Knee deep in oxygen

What does the 8th element do for us?
(Warning: science-y post.)

Breathing is one of the few crossovers between conscious and unconscious control. We certainly continue to breathe when we stop thinking about it, but we also have the ability to consciously alter our breathing pattern. Our breathing is also deeply connected with our physical and emotional states. But to understand why the connection exists, let’s delve into why we breathe in the first place.

Inhalation allows oxygen to enter the body. Oxygen is essential for releasing energy in the body. In other words, it is one of the chemicals used in the creation of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, aka energy. We then use this energy to fuel our daily activities. Oxygen is diffused across cell membranes and is also carried in the blood. Without getting into the physiology of oxygen transfer, the point is that oxygen travels to our muscles and to our brain for important business.

Destination: Muscles
Breathing allows oxygen to be supplied to your muscles to perform work. The more oxygen our muscles have, the more energy they are able to create. This allows them to exert greater force, and to keep exerting this force for longer periods. The process of increasing oxygen in our muscles is twofold: supplying more oxygen in the first place, and then extracting the oxygen at the muscle. Aerobic activity does both; it increases blood flow up to five times compared to a body at rest, and working muscles are up to three times more efficient at extracting this oxygen for use. That’s where the different aspects of aerobic fitness come in – but that’s for another post.

Destination: Brain
About 20% of our body’s oxygen gets used by the brain. That’s a lot. The major fear when someone experiences a stroke or heart attack is how long the brain goes without oxygen; this is why early discovery of such incidents is vital in preserving the person’s normal functioning. Higher brain oxygen levels allow us to be more alert and attentive. Increased oxygen improves our concentration and memory. Regular aerobic exercise is a wonderful way to experience these benefits.

Deep versus shallow breathing
The kind of breathing referred to above is deep breathing. The diaphragm is the most important muscle used in respiration. Deep breathing, or abdominal breathing, refers to dropping the diaphragm and allowing the core (tummy, sides, back) to be filled with air. Shallow breathing does not have the same benefits, and refers to the kind of breath that moves your chest and shoulders rather than your core. This is where emotional state comes in. Stress and anxiety cause shallow breathing, or to some degree, gasping for air. It is during these times that consciously breathing into the core has a calming effect.

Breathing and CO2
I would be remiss not to mention the importance of breathing in getting rid of CO2. Exhaling removes carbon dioxide from our system. Actually, “air hunger”, the feeling of needing to breathe, has more to do with a buildup of CO2 than a lack of oxygen. This is why you are instructed to put on your own oxygen mask first on a plane. You will likely pass out before noticing the lack of oxygen, since the feeling we associate with needing oxygen is actually based on the need to get rid of carbon dioxide. You will be exhaling the carbon dioxide as usual, and not noticing the lack of adequate oxygen.

So that’s the quick and dirty on why we breathe, and a tiny little bit about how aerobic exercise is related. Stay tuned for further posts on nose versus mouth breathing (yoga versus Pilates), the valsalva maneuver, and other exciting breathing tidbits!