Lower Stress and Increase Endurance by Breathing Better

December 4, 2006

by Ravi Raman

Do you wonder if there was a simple way to not only feel relaxed and focused but also have better energy levels throughout the day? Or perhaps you are an athlete and want to improve your endurance without spending even more time exercising?

The good news is that you can both lower your stress levels and increase your endurance by breathing better! Breathing the right way has changed my daily attitude by helping me cultivate positive emotions while building up my ability to keep stress in check.

I’ve noticed that no-one talks about breathing when it comes to workplace performance or athletic training. The focus instead is on everything but breathing!  I have no idea why this is the case, but this blog post is my attempt to share a simple piece of knowledge that can have a huge impact on your quality of life and happiness at work. Perhaps one day the popular media and “experts” will catch up.

Why I care about breathing

I have been fascinated with breathing techniques and breathing exercises my entire life. Breathing is an integral part of my yoga and meditation practice (pranayama breathing). I see an important link between the quality of my breath and my mental and emotional states as well.

Almost ten years ago, I began applying a very specific form of breathing to my exercise. It was a simple technique, but maintaining it while running, cycling or skiing could prove difficult. Over time, it became easier and easier to do.

This one technique has had more impact on my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being than any other product, system or technique I have tried out in recent memory. It is incredibly simple. It is free. It doesn’t require any props or accoutrement. It doesn’t disturb or distract anybody. You can do it while doing other things. You don’t need any special abilities to start doing it. You don’t even need instructions. Oh, and did I mention it’s free? 🙂

In my experience, this technique has had a profound effect on my quality of life. When I practice it religiously, my endurance throughout the day has skyrocketed. I rarely become stressed, and when I do, it seems to pass over me like a gentle breeze. My ability to focus on things that are important to me has increased significantly.

What is this technique?

It is very simple. Keep your mouth shut!

Focus on breathing through your nose.

Make nose breathing a habit and you are bound to see a profound change in the quality of your life. Throughout this article, I will provide a more thorough description of the scientific basis for nasal breathing, an overview of my experience using the technique, and some simple guidance for applying the technique in your daily life (not that you need much in the way of instruction!).

Awaken your inner child

I have had the chance to be around a few babies, and quite a few young children lately. Have you ever taken a step back and observed babies and kids? Have you noticed how they breathe? Aside for the occasional temper tantrum or crying fit, they breathe in a relaxed fashion through their nose. There is no gasping for air through their mouth. Even when kids are at play, they have a rhythmic, fluid and moderate way of breathing. They are having fun. They are completely living in the moment. They are not gasping for air.

The human body is built for nose breathing. The mouth has evolved for eating and drinking. The nose has evolved to breathe.

The nose is filled with cilia, small hairs that filter out particulate matter. They keep your body clean and safe from harmful objects and organisms. If you live in any city or urban environment (like I do) you should be thankful for these!

Even more intriguing, is that the nose contains a series of ridges or turbinates, that are shaped like elongated sea-shells. Think of these turbinates like your air conditioning system. They allow inhaled air to adopt a smooth flow and pass through the maximal surface area of cilia and mucous membranes.

Air that passes over these built-in Brita Filters is heated up to body temperature, filtered and humidified (up to 98% saturation). The result is that the inhaled air is less shocking to the body and easier to process. In cold weather, the warm air helps to keep the core of your body warm.

Therefore, it would seem that we are built to nose breath all the time.

However, when was the last time you went out for a run, and only breathed through your nose? Most of us resort to mouth-breathing at the slightest hint of effort. There is no way we could perform at a high level with such a little amount of air sniffed in through a tiny nose….right?

The rest of the animal kingdom, if they could speak up, would disagree!

Unleash the race-horse within

Horses are majestic, unique and inspiring animals. They are unusual for their ability to not only run long distances while carrying large loads (including their 1000+ pound bodies!), but their apparent enthusiasm with running hard day after day after day. Interestingly enough, a horse can run at amazing speeds while only breathing through their nose. They are designed to breathe in this manner and have no issue providing enough oxygen for their enormous bodies.

