When was the last time you thought about a breath you took?
If I had to take a guess, it wouldn’t be a moment in recent memory. And to be honest, that really is a good thing in many ways. What that reveals is that our bodies have efficiently passed off the duties of breathing to our adaptive/subconscious mind, as a part of the natural, habitual functions that keep our bodies operating and alive. This is beneficial because it frees up our mind and our energy to be fully invested in our other pursuits, activities, or tasks in day-to-day life.
But breathing is no trivial part of our existence. in fact, it is the most fundamental cornerstone to life itself. As Patrick McKeown aptly states:
“We can live without food for weeks and water for days, but air just a few brief moments.”
What’s the Problem?
Now I know you are probably a few paragraphs away from moving on to read something else, so I want to tell you something shocking.
If you had to guess whether you breathe too much or too little, which would you guess? If you’re like me, you would probably guess that you breathe too little. But, as you may have guessed already, the opposite is more often true.
Here’s the problem: the majority of people in modern society have succumbed to the hurtful habit of overbreathing. Again, If you’re like me you’re probably thinking - “but that doesn’t make sense?” While it is counter-intuitive, once you understand the physiological response taking place within the body, you will understand the reason for why this is true.
For starters, here are two of the primary effects of chronic overbreathing:
Narrowing of your airways - which limits your body's ability to oxygenate
Constriction of blood vessels - which reduces blood flow to the heart and other organs/muscles
Is this a deadly habit? Not necessarily, but it is a limiting one. In the realm of athletics, overbreathing is one of the most underrated obstacles to maximizing performance.
"Overall fitness and sports performance is usually limited by the lungs, not by the legs, the arms, or even the mind.”
At its core, your lungs and your ability to oxygenate is what impacts your ability to perform. And this is true not only in the area of sports, but also in daily life and work performance. While we all tend towards inflated views of ourself, this is most literally true in regards to the chances you are an overbreather. McKeown points out that we can breathe “two to three times more air than required without knowing it.”
I’d think twice before taking that next breath...
The Internal Picture
As McKeown writes in his book “The Oxygen Advantage”, the reality of improving our breathing is a paradox. The case that he convincingly makes is that, in order to improve our body’s oxygenation we need to start breathing less.
For this to make sense, we need to first take a look at what happens in the body during a breath.
When we breathe in oxygen, we are inhaling two Oxygen molecules bound together known as O2. This is delivered through the respiratory system - which is the system in your body that delivers oxygen from the atmosphere to your cells and tissues, and then transports the CO2 (carbon dioxide) produced in your tissues back into the atmosphere.
The purpose of breathing is to provide your body with oxygen, and the two areas in your body that need it the most are: 1) your brain, and 2) your muscles. But, in order to deliver the oxygen to your brain and muscles, the O2 molecules must be transported by red blood cells using hemoglobin molecules (a protein in the red blood that carries the oxygen). The crucial point in this process is the transfer of oxygen. The only way the hemoglobin can release the oxygen once it travels from the lungs to the tissues and cells is by the presence of carbon dioxide. Thus, if there isn’t sufficient carbon dioxide, then the oxygen isn’t able to be utilized by the body.
That is the whole premise of the oxygen paradox.
McKeown further explains the result of overbreathing by saying:
“When we breathe too much over an extended period of days to weeks, a biochemical change takes place inside us that results in an increased sensitivity or lower tolerance to carbon dioxide.”
“The problem is not a lack of oxygen in the blood, but that not enough oxygen is being released from the blood to tissues and organs, including the brain, resulting in feelings of lethargy and exhaustion. This happens because too much carbon dioxide has been expelled from the body.”
Carbon Dioxide is the integral link to making oxygen count.
How It Works
Since the concentration of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere is very low, we can safely conclude that we don’t inhale it from the air, but rather produce it in our tissues and cells during the process of converting food or oxygen into energy. Thus, carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of our body’s process of metabolism (converting food or oxygen into energy).
There are several important roles that carbon dioxide plays within the body:
Offloads oxygen from the blood to be used by the cells
Dilates the smooth muscle in the walls of airways and blood vessels
Regulates blood pH
But, on an even more fundamental level, CO2 is the primary influencer of our breathing efficiency - aka, how often we breathe and how big our breaths are. As you already know, CO2 is what we release in our exhale-breaths, but it is also the primary stimulus to breathe in the first place, sending the signal to our body that we need to release the rising quantity of CO2. But, as McKeown states: "the purpose of breathing is to get rid of the excess CO2, and not to get rid of as much as possible.”
So here’s the simple point: carbon dioxide plays the vital role of allowing the hemoglobin to release the oxygen from the blood-transport into the cells and tissues. Without high-enough levels of CO2, our body will not be utilizing the oxygen we breathe in. And without proper oxygenation, our body will trigger higher breathing volumes and higher breathing amounts. When we begin these overbreathing patterns, we end up expelling even more CO2 with increased exhalation, and, simultaneously, reduce our body’s tolerance to higher levels of CO2 in the first place.
