Why Breathing Is Key to Wellness

September 21, 2021

While it’s easy to forget about breathing because it occurs subconsciously, breathing is essential to our overall well-being. Unfortunately, a lot of us don’t get the optimal amount of oxygen we need. With many of us working full-time and spending around eight hours a day hunched over a desk, our lungs cannot fill with enough air due to our poor posture. According to Rene Cailliet, MD, improper posture could result in a loss of up to 30 percent of vital lung capacity. Additionally, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and other sleep-related breathing disorders are on the rise due to an increase in underdeveloped orofacial bones resulting in a smaller airway. This, too, contributes to diminished oxygen levels, especially during the night and early morning.

When your body doesn’t get enough oxygen, it can affect your health in a few significant ways: Not only can it lead to more stress and poor cognitive function, but it can also worsen the quality of your sleep, leading to a variety of other health concerns like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Keep reading to learn about how breathing can impact your health, including your stress levels, sleep, and cognitive function, as well as how to breathe more efficiently to ensure you’re getting enough oxygen.

Breathing Influences Your Stress

One of the most significant benefits of proper breathing is the stress relief that comes with it. Many stress management techniques—like yoga and meditation—rely on deep breathing for a reason. While shallow and irregular breath can trigger a stressful reaction, deep and slow breathing can have the opposite effect. This is because your sympathetic nervous system, which controls your fight-or-flight response, and your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxed response, cannot be activated simultaneously. Deep breathing triggers a parasympathetic response, momentarily suppressing your sympathetic nervous system.

Additionally, the more deeply you breathe, the more carbon dioxide enters your bloodstream. Carbon dioxide can help quiet parts of your brain like the amygdala, which sends emotional signals like fear throughout your body. This allows you to manage your anxiety better, while insufficient carbon dioxide levels can activate your amygdala and create a more robust fear response. Next time you feel stressed, consider taking a few deep breaths and see how you feel.

Breathing Impacts Your Sleep

If you’re unable to breathe well throughout the night, it can also affect the quality of your sleep. For example, sleep-related breathing disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can cause people to wake up multiple times throughout the night, disrupting the quality of their sleep and impacting their well-being. Sleep apnea, in particular, involves breathing that momentarily stops up to hundreds of times a night. This occurs either because the airway becomes obstructed by something or because the brain fails to transmit signals to your muscles that remind you to breathe.

When breathing affects the quality of your sleep, it can lead to several complications, including the following:

  • Excessive daytime fatigue, which can impact daily functioning like work or school
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Asthma or allergies
  • Car accidents

OSA can not only lead to the development of other health concerns, but it can also worsen the symptoms associated with preexisting conditions.

Breathing Affects Memory

Have you ever been reminded of a particular moment in your life by a familiar scent? That may be because there is a connection between breathing and the creation and storage of memory. One study from the Journal of Neuroscience found that breathing through the nose facilitates processes essential to memory formation. As you breathe, oxygen travels from the nose to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps humans process and retrieves memories. When the hippocampus does not get the oxygen it needs to function, it may impair its ability to form and store spatial and episodic memories.

There is also a connection between sleep-disordered breathing and Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that about 75 percent of participants with dementia also had sleep apnea. Additionally, they found a more significant number of amyloid plaques in the brains of people with sleep apnea than those who sleep and breathe well without interruption. Amyloid plaques form between neurons and disrupt cell function. These are proven to occur in abnormal levels in those with Alzheimer’s. Not only is breathing through your nose associated with better memory formation, but insufficient sleep due to breathing may impact your memory for the worst.

How to Breathe Optimally

Breathing is usually a subconscious process, which means we’re never taught the proper way to breathe. Next time you pay attention to your breathing, consider doing the following things to benefit from your lungs fully:

  • Breathe through your nose: Breathing through your nose instead of your mouth allows you to filter and warm air as you inhale.
  • Breathe using your belly: Breathing with your belly is the best way to ensure you breathe with your diaphragm. As you breathe, your belly should expand outward to draw oxygen into your lungs.
  • Practice good posture: You ensure that your chest and spine can fully expand while you breathe with good posture.
  • Stretch: Stretching helps relieve tightness in your back, shoulders, and chest, relieve stress, and improve circulation and posture.

Another way to improve the quality of your breathing is to practice breathing exercises. These can help you bring awareness to your breath, relieve stress that can quicken your breathing, and improve breathing effectiveness.

Proper breathing is essential to every aspect of wellness. It can help you manage your stress levels, sleep better, and even improve your memory and other cognitive functions. While it may be a subconscious process, paying attention to how you breathe through daily exercises can do wonders for your mood and health. If you want to know more about breathing and wellness, reach out to your primary care provider (PCP) or a dentist specializing in airway, especially if you have concerns.