Breathing Advice Is Misleading
The power of breathing can’t be understated. It’s necessary for life, sure, but it’s also a tool to combat stress and optimise performance. Unfortunately, we suck at using it.
The breath is directly linked to the fight-or-flight response. It gives us an opportunity to weigh into the primal mechanism, preventing things from getting out of hand. Like shoving your boss off a balcony or tailgating a guy because he forgot to indicate. It’s also a route by which you can improve your performance. When you’re unfit, waking up a single flight of stairs can result in defaulting to shaky breaths. This much is common wisdom. The advice that follows, misses the mark.
‘Slow and deep breaths’.
‘In through the nose, out through the mouth’.
It’s unfortunately a little backwards, and fails to improve poor breathing. That ineptness creates an unstable autonomic nervous system, a breeding ground for stress and a major deterrent to adequate recovery.
Neither of these directions touch on the real cause of dysfunction. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to lump it in with the other facts of life that are wildly misleading, with esteemed company such as the balanced diet and goal setting.
The best advice instead, can be just as simple.
Not slow, not deeper, and definitely not with the mouth. Just do it less. Our instincts and habits are wildly out of tune with what is optimal respiratory function. We need far less oxygen than we think. We compensate for dysfunctional breathing by raking in huge gulps of air, and that only serves to dig us a deeper hole.
Carbon Dioxide Is Not A Waste Gas
When you’re feeling the familiar panic of air hunger, it’s not from a lack of oxygen coming in. It’s actually caused by a sensitivity to carbon dioxide. Unless you’re really pushing the body to the physical extremes, like say a hill sprint, then a casual inhale through the nose provides more than enough to keep the lights on. Oxygen is getting into the lungs perfectly fine, it’s just not completing the next step and being dispersed into the rest of the body.
For oxygen to pass the lungs and enter the blood supply, it needs the presence of carbon dioxide. Without enough CO2, you end up with dead space in the lungs, space that isn’t being used. And when you breath through the mouth, or breath with any real intensity, excess amounts of CO2 get shuttled out with each exhale. It’s not a waste product, it’s critical for the whole process of oxygenating the body. Without adequate levels in the lungs, consequences begin to form.
Every 1ml drop in CO2 reduces blood flow by 2%, and the brain takes the brunt of the fallout. For the brain to perform its tasks with distinction, it needs to be supplied continuously with oxygen, and reductions in blood flow can seriously hurt your ability to perform cognitive tasks.
The oxygen in the lungs elevates the heart rate and triggers the SNS (Fight or Flight). The SNS operates in a delicate balance with PNS (Rest and Digest). Each time you inhale, the heart rate spikes, and SNS is enhanced. When you exhale, the heart rate slows, and PNS comes into play. The balance is the metric by which heart rate variability (HRV) is measured.
With hyperventilation or exaggerated breathing, the inhale gets emphasised, and the body shifts into a state of sympathetic dominance. Considering that breathing has an ever-present capacity to modulate the stress response, dysfunctional breathing can result in chronically elevated cortisol levels. Your body never gets to come down from emergency mode. The results spell disaster. Recovery is inhibited, anxiety gets exacerbated, immunity is compromised, and cognition takes a knock.
The poor oxygen supply to the working muscles can stunt performance, particularly aerobic work. For optimal performance in trades like weight-lifting, the body should be able to sustain high intensities without running up against lactic acid burn. But with inefficient oxygenation, the anaerobic threshold will be lowered markedly. Take on intensive exercise, and you’ll quickly run out of gas.
Mouth-breathing at night creates a state of poor oxygenation, at precisely the stage where recovery becomes the overwhelming priority. It also aggravates sleep apnea, allows snoring, and causes dehydration. The body is stuck in low-grade emergency mode when it’s meant to be in deep sleep.
Weakened Immune System
Chronic stress and insomnia in turn can compromise your body’s natural defences. The nose itself is your first line of defense against inborn pathogens.
As a reflex, the body accelerates breathing to make up for the oxygen deficiency. You’ll have a tendency to take large breaths, and default to using the mouth during sleep.