This applies to exercise as well.
“As counterintuitive as it may seem, the urge to take bigger, deeper breaths when we hit the wall during exercise, does not provide the muscles with more oxygen but effectively reduces oxygenation even further.”
Talk about a downward spiral.
What To Do
There is always so many things we can do in life, yet there is also only so much that we can do in life. Things like this article are just a line on the page of the endless lists of ideas or strategies we can implement to improve our health and our lives. With that in mind, I want to give you two clear prompts for how to incorporate this knowledge into daily life.
1) Use Your Nose
In his book, Patrick McKeown makes the pertinent observation that - “noses are for breathing, and mouths are for eating.” This is so true, yet rarely practiced (and no, I’m not talking about eating through your nose).
There are many benefits of breathing through your nose instead of your mouth, but here are a few to wet your whistle:
Noses are more restricted than your mouth - which reduces the amount of oxygen you intake
Nasal breathing activates the diaphragm, whereas inhaling with the mouth produces chest breathing
Noses prepare the air to be received well by the body
Turbinates (in the nose) condition and guide the inhaled air into a steady, regular pattern
The air is warmed, humidified, and sterilized before being drawn into the lungs
Removes a significant amount of germs and bacteria for the air you breathe in
Nitric Oxide (important gas that serves many beneficial functions) is produced inside the nasal cavity
Nasal breathing helps downregulate nervous system, whereas upper-chest breathing is more likely associated with a stress response
Breathing through your nose is an attainable step that anyone can make. It will lead to improved body oxygenation and breathing habits, all while taking minimal effort to implement. Although it is important throughout the day, arguably the most important time for nose-breathing is at night. Breathing through your nose at night is a great way to reeducate your respiratory system to breathe lighter and lesser, and it will lead to deeper and more restful sleep. (If you are a chronic mouth-breather at night, try taping your mouth shut to retrain you breathing habits while sleeping. The results will surprise you.)
2) Less is More
One of the main phrases McKeown coins in his book is: “breathe light to breathe right”. This speaks to the paradox of breathing mentioned earlier:
“The commonly used practice of taking big breaths is based the misconception that taking in more air will increase the oxygen levels of the blood.”
The end goal with this phrase and the whole concept of this post and McKeown’s book, is that "breathing light” will lead to a higher percentage of carbon dioxide in the blood, which increases your body’s ability to use the oxygen you are inhaling.
Some of the noticeable effects of this rise in carbon dioxide are:
A feeling of increased warmth resulting from the dilation of blood vessels
A rosy red color coming into the face
Increased production of watery saliva in the mouth
The other important thing to remember is, increasing our tolerance to CO2 takes time, and, it isn’t always comfortable. Rising levels of CO2 are the main reason for people’s feeling/fear of claustrophobia. It isn’t an enjoyable practice, but it is helpful. And, over time, with consistent effort, your body will adapt and improve leading to more efficient performance, fitness, and general body function.
How to Test
There’s so much more that could be said, so for those who are curious to learn more, be sure to get a copy of “The Oxygen Advantage” by Patrick McKeown. It is a great resource for this and I would highly recommend it.
But, before I’m done, I want to leave you with a super simple (and practical) test you can perform to gauge where you are now and evaluate your progress going forward. This test is called the BOLT Test.
BOLT simply stands for: "Body Oxygen Level Test”. It is a test to show your body’s general tolerance to CO2. The BOLT Test score represents the length of time until the first definite desire to breathe. This is different than most breath-holding tests in that it measures the time up till your first “desire to breathe”, which is a more objective barometer than the maximum time you can hold your breath (subjectively influenced by willpower and determination).
Here’s how to perform the BOLT Test (ideally in the morning upon waking up):
Take a small breath in and a small breath out
Hold your breath and count the seconds (or have timer going)
Stop counting/timer when you feel the first natural desire to breathe
Return to normal breathing
If you have to take a big gulp/gasp of air in the first breath, then you probably held it longer than your "first natural desire to breathe”
It’s as simple as that!
Typically, the average person will score somewhere around 20 seconds. Elite athletes who train their respiratory system will have closer to 30 seconds or more. Ideally, the score to shoot for is 40 seconds, but that is only achieved through much practice over a prolonged period of time. (As a point of reference, my first BOLT score done a few weeks ago was right around the 20 second mark. I’ve got some work to do!)
There are many different forms of breathing exercises out there, but the goal of your practice should be to increase your body’s tolerance to CO2. Doing rounds of breath holds can be utilized to accomplish this, and these can be done sitting, standing, walking, or even jogging/running. But always consult a doctor before taking my advice, as I am not a medical practitioner. And more importantly, never do breathing exercises while in the water - especially when you are alone. Shallow-water blackout is not something to take lightly.
If you want a different style of breathing practice, be sure to check out the previous article I wrote several years ago on the Wim Hof method.
Remember: use your nose, and breathe light to breathe right.