For something that I do around 23,000 times every single day, I’ve thought surprisingly little about the simple action of breathing in and out.
I briefly gave it some more thought when I took up yoga classes 10 years ago, although my focus was more on just feeling grateful for my medulla – that little portion of our brain stem that automatically controls our breathing, meaning I didn’t have to spend all day outside of yoga class obsessing over it.
But then, my health took a bit of a nosedive after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and I realised that maybe I did actually have to start paying serious attention to my body – and all the things I took for granted that it would do.
In the midst of it, a specialist told me I should get surgery asap on my sinuses to help put a halt to the constant colds and infections that plagued me. Avoiding getting sick sounded great, but surgery also sounded like the last thing I wanted to contend with at the time, so I put it on the back burner. It wasn’t until three years later that I circled back to the idea and took a referral to another surgeon for a second opinion before I went under the knife.
There, after chatting for 15 minutes and having a camera plunged down my nasal passages (which was about as pleasant as it sounds) the surgeon noted that I did have a slightly deviated septum, but then he followed it up with something rather surprising.
“You could get surgery,” he said, throwing his plastic gloves in the bin. “But can I offer you something else to try first?”
“Work on your breathing.”
Turned out, he’d been watching me closer than I thought and had noted that I was taking lots of shallow breaths – definitely not the slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths I assumed my time in yoga had ensured I’d adopted. I needed to stop taking sharp breaths from high up in my chest and never inhale through my mouth again, he said. If that didn’t work for me, then I should come back for another look.
That surgeon (who was the first I’ve ever been to who actually steered me away from an operating theatre) was clearly onto something. I got my hands on everything I could read on the subject – including a copy of James Nestor’s book, Breath.
James – a journalist – spent years researching the breath and along the way turned himself into a human guinea pig, testing the results of mouth breathing. The results were staggering: In 10 days he developed sleep apnoea, high blood pressure and his stress levels were off the charts – all just as a result of not breathing through his nose.
Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and studies, further results he found around breathing correctly were nothing short of miraculous. Modern research shows that if we make even just the slightest adjustments to the way we exhale and inhale, it can have wide reaching effects on our health – from jump-starting athletic performance to halting asthma and autoimmune disease. It can even straighten scoliotic spines.
Every day I thought about his book and what my surgeon said and I went months and months and months without a sinus infection – let alone a cold (which was a minor miracle for me). But then, I got a doozy of one. The link between that sickness and the fact I’d had a hugely stressful few months leading up to it (where, yes, I’d slipped back into some bad old habits), was undeniable.
Perhaps a breathing coach could help?
And so, I took myself off to see Dina Ceniza of The Breathe Clinic. With a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science) under her belt, Dina is a Certified Practitioner in Buteyko – a method of breathing developed in the 1950s by Dr Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian Doctor.
She came across it after ending up in the ED one night with heart palpitations – fearing that she may be having a panic attack. “I went to medical school – I’m not a doctor, because I didn’t finish – but my husband knows I’m not someone to say I need to go to the hospital unless I really mean it!” she tells.
Her heart was fine, but she continued to have issues – twice being hospitalised with suspected allergies and asthma attacks. Which was when she was introduced to Buteyko by a doctor and was able to significantly reduce her medication.
Now, eager to share her passion, Dina took me through a range of tests at her practice, including hooking me up to a capnograph, which measures the concentration of carbon dioxide in exhaled air and can evaluate your breathing patterns and habits. In Buteyko there is a great focus on CO2 levels, as its inventor discovered that changes in those levels – caused by unhealthy breathing habits – actually cause changes in blood chemistry and our metabolism. Over time, that shows up as a range of symptoms and diseases.
“We know CO2 helps to regulate breathing,” says Dina, “but CO2 also calms the nervous system, so people who have low CO2 have a hyper-reactive, hyper-vigilant nervous system – so, for those prone to it, it can also cause anxiety, panic attacks, or at the very least, high stress.”
For me, the capnograph delivered some good news – when I was at rest, I was only breathing through my nose (hurrah) and my oxygen saturation levels were spot on at 97%. To do our own little test on the effect of mouth breathing, I pinched my nose and spent a minute inhaling just through my mouth – my CO2 levels began dropping drastically, and even once I resumed regular breathing, it was more than five minutes before my levels recovered to what they were before.
But, the capnograph wasn’t all good news. “You have chronic hyperventilation,” Dina told me. “It’s currently mild and the good news is there is something you can do about it!”
Ultimately, she told me, we each want to be breathing in just four to six litres each minute. I was taking in 7.5 litres (when my eyes widened at this news, she assured me she had people in that same seat who inhaled well over double that). Added to that, when I wasn’t thinking about it, my breathing was 100% happening in my upper chest again, rather than being diaphragmatic. As a result, my CO2 levels were below optimum.
While I’m still in the “mild” stage, Dina suggested some exercises I do at home for just five minutes a day and check in with her on my progress – that could be enough to improve my breathing by 20% and bring me in line with where I optimally should be. But, already, I’m considering the investment of a course with her as a breathing coach.
If something so small – something we all do without thinking – can make such a big difference to our health, surely it’s an investment worth making.