Breathing is life. It's the first thing we do when we come into this world and the last then we do as we are about to leave it. Without the breath, human life is not possible.
So, why is breathing so important to our existence and what does the body do with the air we breathe? You may be surprised by at least part of the answer. Let's take a quick look at the science of breathing.
Gases Essential to Life
Two important breathing related gases are oxygen and carbon dioxide. We breathe in and oxygen enters the body. We breathe out and expel carbon dioxide, which is produced by our muscles and organs. Some say oxygen is fuel for our engine and carbon dioxide as our engine's exhaust. Actually, carbon dioxide plays several very important roles in the body. Like oxygen, we could not live without carbon dioxide.
Oxygen Is Important But So Is Carbon Dioxide
Oxygen is required for the production of energy, the stuff that moves our muscles and organs. The body is not capable of producing oxygen and takes it from the air we breathe. Our air is comprised of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and 1% other gases.
Once in our lungs, oxygen is transported by blood to muscles and organs. Oxygen is released from the blood and absorbed by our muscles. At the cellular level, oxygen combines with glucose from the food we eat to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is then "burned" to produce energy.
Carbon dioxide is produce as part of the energy creation process. Carbon dioxide is removed from the cells and placed in the blood for transport back to the lungs. Once in the lungs, carbon dioxide is "blown off" when we exhale.
Before carbon dioxide hops a ride in the blood, it plays out an important role in the energy production cycle. Carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid. Carbonic acid causes a chemical reaction, which dislodges oxygen from the blood making the oxygen available to be absorbed by muscles and organs. Without carbon dioxide, oxygen would be stuck in the blood, never be absorbed by muscles and organs and could not be used to produce energy.
The process I've just described is known as the Bohr Effect. In 1904, Christian Bohr, a Danish scientist documented this process for the first time. Dr. Bohr said:
"The carbon dioxide pressure of the blood is therefore to be regarded as an important factor in the inner respiratory metabolism (energy creation). If one uses carbon dioxide in appropriate amounts, the oxygen that was taken up (breathed in) can be used more effectively throughout the body".
The Impact Breathing Has On Energy Production and Health
The way we breathe is key. Breathe too little and there's not enough oxygen for energy production. Breathe too much and we blow off carbon dioxide necessary to release oxygen from the blood. The balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide must be just right for optimal energy production.
Poor muscle and organ oxygenation becomes a problem over time. Initially, poor oxygenation results in muscle and organ fatigue. If this continues for years or decades, muscles and organs become impaired or diseased.
Regulating Our Breathing
Our brain, specifically the medulla oblongata, does a good job of regulating the amount of oxygen coming in and carbon dioxide going out. It adjusts our breathing as needed.
Unfortunately, the medulla can be altered by the environment and bad habits. When incorrect breathing begins it usually results in reduced body carbon dioxide levels; seldom are oxygen levels a problem. This reduces the amount of oxygen being released from the blood and absorbed by muscles and organs.
Other Roles Played By Carbon Dioxide
Getting oxygen out of the blood and into muscles and organs, is one of four important processes carbon dioxide performs in the body. The others are: a) dilation of hollow spaces in the body such as airways, arteries and intestines, b) managing correct blood pH and c) regulating nervous system activity, including the neurons of the brain. Incorrect breathing, blowing off too much carbon dioxide, negatively impacts these processes and may result in disease.
Disrupting the Breath Leads to Common Health Problems
Incorrect breathing for 24 hours starts to impact health. Continue this for years or decades and health issues will materialize.
There are 150, out of several thousand, health problems known to be caused by incorrect breathing. The most common include asthma, allergies, hay fever, insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea and anxiety. Others include Irritable Bowel Syndrome, fibromyalgia, Restless Leg Syndrome, Raynauds Disease, sinusitis, migraine headaches, constipation and high blood pressure. Yes, all of these are rooted in how we breathe and symptoms can be relieved by correcting our breathing.
Breathing is essential to life and quality of life. Breathing correctly maintains the body's chemistry balance, optimizes energy production and keeps us healthy. Who thought the simple act of breathing could be so important?