Breathing August 2020

I have been spending more time being aware of my breathing, and learned a lot about myself in the process. Some combination of child birthing classes, Wim Hof being referenced on YouTube and curiosity led me down an internet rabbit hole about breathing. One assumes it’s a given that our bodies will tune our breathing optimally, but that is far from the case. Almost everyone breaths wrong in some way, and it has a fundamental impact on health and wellness.

One thing I learned is that we can modify our breathing in service of our goals, and that compared to other modes of nervous system activation or deactivation (meditation, stimulants, focusing) it works within 60 seconds with absolute effectiveness. Like drugs, breathing offers uppers, downers and the ability to stress and destress your body and nervous system on command. This can be a useful tool, chronically underexplored, but strangely useful too.

If you want to become alert, either for focus or for athletic output, you can do Tumo breathing (aka Wim Hof method). It involves spending 60 seconds breathing in intensely, for slightly longer than you’re breathing out. This is stressful. Then, at peak hyperventilation, you stop breathing for a minute or more. This is even more stressful. It will immediately focus your body on the fact that it has higher than normal nitric oxide in the blood, which leads to an alert, focused state.

This method can also be used to become more resilient to stress. The lack of oxygen and abundance of carbon monoxide creates an environment similar to altitude sickness. This is stressful on various bodily systems, respiratory and otherwise. But breathing through your nose in particular results in 10x or higher blood nitric oxide content, which counteracts altitude sickness. People who live in high altitudes have much high blood nitric oxide, but you can temporarily boost yours simply by breathing intensely through your nose. Altogether, your body will become more comfortable with a wider variation in air oxygen, which directly acts on stress. Without realizing, we breathe faster and shallower when stressed. By taking some agency over that process, both cognitively and physically we will be better conditioned to handle the stress.

If you want to become relaxed, you can do Lamaze breathing. It involves taking two regular breaths in (one into your lungs, the other into your belly) and then one slow breath out. Repeated for 60 seconds, it deactivates the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals to your body, in the most root cause way possible, that everything is fine and to stop being so alert and focused. Compared to meditation, it is a more versatile way to calm down in any setting.

As many as a quarter of all anxiety and panic disorders are actually disordered breathing due to chronic mouth breathing, shallow chest breathing (rather than deep belly breathing) or too high a baseline respiratory rate (or some combination of those three things). People need less sleep and feel better rested when they tape their mouth shut at night to avoid mouth breathing. It’s typical advice to take some deep breaths before doing something hard, which tends to act within a few seconds, but it takes time to retrain your body to breathe slower, more deeply and through your nose. That alone though can cure anxiety and panic in those who have not done it already.

I found YouTube the most useful source of information on breathing exercises, and I admit that I am still swimming in the shallow end. That said, I think until now no one really sat me down and explained the impact it could have. Considering there’s a pandemic going around which, among other things, is more severe in those with lower blood nitric oxide (almost no one in high altitude climates develop symptoms, and places with pollution that leads to low nitric oxide like New York and Northern Italy have been hit by the hardest), it seems like a good time to learn.