Every time I write or speak about breathing, I can imagine people thinking "why should I care? I'm breathing fine??". Which is hard to argue with as they're... well... alive. However, this is a much bigger, much more important topic than you think.
Breathing affects heart rate, blood pressure, lower back stability and even body temperature. Many of us have never thought about our breathing, how we breathe and whether we even breathe correctly.
I have read various books and resources, which I will refer to throughout this post. Summarising what I consider the most effective and implementable findings from my learning. There is too much to cover in one blog post but what I hope this post achieves is to open your eyes and whet your appetite when it comes to the current research regarding the possibilities of improving, or experimenting with, your breathing habits. This is just a taster.
How common is poor breathing technique?
Various sources have stated that 70% - 80% of the population could have a breathing technique dysfunction. With James Nestor (Author of Breathe) stating "40% have chronic nasal obstruction" and 50% are "habitual mouth breathers with children and females suffering the most" and with causes such as allergies, pollution and medication.
This is a large number and it is not surprising when you start looking for the signs of poor breathing technique in the general population.
I first became interested in breathing technique as I'm a biomechanically focused Sports Chiropractor. I'm all about good movement and function. This leads to observing and learning about interrelated systems in the body.
I observed in clinic that there were certain individuals whose lower backs I could not get to relax or 'release'. No amount of massage, manipulation or Pilates based rehab would get it to change. So I knew my knowledge base was still lacking something significant.
Dr Evan Osar, author of Corrective Exercise Solutions to Common Shoulder and Hip Dysfunction, was the first professional to bring my attention to the importance of breathing in spinal stabilisation. He describes the diaphragm as the top part of the 'Thoraco-pelvic canister' which makes up your 'core' as we commonly call it.
Dr Osar explains the the diaphragm essentially makes up 1/3rd of the 'core' so it is a crucial part of spinal stabilisation. If its not being used well, the core starts to struggle.
Some musculoskeletal experts would argue that to rehab someone's neck and back issues properly you should always start with breathing due to it's influence on stabilisation. Professional cycling team Education First have a medical team led by Matt Rabin, author of The Pain Free Cyclist, who states this very point. I wrote a guest post on Diaphragmatic breathing previously if you'd like to learn more.
How do you assess Diaphragm breathing?
Another way to test breathing technique is by visually assessing diaphragm engagement by watching abdominal and rib cage expansion and contraction during inhalation and exhalation.
This assessment is taken from Evan Osar's work and is another great way to help clients see their problems and help themselves improve at home.
Chest breathing recruits the 'accessory muscles of respiration' as opposed to the 'primary muscles of respiration'. This leads to a weaker back and tight neck and shoulders. You can see the imbalance when visually assessing. checking for mouth breathing is also a very quick and easy visual test.
Can poor breathing technique affect more than Spinal stabilisation?
Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen advantage and James Nestor, author of Breath take things further in their books. Patrick Mckeown covers in great detail all the problems that can occur when breathing technique is not correct and why it occurs through modern lifestyle. James Nestor goes as far as experimenting on himself by purposely making his breathing incorrect for an experiment over a fortnight.
One issue they both dive into is the Chemical consequences of not breathing through the nose. A problem which can lead to a 10% decrease in cardiovascular function as Nitric Oxide (a vasodilator) is released only with nose breathing and not with mouth breathing.
Is breathing through your mouth wrong?
According to Patrick McKeown James Nestor and the research they reference. The answer is a very strong Yes. Which leads to an impressive array of strategies to avoid this happening.
One cause of mouth breathing James Nestor references is his book is the consumption of softer cooked foods rather than our ancestor's tougher to digest meals. The result being less chewing and consequent changes in skull and jaw shape impeding breathing technique.
He also explains why humans have a nose that protrudes. How as homsapian calorie intake increased, so did our brain size. The consequence of which meant less space for our nasal cavity. This led to the asaptation of a protruding nose to make more space. Just compare our faces to those of our distant ancestors and animal relatives to see the difference. We are the pug of the 'Hominidae'.
This also shows how susceptible we to mouth breathing to make up for our smaller nasal cavity and explains why so many of us have breathing issues such as snoring and sleep apnea.
James Nestor explains how you can condition your nose to function better by just nose breathing and refers to aboriginal tribes that only breathe through their nose throughout their life, leading to incredible physiological improvements in the population. Such as taller average height and perfect teeth.
Some of the solutions to being a mouth breather can sound extreme, for example both authors suggest taping your mouth at night time as one of many ways to increase nose breathing. Something I have not yet tried but I am very intrigued!
How can I measure my ability to breathe effectively?
Considering your lungs will lose 12% of their capacity from 30 to 50 years old and have a 30% loss by the age you're 80. It can be useful to measure your ability to breathe.
There are many technical pieces of equipment you can use to measure breathing. However the one that Patrick McKeown uses is one we can all do easily at home. The 'Body Oxygen Level Test' (BOLT) is used to determine an individuals breathing volume.
All of these exercises involve some form of breath hold to cause a decrease in 'over breathing' - a problem Patrick Mckeown says is very common in modern society and is suggested to be a big cause in poor oxygen efficiency.
The basic idea is that the exercises are designed to recreate altitude training conditions to various extent depending on your fitness level. The reason being is that living or training at high altitude involves breathing air with a lower concentration of oxygen.
Over a relatively short period of time your body adapts by becoming more efficient with how oxygen is absorbed in the blood. When you return to normal altitudes, your body works more efficiently as there is more oxygen available and you're now absorbing it even better and more efficiently than before. So you perform better.
Hence the book's title 'The Oxygen Advantage'
Testing breaths per minute (BPM) can also give a great insight to over breathing. The average usually being between 12-20 BPM.
What else does James Nestor suggest?
In addition to the nose breathing mentioned above James Nestor also recommends chewing more as the shape of our maxilla (top half of the jaw) can be changed up to the age of 70. One suggested way of achieving this is by chewing gum 2 hours a day. Not something I fancy doing but it has proven benefits to jaw structure.
James Nestor also recommends breathing at the 'optimum' rate of 5.5 breaths per minute for a few minutes each day to help combat the effects of over breathing.
What about Wim Hof's breathing technique?
Wim Hof is discussed in James Nestor's book, his techniques have been used to help cope with sub zero temperatures. He has set world records and has become somewhat of a celebrity with his exploits.
However, the techniques he uses (as with many breathing exercises) have been used before historically. They are only now being revived in the public eye and updated.
'Tummo' breathing is what Wim Hof has based his technique on. This type of breathing has been used for centuries by certain buddhist monks to help increase body temperature to cope with cold climates.
Its fascinating stuff and worth checking out.
I would recommend all of the aforementioned books if you're looking to learn more about this often overlooked topic. Especially 'Breath' by James Nestor as it is a great overview.
There is so much to learn and experiment with when it come to breathing. I'm sure you'll try some new breathing exercise as a result of your learning.
Personally I've been running with this all in mind since the turn of the year and as a result I've only using my nose to breathe. I didn't think it'd be possible to be honest but it is going really well and my lungs feel great after.
The only issue I still have is that I keep having to clear my nose and mouth frequently 🤧. Something which is meant to improve with time as your nose gets conditioned.