Similar to humans, they also sweat through their skin. Therefore, their mouth is of no use at all while riding. You could tape a thoroughbred race horse’s mouth shut during training or a race and it would perform just fine! In fact, some thoroughbred horse trainers use techniques like this to “re-train” horses that have breathing issues, to optimize their speed and performance on the track, or simply to improve their temperament.

Dogs are similar, in that they are nose breathers during any level of exercise. Whether you are strolling around town or going for a run together, their nose is hard at work. The one exception is that since they do not sweat through their skin, they must pant to cool themselves down. However, they are still primarily breathing through their nose. Look across various types of mammals, and your will see a similar trend, they are primarily nose breathers.

Are humans that different? Nope!

In addition to the filtering and warming mechanisms in the nose, the turbinates (those ridges in the nose) and the lungs work together to help you breathe more efficiently no matter what you are doing. Specifically, these turbinates control and smooth air flow and pressure so that your lungs are better able to take in the air to their larger lower portions. This is critically important when you consider how the lungs are built.

the human lungs

Your lungs are two large sacks that are tapered toward the top and quite wide at the bottom. They are filled with alveoli, small sacks filled with capillaries (tiny blood vessels) that allow carbon dioxide to leave your body and oxygen to enter. Not only are the bottom portion of the lungs larger, but they also have a much higher number and concentration of alveoli than the top portion. When you breath shallow breaths through your mouth, you are not utilizing the lung’s maximal oxygen processing capabilities.

When you breathe in through your nose, the air flows over the turbinates, which directs and funnels the air stream more effectively to the lower portions of the lungs.

Try this out for yourself right now. Sit back and take normal breaths through your mouth for 20 seconds. Stay relaxed and breathe normally. Now, take relaxed breaths through your nose for 20 seconds. Feel a difference?

Nose breathing causes your lower belly to move in and out, whereas mouth-breathing will cause more expansion of the upper ribs.

Nose breathing more effectively feeds the capillary-rich lower-portions of the lungs. With practice, I have noticed a steady improvement in my ability to nose-breath larger quantities of air.

Healthy blood for a healthy body

Another crucial aspect of nose-breathing is that it helps the body to maintain a more appropriate level of carbon dioxide in the blood.

Let’s take an example of a runner. When you mouth-breath while running, you are taking in rapid breaths of large volumes of air. The result is that your body can throw off large quantities of carbon dioxide, a waste-product of the body. Isn’t this a good thing? Well, yes but only to a certain degree.

The problem is, mouth breathing quickly puts you into a state where you create an artificially low concentration of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. With low quantities of carbon dioxide in the blood, oxygen is not released as freely into the cells of the body. The body is tricked into thinking it is hyperventilated, or already has enough oxygen! The body needs to maintain a certain level of carbon dioxide in the blood to maximize its ability to absorb oxygen from inhaled air.

Mouth breathing is like trying to fill up a small cup of water from a fire hydrant. With the water gushing so fast from the hydrant, there would be no way to get anything into your cup! Despite the higher volume of air inhaled through the mouth, your body is getting less oxygen. This is counter-intuitive but makes sense when you study the underlying biological process.

Breathing through your nose allows a smaller and more highly directed stream of air to flow deep into the lungs. As a result, according to Dr. Konstantine Buteyko (creator of The Buteyko Breathing Technique), the carbon dioxide levels of your blood can stay at a more moderate and even level, and the oxygen can be efficiently absorbed into the bloodstream.

As an added benefit, the nasal sinuses are large producers of nitric oxide, which is a powerful vasodialator. It’s presence signals blood vessels and capillaries to relax, thereby increasing blood flow to your cells.