The over-breathing seals it off with a negative feedback loop, forcing the body to compensate and gradually compounding the issue. With hard breathing, there’s too much oxygen coming in, and too much carbon dioxide heading out. This erodes the body’s resistance to carbon dioxide, meaning it’s able to handle less and less. Hence the powerful and panicky sensations of air hunger that grip you the moment you decide to kick up the intensity on a treadmill. Carbon dioxide is never allowed to build up to sufficient levels to allow the lungs to release their oxygen efficiently. The side effects that result only continue to get worse.
If this process is allowed to go far enough, you can end up with hyperventilation syndrome. But you don’t have to wait for the diagnosis before labeling it a dysfunction. If you’re over-breathing on a habitual basis, you’re already there, and paying a heavy price for it. Every single day.
And because it causes so much damage, this is also an opportunity too great to pass up. Amongst all the trades and angles of an active lifestyle, what has greater significance than the breath. It’s an unconscious survival mechanism that we have the chance to exert conscious control over. The benefits are profound, even when you’re already running a tight ship. Say you already run half-marathons on the regular and you’re pretty proud of your VO2 max. Maybe you’ve got a reputation for being ice cold during company meetings. In which case, why not take your breathing from the best to even better? You’d still be entitled to the following bonuses.
So that’s where breathwork comes in. There’s no real ceiling on this one. And the vast majority of people will be starting a few rungs down the ladder. If you can stick to the following on a daily basis, you’re standing to net some major upgrades across the system.
1. Stick To Nasal Breathing 99% Of The Time
We’re the only species that uses the mouth for breathing. A few animals like dogs use it to cool down, but not for bringing in more oxygen. That’s a human speciality, and it’s likely just another one of those bad habits we’ve picked up over recent years.
And not too far away, we have the nose, an appendage that’s chief function is to haul in oxygen. Smelling on the other hand, isn’t one of our strong suits. The specialisation is reflected by the following characteristics that take place during nasal breathing.
Production of nitric oxide – NO2 is a potent vasodilator that’s often used for pump supplements, and the other kind of pump supplements. That effect also extends to blood flow and oxygen delivery, really optimising the whole process of breathing. Hence why NO2 has been shown to boost cardio performance.
As it happens, NO2 pools behind the nostrils during nasal breathing, and the levels in the body improve markedly. Oxygen uptake can increase by 18% as a result.
Air resistance – Breathing through the nose naturally limits the rate at which you’re pulling in air, preventing you from taking in excessive amounts of oxygen. Or for that matter, losing too much carbon dioxide.
Humidifier – The nostrils don’t just filter the air, they add moisture to the process, preventing the damage that can arise from the lungs getting hit by blasts of dry air.
Prevents dehydration – If you’re waking up in the morning with an annoying dry mouth, it’s likely that you reverted to mouth breathing during sleep. In which case, the body loses excessive amounts of moisture during the exhales, leading to dehydration. Nasal breathing, on the other hand, retains 42% more water.
Fights pathogens – The nitric oxide lurking behind your nostrils represents the body’s first line of defense against microorganisms.
The nose performs at least 30 functions related to breathing, whereas the mouth essentially gets pulled into doing a job it isn’t qualified for. This doesn’t mean you won’t end up in situations which call for desperate last-ditch mouth breathing. Exercise can certainly take you there, but there’s nothing stopping you from performing the biggest chunk of that exercise with pursed lips. And as for the rest of the day, there’s no excuse for mouth breathing.
Just be wary when you’re piling into large dinners, handing out long monologues, or sighing with relief or despair. The air tends to sneak in.
2. Breath Lighter And Quieter
Giving the nose exclusive rights over oxygen won’t necessarily solve all your problems. It’s a big step, but there’ll still be a tendency to take in more than you need. Remember, this isn’t about practicing normal breathing, this is a guide for making back the losses you’ve incurred over decades of dysfunction. We’re not maintaining and holding onto shaky ground, we’re pushing back.
