rapid even without the stimulus of exercise. It happens when a car suddenly brakes in front of us, when we get into a heated argument, or even when we’re playing Call of Duty. As a result, our natural, heavy-breathing response has become worldwide epidemic, causing to lose more carbon dioxide than we can afford.
The Correct Way to Breathe
Rather than breathing deeper, we need to be breathing shallower. Russian physician Konstantin Buteyko’s breakthrough research pioneered the technique of shallow breathing, which has been coined the Buteyko method. Although sometimes ignorantly classified as alternative medicine, this method of retaining more carbon dioxide has cured hundreds of thousands diagnosed with asthma, cardiovascular problems, allergies, hypertension, and other medical conditions without any type of surgical or medicinal treatment.
Below is a quick checklist of important breathing habits. If you are interesting in learning more, I recommend checking out Dr. Rakhimov’s website as a starting point.
1. Take every breath through your nose.
Breathing through the mouth is biggest cause of overbreathing. Nasal breathing not only limits the amount of breathing to a healthy level, but also filters out dust particles and warms the air before it enters your lungs.
2. Breathe with your diaphragm, not your chest.
When you inhale, your stomach should expand slightly as your diaphragm pushes downwards, expanding the volume of your lungs. Your diaphragm is your most powerful breathing muscle, so you need to make use of it in order to minimize bodily stress.
3. Breathe Slower
Unless you’re one of 10% with proper breathing habits, you’re probably breathing too much. In order to reprogram this physiological tendency, you need to consciously slow down your breathing. It’s not practical to voluntarily control your breathing 24/7, but with regular practice, you’ll eventually start to subconsciously breathe less. Of course, consult your doctor before making any changes.
4. Reduce the amount of oxygen per breath
“The perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing.”
-Lao-Tzu, father of Taoism
Breathing in less air is a very difficult thing to do on a consistent basis, but it’s vital to mastering the Buteyko method. It requires proper practice and long-term effort, which means you’ll probably need a qualified instructor. Ideally, breathing should be like a gentle tide, smoothly and subtly rising and descending. However, even if you cannot reduce your consumption of air per breath, you can still be a very healthy breather if you follow the first three steps.