You can live without food for weeks. You can live without water for days. But you can only live without AIR for minutes.
Your hunger for AIR is the first and most immediate “Hunger of Health.”
Air – what you breathe, and how you breathe, informs every cell of your body to create health. Or…the reverse…to create disease.
I’m sure you already know what I mean by “what” you breathe – you need a continual clean source of AIR: nitrogen, oxygen, and trace amounts of other gases. That’s what composes the atmosphere of our beautiful blue marble of a planet – it’s perfect for our needs, balanced to support both animals and plants.
Breath is so vital to our survival that we do it without thinking – the autonomic nervous system manages that for us (even when we are asleep), as it does the beating of our heart, and many other functions happening at all times in our body without our conscious choice to do them.
But HOW we breathe can impact our health on many deep and powerful levels. How we breathe can make us anxious, increase body pains, disturb our sleep, and even contribute to keeping us fat!
To understand this, one must understand the stress response at a basic level.
Our bodies are designed to handle stress beautifully. When we need to outrun a predator, or fight one, our body’s sympathetic nervous system shifts quickly into “fight or flight” mode, or ALARM, as stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol) flood our system, setting off a cascade of effects.
The Stress Response:
- pupils dilate, tunnel vision (to see our threat clearly, and focus on it)
- hearing muffles (so audible distractions fade)
- blood vessels dilate, elevating blood pressure to pump blood to our heart and large muscles (to power up for a battle or a retreat)
- skin feels clammy and/or cold as blood flow diverts to the major muscles and extremities
- muscles tense (to guard against injury)
- blunt pain response deadens (explaining how people in catastrophes often only feel injuries later, when safe)
- “energy fuel” gets mobilized (glucose and fatty acids from the liver)
- millions of neurons in the gut bacteria (the microbiome) increase signaling to the brain, in ways still being studied (probably for hyper-speed in decision thinking)
- bowels and/or bladder may empty (less cargo = more speed)
- when stressed, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, to quickly deliver oxygen to the systems we need mobilized to fight or run
Your body really fires up to fight or run when you’re under stress. But what does NOT happen during stress?
We are not meant to remain in a “fight or flight” state for any longer than needed to handle a threat. Once the threat passes, our bodies are designed to return to a parasympathetic-dominant versus sympathetic-dominant state…and then feed and breed, rest and digest once more.
Like the dog that shakes itself after being scolded, having barked aggressively at an intruder, or even after having fought another dog, we are meant to “shake off stress” after it passes, and get ourselves back to a calm life of good digestion, good sleep and fertility. This is called RECOVERY.
Most of us live with a humming undercurrent of stress. We do not shake it off.
We just shift to a new stress, juggling anger, overwhelm, illness, loneliness, and worry about things like money, performance, politics, people, jobs…pandemics. We do not get fully and consistently back to the relaxed state of being that we are meant to.
We “handle” the stress with more caffeine, less sleep, more mindless media consumption and nutrient-devoid fast food.
Because of this, our health suffers.
Instead of RECOVERY, we accelerate right along into BURNOUT. It’s like keeping your car’s accelerator punched down full blast indefinitely, without pausing to refuel or replenish the oil to keep things running smoothly. In that scenario, you know the engine is going to quit, and without oil seize up and burn out.
In human terms, your body is going to “seize up and quit running” in a myriad of ways:
- inability to fight infection
- chronic body pain
- high blood pressure
- elevated cholesterol
- autoimmune disorders
- heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- and a potential slew of other possible bad consequences.
Stress is a killer if not handled correctly, if we don’t “SHAKE IT OFF” quickly as possible. The quickest way to short-circuit a stress response that is malfunctioning in ways big or small is BREATH.
By breathing correctly, you can learn to “shake it off” in minutes – even seconds. And if you incorporate the techniques I’m about to teach you into your daily life, you can even avoid entering into that stress response in the first place, in response to many of your current stressors.
NOTE: For all of these exercises, unless noted differently, breathe in and out through your nose, and fill your lungs from the bottom up: envision a pear; fill up the round full bottom first and only then fill up the top parts of the lungs. Place a hand on your belly to raise consciousness of this. Breathe out – also through the nose – in reverse (top first, proceeding to a full evacuation of the bottom parts of your lungs).
Use these BREATH EXERCISES to help you recover from stress, build into your morning routine, energize better than caffeine, and increase your lung capacity:
I. FIVES: to shake off stress
Do “FIVES” anytime you feel uncomfortable in your body, mind or emotions. In addition, do them throughout every day, as you might be surprised how often you are actually launching into a stress response without your being aware of it:
- Posture: Lower your shoulders, put your head back over your shoulders instead of jutting forward, shake out your hands (you may be shocked to find them clenched). Open and close your mouth a few times, to unclench an unconsciously clenched jaw.
- From your diaphragm (your belly), begin a breath in through your nose, to a count of 5.