And in that spirit, it’s worth making a concentrated effort to rein in on the breath, creating a tolerable sense of air hunger.
- Slower tempo
- Deliberate pauses between inhales and exhales
- Deathly quiet
You shouldn’t really be able to hear your breath outside of activity. Imagine you’re trying to sneak the air in without rusting those delicate hairs inside your nostrils. This doesn’t just mean less air, nitric oxide also rises with lower flow rates. By breathing less, oxygen uptake actually improves.
3. Tape Your Mouth At Night
It might sound like a great way to practice Darwinism, but mouth taping has been picking up steam lately. The premise is incredibly simple. Your body often reverts back to mouth breathing at night, putting a wrench in your determined daytime efforts to practice nasal breathing. So all we are doing here is preventing your body from screwing you.
Taping up the lips can improve oxygen uptake overnight by 10-20%. The implications for recovery are tremendous. You’re not drooling out half your water tank. The brain gets a steady supply of oxygen. You’ll probably have dreams that stick to the plot rather than transforming into a different genre halfway through. Mouth breathing can also spike your sympathetic system, causing you to wake up at 2 am with a spiking heart rate.
You can solve all that by taking a chance on some 3M micropore tape. Except it’s not really a risk. This can really be the difference between a foggy brain and rocket fuel in the morning.
- Improved oxygen uptake
- Better brain blood flow
- Less chance of waking up
- No dehydration and dry mouth
4. Perform Daily Breath Holds
Here’s where you get to lift heavy and make inroads on your oxygen capacity. Breath holds effectively put you up against the panic of air hunger. You pause after an exhale, pinch your nose if you have to, and fight the urge to breathe. It’s a disconcerting step against natural instincts, but it offers drastic improvements.
Breath-holding causes carbon dioxide levels to rise, and for dysfunctional respirators, the reflex kicks in within a few seconds. By withstanding the pressure, you’re teaching the body to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide, and with it, oxygen uptake gets an upgrade.
There’s also a ton of pressure being exerted on the diaphragm, making it a viable way to actually train your respiratory muscles to become stronger. It’s either that, or blowing balloons.
A simple breath-hold exercise could be done while walking.
- Move at a steady pace
- Breath light for a minute
- Exhale and hold
- Count the steps, and aim for 15
- Sip in air without panicking for 15 seconds
- Breath light for a minute
- Repeat 6-10 times
You can ramp up the difficulty by taking on a similar challenge while jogging. While lifting weights, try performing breath holds before attempting a high rep set. That will fire up your nitric oxide levels, potentially improving your performance during the set.
Ideally, you can work in 15 minutes of breath holds every day, and you’ll stand to see huge improvements across endurance and perception-of-effort, within 12 weeks.
5. Start Chewing More
If you have a time machine lying in the garage, then taking this advice back to your first few years on the planet. During early childhood, the jaw gets molded into shape by strength exercises like breastfeeding and chewing tough foods. Two activities that children are often getting deprived of. They enable the jawline to form properly, keeping the airway free of any blockages. The teeth also get plenty of love.
This might well have the largest say in the modern epidemic of recessive chins, wayward teeth, and sleep apnea. When you take a look at the jaw profiles of surviving hunter-gatherers, the maths seems to be on point.
But you don’t have to put this aside as a parenting tip, even if it is extremely relevant. As an adult, you can still increase the strength of the jaw by throwing out the soft-textured mushy foods, and bringing in the ones that actually make you work for it. I don’t necessarily mean rock candy and raw tubers. A medium-rare steak will give the jaw a thorough working over. And if you were to eat it every day? That’s bound to have a noticeable effect.
So first stop, time machine.
Next up, eat more steak, and stop having porridge for breakfast.
If you really want to make progress, this has to be a daily thing. You have to stay conscious of your breath, and add in exercises to make actual inroads on carbon dioxide tolerance. This is a full-time job, because it’s for treating a full-time dysfunction.
You might want to kick things off by actually testing your breath efficiency and getting a baseline. That’s easily done, all you need is a timer.
For more guides on biohacking and lifestyle optimisation, check out these articles.