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Thursday, January 19, 2012

14: Benefits of Breathing

When I began to realize last summer that I had some things to learn in the breathing department, our oldest son, Ben, shared a story with me. What he said made me think that poor breathing habits may be one of the unfortunate things he has inherited from me! He told of how when he began his first contract as a pianist/keyboardist with Celebrity Cruises, there was a piece where the final movement was a real challenge for him and he was pretty nervous about it. The first time he performed it, he got to the end and suddenly found he was on the verge of blacking out and keeling over. He realized then that he’d held his breath for about the last 44 bars of the piece.

If a singer or a wind instrumentalist is nervous, he or she is not going to have this problem: they are forced, by the very nature of their instrument, to breathe properly. Not so with a pianist, and not so with many of us in our current culture. If we are doing heavy physical work (and very few of us do anymore), we breathe reasonably well. Our body absolutely demands it. But if we are working at a desk, or anything else where physical exertion is limited, we can fall into bad habits like shallow breathing and mouth-breathing. These put our body into stress mode, whether or not there is a nasty boss hanging over our shoulder or a bad-tempered customer facing off with us.

Last article, I wrote about how deep breathing can turn off over-active adrenal glands and terminate an anxiety attack mid-way. What is it about breathing deeply that is so powerful? The first thing it does, obviously, is correct your oxygen deficiency so that your adrenals understand that there really isn’t a crisis. But it does much more than that. It also releases feel-good endorphins into the system; relaxes sore, tense muscles; improves circulation; and helps clear the lymph system, improving immunity.

Once again: Inhale through the nostrils, counting to 4; hold for 4; exhale through pursed lips for 6 (the back-pressure allows more oxygen to be absorbed in the lungs). Pause if you don’t need a breath right away. Repeat 20 times; work up to 4 times daily.

Dedicated breathing exercise helps to balance neurotransmitters. These are the various chemicals that carry messages among our ten billion brain cells. What’s really interesting is that the emotions we experience are determined by what kind of transmitter carries the thought. So one can see it’s pretty important to give these little guys every opportunity to keep their balance.

According to, after our mid-twenties most of us start losing lung capacity, upwards of 10% each decade. Breathing exercises will maintain or improve breathing function along with your overall well-being. Also, “the respiratory system should be responsible for eliminating 70% of your metabolic waste. The remainder should be eliminated through defecation 3%, urination 8%, and perspiration 19%. So, if you think that going to the bathroom every day is important, or that working up a good sweat now and then is healthy, think again about the value of full, free, optimal breathing!”

Inhaling through the nostrils allows the proper mixing of the air with an amazing gas produced in the nasal sinuses, called nitric oxide (NO). It is a potent vasodilator (blood vessel dilator) and a natural bronchodilator (hello, asthma sufferers!). It effects maximum oxygenation in the lungs and hence in every cell of the body. (Bear in mind that cancer is anaerobic; that is, it can only grow in the absence of oxygen.)

Mouth-breathing lacks these qualities and produces a sort of continual tension that is very stressful and depleting to the body.

Want to increase your nitric oxide production? Hum a little tune! Seriously, researchers in Sweden had a hypothesis that “the oscillating airflow produced by humming would speed up the exchange of air between the sinuses and the nasal cavity and increase nasal nitric oxide output.” They found that “humming increased the nitric oxide levels by 15-fold compared with quiet exhalation.” ( Humming can also greatly relieve sinus problems, and it doesn’t cost a cent!

Last summer Ben was given the opportunity to play in the musical Wicked at the Jubilee, challenging him to a whole new level. The gig coincided with a personal health crisis and he’d been researching some of his issues, including the whole breathing thing. As a result, he was very deliberate about maintaining his breathing throughout. He was able to perform without anxiety or excess adrenaline—and felt fine at the end.


  1. Hi Nancy ... good article, I walk most days and have making an effort to breathe deeper and often I even count. I have noticed it is quite benificial, now I will go with your count to four three times,it will be easier and will keep my mind busy too. Ruth

  2. At the end of your adrenal amok article, I was certain you were referring to breathing, in your leading statement re: an important key coming in your next post. Bonus - 2 posts! Such great advice and information: my past yoga instructors and other "breathing experts!" have recommended that you push out your belly on the in-breath and draw the belly back in on the out-breath. This breathing helps for those wake-up-can't-get-back-to sleep times too. For your interest, I linked to your iodine article in my blog. .

  3. Excellent! I agree. I have come to this same knowledge this past year. Thank you for reminding me as I may not have fully integrated into my daily routine.