Want a Healthier Life? Start by Breathing Better. Here’s How

How to Breathe Better: Taking in the View in Medellin, Colombia
Tres Cruces in Medellin, Colombia

Breathing brings life.

There’s no denying that. It’s a function of your body that’s critical to your survival. But I’d bet that, most of the time, you’re not wondering whether you can do it any better.

Instead, you probably accept the status quo. After all, breathing is intuitive. It’s a natural process. What more can you learn?

A lot, actually.

On the surface, breathing may seem like a dull subject to explore. But consider exercising some curiosity instead. When you do, you’ll find that it’s possible to reap a few unanticipated rewards.

Learning how to breathe better won’t solve all your health problems. After all, it’s not a magic bullet. But rethinking how you breathe can become a keystone habit. It can be a small and simple solution that leads to bigger, widespread change.

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    The Subtle Way in Which We Breathe Too Much

    Pause for a moment and ponder this. 

    What image comes to mind when you think of a person who over-breathes? Is it of someone having a panic attack? Someone who’s gasping for air? Is the picture in your mind of someone who’s experiencing these symptoms in a short and dramatic way?

    If it was, you’re not wrong. But it’s possible to over-breathe for extended periods of time, too. There’s a subtle way of breathing too much that actually becomes a problematic habit.

    Patrick McKeown is a breathing practitioner, whose work made me rethink the subject. In fact, his ideas were the inspiration for this article. In the Oxygen Advantage, he shares some surprising observations about how we breathe.

    For instance, it’s possible to breathe two to three times more than needed – without even noticing. He also points out some symptoms you can look for to find out if you breathe more than you should. They are:

    • Sporadic sighs and deep breaths
    • Sleeping with your mouth open
    • Fatigue in spite of several hours of sleep

    Over-breathing can have some serious long-term consequences. It can result in a lower tolerance to carbon dioxide in your body. CO2 is a waste product, but that doesn’t mean it serves no purpose.

    For oxygen to transport into your bloodstream, you need the presence of this compound. When you over-breathe, you rid your body of more carbon dioxide than you should. This can lead to less oxygen delivered to your tissues and organs.

    A few things can prompt you to over-breathe. Talking too much is one thing, while an unhealthy diet is another. But, there is one culprit that stands above the rest.

    The Problem With Mouth Breathing

    There are two entry points where air can enter your body: through your nose and through your mouth. Both breathing styles keep you alive, but one way is actually better than the other.

    Mouth breathing, even when done slowly, isn’t generally good for you. It brings air into your chest, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. Even in a state of rest, mouth breathing can trigger your fight-or-flight response.

    “It was only when our ancient ancestors were in dangerous situations that they reverted to mouth breathing to take in greater volumes of air in preparation for intense physical activity,” McKeown writes.

    Mouth breathing, compared to nasal, gives you more air than needed. A common misconception is that the more you breathe, the better. After all, more air equals more oxygen. It’s the element that gives you life, right?

    But breathing too much air can often do you more harm than good. That’s because your body already carries enough oxygen as is. There’s actually a surplus of it in your blood at all times. Standard oxygen saturation levels in an average person are about 95 to 100%.

    A host of other problems can also arise. Many of them are issues that most people aren’t even aware have a connection to mouth breathing. Some of these problems include:

    When it comes to mouth breathing, I’m guilty as charged. This is an issue I never knew was a problem until I came across McKeown’s work. I haven’t suffered from all the issues that regular mouth breathers can have. But from anxiety to snoring, I’ve had a few.

    How You Breathe

    Before learning how to breathe better, it helps to understand the process. I won’t bog you down with too many scientific details. But to get a clearer picture, let’s revisit a little high school biology. Here are the main parts involved:

    • Nose and/or mouth: Where air enters the body
    • Trachea: Also known as your windpipe, it is the main passageway for air to travel into your lungs.
    • Lungs: Where the magic happens
    • Bronchi: You have two, one for each lung. These tubes connect your lungs to your trachea.
    • Bronchioles: These are smaller tubes connected to the bronchi.
    • Alveoli: Small air sacs found at the end of the bronchioles. There are hundreds of millions of these in your body – enough to cover an entire tennis court.
    • Hemoglobin: A protein found in red blood cells, it plays an important role distributing oxygen.

    It’s easiest to picture the respiratory system as a tree. Imagine your trachea is like the trunk. Connected to that, you have its big branches, or your bronchi. Sprouting from there are twigs, AKA your bronchioles. Then finally, the leaves that grow from those twigs are your alveoli.

    How to Breathe Better: Bronchial Tree

    Breathing begins when you inhale either through your nose or mouth. The air travels through your windpipe and into your lungs through your bronchi. Its journey continues into the bronchioles and then into the alveoli. There, oxygen goes in and carbon dioxide comes out of your bloodstream.

    Hemoglobin is the vehicle that facilitates this exchange. Think of it like a delivery truck for your bloodstream. Oxygen comes in from your lungs, while carbon dioxide produced by your cells comes out.

