Tapping into the breath-health connection amid COVID-19

TAKE a moment, place one hand on your belly right over your navel; ta ke a deep breath in. Did your belly push out or did you suck your stomach in? Now exhale. What did you notice?

The term ‘breath of life’ should not be taken lightly.

One of the most basic functions of the human body is breathing. It not only provides the body with vital oxygen but also helps to clear the mind, remove toxins, and helps to strengthen muscles. As important as breathing is, five to 11 per cent of the general population practises dysfunctional breathing, which is present in 30 per cent of asthmatics and 83 per cent of those with anxiety.

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, and with research out of China and Hong Kong stating that the infectious disease reduces lung function by 20-30 per cent after recovery, while also putting strain on intensive care units around the world due to the demand for ventilator care, it is important for us to be aware of dysfunctional breathing and the breath-health connection.


What is dysfunctional breathing?

Dysfunctional breathing is a term used to describe breathing disorders in which chronic changes in one’s breathing pattern results in laboured breathing and other non-respiratory symptoms, such as chronic pain in the absence of or in excess of an organic respiratory disease.

Dysfunctional breathing has been observed in athletes as well as individuals with sedentary lifestyles. It has been linked to persistent and chronic pain states – usually unexplainable pain that cannot be detected using medical imaging (X-rays, MRIs and CT scans). It has also been identified as a major, undetected cause for frequent doctor visits.


How does the body breathe?

Before we can understand proper breathing techniques, we first need to understand how the body was designed to breathe. When you breathe in or inhale, the muscles on the bottom of your ribcage, known as the diaphragm, contract and move downwards. This allows the lungs to expand. The muscles between your ribs – the intercostal muscles – contract, pulling ribcage upward and outward.

As your lungs expand, air is sucked through your nose and mouth, it travels down your trachea (windpipe) to your lungs, and the air then passes through your bronchial tubes, reaching the air sacs where the oxygen is passed into the bloodstream.

At the same time, carbon dioxide travels into the air sacs from the bloodstream and is expelled from the body as you exhale. We repeat this process between 17,000-30,000 times every day as long as we live.

With your hand rested on your navel while you inhale, you should feel your hand moving away from you as your stomach expands and your hand moving in towards you as you exhale. Think back to the little activity in the beginning, were you breathing properly?


Breathing the right way

Since breathing is so important, it’s imperative that we do it correctly. If we were able to relax and calm our bodies, we would realise our bodies already know how to breathe, but years of breathing incorrectly may cause us to need a little reminder.

Breathing properly begins with practising good posture — sitting up straight allows the lungs to expand efficiently with each breath. It also allows for the effective removal of carbon dioxide and other toxins from the body.

As you inhale, practise breathing from your diaphragm — belly breathing. Remember, as you inhale you should feel your belly expanding. Also, practise breathing in through your nostrils; the nose helps to filter dust particles and warm the air before it hits the lungs.

We tend to focus mainly on inhaling but in order to truly improve our breathing, we have to effectively exhale as well. Most individuals only exhale 70 per cent of the carbon dioxide in their lungs.

While exhaling, think of pushing all the air out of your lungs, similarly to blowing bubbles. Pull your navel in towards your backbone as you do so. Not only will your body reward you an instant boost of energy, but you will also realise how efficient you are in filling your lungs.


Benefits of breathing properly

Breathing properly won’t prevent you from contracting the virus but it will, however, optimise your lung function in the event you become infected. Also, while we are home struggling through the stresses of the pandemic, breathing correctly will help to relieve anxiety, stress and tension in the body.

It positively impacts our psychological state and assiste with regulating our emotions. It can help stop panic attacks, freezing or choking under pressure, and lowers our stress arousal levels. It helps detoxify the body and optimally oxygenates the body and all its organs to allow us to heal better and live longer.

If you need further assistance in evaluating your breathing patterns and learning to breathe efficiently, contact a physiotherapist for an assessment. Physiotherapists are trained in cardiopulmonary care and are able to advise you accordingly.


Kimberly Hoffman is a registered physical therapist at BodyForte Limited. She is also a member of the executive body for Jamaica Physiotherapy Association.

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