- Breathe out through your nose to a count of 5.
- Do this 5 times.
- Do this series 5 times every day (careful while driving, as you may feel lightheaded doing this especially as you start out). Lovely as part of your nighttime routine.
II. BOX BREATHING: for your Morning Routine
Consider this an add-on technique once you master “FIVES.” Use it on a daily basis as a part of your morning routine.
- In a comfortable position (seated, preferably), belly breathe in through your nose to a count of 6.
- Hold your in-breath for a count of 6.
- Breathe out through your nose to a count of 6.
- Hold your empty for a count of 6.
III. CAFFEINE BREATHING: for quick energy
This is a great way to start your day, or an intense study session, or prepare to give a presentation. It clarifies the mind, increases focus, liberates energy. It’s even better than a cup of coffee to wake up your brain – hence the name! Done correctly, it can really clear the nose, so have a tissue handy.
- Posture: shoulders down from your ears, head comfortably back over the shoulders, shake out your hands. Seated or standing. Hands beside your shoulders, closed in fists.
- In rapid succession, reach your hands above your head, up-up-up, alongside your ears. As you reach up, breathe in through your nose to a count of “ONE” and open your fists at the top.
- Lower your hands back to shoulder height to a count of “ONE,” breathing out through your nose, hands closed again in fists.
- Repeat 30 times: Raise hands, breathe in to ONE-count, open fists above head. Lower hands, breathe out to a ONE-count, closing to fists again.
- This is an energetic PUMP of air in and out. Try to really fill up and empty our those lungs every time.
IV. “OUT-AND-COUNT:” to increase your lung capacity
Do this to train yourself to fully empty out your lungs on the out breath, thereby creating the space to take a full in-breath on the return, and oxygenate all the corners of your lungs. Kids love to do this as it can feel like a game. (I know a dad who does this every morning with his son as they drive to school drop off!)
- Breathe in deeply through your nose, leading with diaphraghm/belly.
- Breathe out and count out loud as fast as you can.
- See how high you can count – higher is better!
And for goodness sake, breathe through your NOSE!
Mouths are for eating, drinking and speaking. And kissing! NOT breathing. Noses are designed for breathing. Nasal breathing offers tremendous benefits, such as:
- Filtering toxins such as dust, mold and bacteria (some estimate about 20 billion particles of foreign matter each day)
- Humidifying the air we take in
- Adjusting the air to our body’s optimal temperature
- Better sleep
- Better athletic performance
- Harnessing nitric oxide, which is beneficial for the circulation of oxygen in your body and helps expand blood vessels
Mouth breathing is associated with negative consequences:
- Bad breath
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease
- Lower resistance to illness
- Snoring (and thereby poor sleep, which brings many other negative consequences)
- Crooked teeth (as a child’s tongue drops, and stops expanding the palette as it’s designed to do)
Lastly, pay attention to the quality of the AIR you breathe, especially INDOORS.
Everyone knows that our outdoor air is compromised by chemical pollution that comes from diverse manmade sources, or seasonally from certain plants in bloom, or wildfires.
But did you know that indoor air can be just as polluted? In fact, even MORE polluted in some cases! Many chemicals sneak into our homes and pollute our air in surprising ways. It’s vital to control what we can control in terms of our health, and indoor air is one of these areas.
Keep your indoor air clean:
- Don’t wear shoes in your house. They can drag in many chemicals and dirt from outside.
- Don’t use “air fresheners” or scented room sprays.
- Don’t burn scented candles. In fact, be very careful to burn only nontoxic candles (wicks included).
- Use only high quality essential oils and MAKE SURE they are safe for your pets and children.
- Wash clothing, bedding and other textiles before use to wash off manufacturing chemicals.
- Use nontoxic personal products for laundry, kitchen, hair, skin and makeup. Buy “fragrance-free” rather than “unscented,” which can still contain chemicals to mask scent. Check EWG.org for safety of ingredients.
- Do you really need all those cleaners/scents/etc., or are you just being sold the latest product? Simple safe products, like diluted vinegar are safe and effective.
- Ventilate your home often and thoroughly.
- Use an air purifier. THIS IS THE ONE I use in both our home and clinic, because of its 5-part filtration system that catches pollutants big and small, even viruses. Even without having pets or kids in the house, I am amazed at what it has caught when I change the filters!
Breath is a topic I am passionate about. As a lifelong skin diver and spearfisherman, I have trained myself in breathing techniques for many years. I could do a much deeper dive (pun intended!) on this topic. Two of my virtual mentors are Patrick McKeown (The Oxygen Advantage) and James Nestor (Breath). For further study on your own, I encourage you to follow these two thought leaders.
Your body’s “Hungers of Health” begin with the first hunger – your hunger for AIR.
Stay tuned – next we will explore your body’s hunger for WATER…