    So, How Can You Breathe Better?

    You likely came to this article searching for a way to improve your breathing. Well, by now, the answer should be pretty clear.

    Use your nose!

    Good nasal breathing is quiet and relaxed – even when taking deep breaths. Most people don’t do this. Instead when they’re anxious, they open their mouths and suck in a whole lot of air (sound familiar?).

    The purpose behind doing that is correct, but the execution is wrong. The best way to take a deep breath is the same as a normal one. Breathe gently through your nose while keeping your mouth closed.

    Using your nose is the simplest way to breathe better. When you do, you can achieve more with less. For instance, you don’t have to think about using your diaphragm because your body does it for you.

    Well, duh.

    I’m sure that’s the thought that crossed your mind. Yes, breathing through your nose is the obvious solution. But because that’s so, it’s also overlooked.

    After all, breathing is an automatic process. With that in mind, are you 100% certain that you’re using your nose to its full potential? I know I wasn’t. Even right now, as I write this article, I know there’s ways I can still improve.

    We’re all guilty of falling into bad habits, sometimes without even knowing it. Chances are you’re like me and didn’t realize how detrimental mouth breathing could be. If that’s the case, are you certain you know everything you should about nasal breathing?

    Why You Should Always Breathe Through Your Nose

    You now know why you shouldn’t breathe through your mouth.

    The next lesson to learn is about the benefits of breathing through your nose. There are two in particular that stand out:

    Purified Air

    Nature designed our noses to filter incoming air. Compared to mouth breathing, nasal breathing extracts more oxygen from air. It also warms and humidifies air while removing bacteria and germs.

    Mouth breathing, meanwhile, does the same job but in an ineffective way. It doesn’t filter air, and, over time, this can cause serious damage. By breathing through your mouth, you can develop bad breath, cavities, and gum disease.

    The Circulation of Nitric Oxide

    Our noses are the source of nitric oxide. Nasal breathing causes this healthy gas to circulate within our bodies. The functions of nitric oxide include:

    • Enhancing our immune defenses
    • Regulating our blood vessels

    With nitric oxide’s help, we can stay disease-free and enjoy lower cholesterol. It even improves sexual performance. Nitric oxide improves blood flow, which, for men, can make erectile dysfunction a thing of the past. Meanwhile for women, nitric oxide can increase their libido.

    Congested? Here’s a Simple Solution

    If you’re having trouble breathing through your nose, medication can do the job. But a prescription from your doctor isn’t the only solution. If you prefer to naturally decongest your stuffy sinuses, there is a way.

    This method, which McKeown teaches, has worked with thousands of people. I can vouch for it, too, because I’ve tried it myself with actual success.

    But before diving into the details, an important disclaimer. You shouldn’t do this exercise if you’re pregnant or have any of the following health conditions:

    • High blood pressure
    • Diabetes
    • Cardiovascular Problems

    I’m not a doctor (nor do I play one on the internet), so don’t consider me qualified to give you medical advice. Instead, consult with a physician if you have any pressing questions. Please proceed with caution!

    How to Unblock Your Nose

    • Step 1: First, find a chair and sit upright and relaxed.
    • Step 2: If you’re breathing heavy, calm down to a normal rate. If your nose isn’t clogged, take a relaxed, soothing breath through it. If you can’t, take a smaller breath through the corner of your mouth. Inhale and exhale as normally as possible.
    • Step 3: Once you’ve found a good rhythm, pinch your nose and hold your breath on your next exhale. Keep your mouth closed, or shut it if you’ve breathed through the corner of it.
    • Step 4: While holding your breath, either nod your head up and down, or sway your body side to side. Do this in a gentle manner.
    • Step 5: When you feel a strong urge for air, release your nose. Your sinuses should unplug and allow you to resume breathing like normal. Don’t take in a huge breath of air when you do this. Instead, breathe calmly, relaxed, and quietly through your nose and into your diaphragm.

    After the last step, your nose may clog up again. If that happens, take a break for a minute before rinsing and repeating the process from step 2. After about five or six repetitions, your nose should stay decongested.

    What’s Happening Here?

    When I did it for the first time, the effectiveness of this method surprised me. If you try it, I’m sure you’ll feel the same. But what’s going on that’s allowing the nose to decongest in this natural way?

    According to McKeown, there are a few factors at play: First, by holding your breath, you create a build-up of carbon dioxide. Also, by pinching your nose you increase the production of nitric oxide, as well as heat in your nasal cavity. Finally, holding your breath also activates the sympathetic nervous system. McKeown says that one or all these factors help to unclog your stuffy nose.

    Breathe Better by Breathing Right

    The smallest changes can often lead to the biggest results. This idea applies when it comes to your health. The simplest solution, like light nasal breathing, can often be the best solution.

    At the same time, it’s the little things that most of us often take for granted. Breathing is automatic and needs no effort to do. As a result, most people ignore the opportunity to learn how to breathe better.

    Don’t be like most people. Put some thought into how you breathe, instead. When you do, you’ll find out that it can make a world of difference.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.