You Are How You Breathe
by Dan Gleason
Upon entering my office last week, a 95-year-old patient had a blood pressure of 198/110. I have been seeing this wonderful woman as a chiropractic patient for decades. She can be uptight and has been more so since the election campaign began. She has tried treating her blood pressure problem for many years with medications, many of which she can’t tolerate. The ones she can tolerate only help a little bit. She continues to work on her diet with some success. She studies supplements and faithfully takes those that are indicated for hypertension. Still, she struggles with episodes that frighten her and even send her to the ER.
Because I had been reading Breath/ The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor, I decided to have her experiment with a short breathing exercise. After her Chiropractic adjustment I asked her to sit calmly, breathing in through her nose to a count of 5 and out through her nose to a count of 10. She did this for several minutes. We then took her blood pressure again and, remarkably, it was down to 132/84. We are now working with her to develop an at-home breathing practice to continue and maintain this improvement.
Breathing is unique among bodily functions as it is accessible consciously and yet operates automatically most of the time. This is different than sweating, digesting and heart rate that operate through the autonomic nervous system and are inaccessible to our conscious mind (unless we are an advanced yogi). Because we can control our breath we can hack in to our autonomic nervous system producing profound effects on our health.
Nestor spends much of the book discussing the balance between the two sides of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Breathing can access both. The parasympathetic system stimulates relaxation, digestion and restoration. It is sometimes called the “feed and breed” system. Deep in the lower lobes of our lungs are receptors that stimulate parasympathetic activity, particularly upon exhalation. The more slowly and softly we exhale the more we become calm and relaxed.
The sympathetic system works in the opposite way preparing us for action. Its receptors are in the upper lobes of the lungs so, when we take short rapid breaths, we stimulate the “fight or flight” reaction. This very necessary action allows us to deal with emergencies but should be relied upon only for short periods of time. We should spend most of our time in the peace and calm of parasympathetic dominance.
In Breath, Nestor chronicles the anthropological and archeological evidence that show how the human skull has changed in the last 10,000 years and even more remarkably in the last 300. Humans used to have all 32 teeth with plenty of room to spare. They all had wide nasal openings and large sinuses. Their facial and mandibular bones were strong and well developed. When we as a species started to feed our infants and children soft, pureed food and shortened the time of breast-feeding their facial structures atrophied. Farming, milling and cooking softened our food creating a situation where we did not need to chew nearly as much. Crowding crooked teeth and chronic sinus and breathing problems have thus become the rule rather than the exception. A high percentage of children need orthodontics and wisdom tooth extractions. No other species suffer these dental problems unless they are fed modern human food. These changes to the face and throat contribute to many modern afflictions including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, sinusitis, apnea, dental cavities and vision problems.
Nestor also explores at length what humans have historically done to use breathing for health, well-being and even to improved athletic performance. These include yogic breathing, chants, use of the rosary and Kundalini. So what can we do to take advantage of this new/old knowledge?
- Much of the time we should breath more slowly.
- Breathe through the nose as much of the time as possible
- Offer yourself a pre-sleep suggestion to keep your mouth closed.
- Some have success taping the center of the mouth at night to help them remember.
- Count your breath, exhaling twice as long as inhale.
Breathing really fast and heavy on purpose for short periods teaches us to consciously activate the autonomic nervous system and control it. When we turn on heavy stress in this way we can then turn it off and spend the rest of our days and night relaxing, restoring and breeding.
Breath work should be an integral part of a balanced wellness program. I strongly recommend Nestor’s book as an introduction into the power of breathing. Perhaps you, like my 95-year-old patient, can benefit. Other resources include apps such as Paced Breathing, My Cardiac Coherence and Relax Lite and the book by Patrick McKeown, The Oxygen Advantage.
Dr. Dan Gleason is the owner of The Gleason Center located at 19084 North Fruitport Road in Spring Lake. For more info: go to TheGleasonCenter.com or call 616-846-5410. See ad to left and page 11.