The Air Up There

What exactly is breath? It’s the natural process of ventilation. It begins with our diaphragm, which contracts and moves downward so that inhalation can occur. This allows more room in the chest, and it’s into this created space that the lungs expand. Air is sucked through the nose or mouth into this expansion and enters the alveoli (air sacs). The oxygen in the air then passes into the capillaries (blood vessels).

At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the capillaries into the air sacs. On exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its upward position. Air, now filled with carbon dioxide, is forced through the lungs and out the nose or mouth. Meanwhile the oxygenated blood is carried to the heart, which pumps it into the rest of the body.

The base of the brain controls breathing, sending signals down the spine to the nerves and muscles needed to perform this function, says the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (nhlbi.nih.gov). Breathing rates change when the brain detects higher or lower carbon dioxide or oxygen levels in the blood, such as during exercise or when there are irritants in the air.

Emotions also cause changes in breath. When someone is frightened or angry, his or her breathing becomes shallow and fast. Adrenaline is released, which speeds up heart rate. Very rapid breathing can trigger hyperventilation, wherein carbon dioxide levels become so low that other symptoms such as panic, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, and even fainting can occur.

If you woke up breathing, congratulations! You have another chance.” — Andrea Boydston

Unfortunately, short, fast and shallow breathing can become chronic as a response to stress and tension, as can the habit of holding the breath.

“People tense up and stop breathing during a car accident—it’s the relaxed drunk driver who survives,” points out Marguerite Barnett, M.D., F.A.C.S., P.A. and owner of Mandala Med-Spa & Yoga Shala in Sarasota, Florida. “People hold their breath as a way of hoping nothing will happen. And it’s instinct for us to hold our breath when we are in pain or tense, times when breathing would actually help us.”


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