Feed your body and your brain

For most vertebrates, the brain requires 2-8% of our body’s oxygen to function. Humans, however, with our overgrown brains, require a consumption of around 20% of our body’s oxygen to function normally. Whether you are running a marathon or just trying to concentrate better at work; proper oxygenation, and, therefore breathing, is of the utmost importance and worthy of your attention. If you have any interest to improve your health and well-being, start with your breath.

Additionally, it is the belief of those that follow a Yoga practice, an ancient Indian tradition, that vital energy or prana, is absorbed through the olfactory organ. The prana, which cannot be seen or measured by any instruments, is necessary for the health of the physical and non-physical or subtle bodies. It is thought to travel along the olfactory nerve in the nose directly to the brain. If you believe in the power of subtle energy forces such as prana, you are forgoing this free benefit by breathing through your mouth. It is for this reason that hatha yoga and meditation practices stress the use of nasal breathing exclusively, even during intense hatha yoga practice.

Committing to change

About nine years ago, when I first realized that nose breathing could support endurance performance, I practiced it exclusively for 30 days. I was intrigued after reading about the benefits for endurance athletes in John Douillard’s book, “Body, Mind and Sport.”

John’s book cites research showing a marked decrease in the heart rates of runners who nose breath during high intensity 5K races. Through a more efficient processing of oxygen in the body, the heart has to pump less frequently. His studies have shown runners who apply the technique crossing the finish line at cross-country races in full sprint, while not being out of breath at all! For anyone training for a sport, particularly endurance athletes, nasal breathing holds a great promise for improved efficiency and performance.

I dedicated myself to this practice for 30 days, even while running, weight training and climbing eight flights of stairs to and from the apartment I was living in at the time. The change was not easy. At first, my runs were slowed down considerably. I was forced to slow down my pace by 30% to maintain the nasal breathing. Throughout my early runs, I would get to points where I want to gasp for air. I would not give in…instead, I would simply slow down the pace. Walking up the stairs to my apartment I would feel my lungs crying out for more air. I would simply slow my pace down. Within a few days, I saw my body begin to adjust.

However, I vividly recall how after 30 days of steady practice, I would estimate that my runs were only about 10% slower than if I were mouth breathing. Walking up the stair to my apartment was no issue at all. After eight flights of stairs, I recall a slight urge to breathe through my mouth, but after five or ten seconds of rest at the top of the stairs, I was back to breathing normally. While weight lifting, even during strenuous exercises like squats or deadlifts, I was able to keep my breathing and concentration under complete control without any issues.

Every day I saw progress. I noticed my nose opening up. I had less mucous and stuffiness in my nose. I was able to take in a larger quantity of air through my nose as well. My breathing was more controlled.

Nose breathing all day long

I also noticed how I was so addicted to mouth breathing throughout other parts of the day. While eating. While talking to others. Sitting in meetings. Even while sleeping! I was mouth breathing all the time, even when my body was sedentary. Switching to nose breathing throughout the day has allowed me to maintain a state of relaxed alertness. I find my energy levels much more even.

Aside from the physical benefits, I am see many other benefits in my life since I have become a nose breather. Specifically, I have noticed that I am much more in tune with my environment. I am not trying to sound all metaphysical. I am just letting you know the experiences I am having with complete honesty! I can relate to people better. I am finding that my senses are sharper. My intuition is more keen.

Lower stress naturally

Most importantly, I have seen a dramatic decrease in stress from my life. The change was so drastic that I almost cannot believe it. It seems that whenever I experience a normally stressful situation, I can instantly recognize it, and my mental focus instantly goes back to my breath. In the process, the stress dissolves away. Previously, when I would get stressed, I would find myself holding my breath or sucking in air through my mouth. This has changed. This is not something I am consciously doing, it just happens. I have not seen any research correlating these benefits with nasal breathing but wanted to share them as they have had such a profound impact on my life.

Breathing exercises

I hope that if you have read this far, that you are open to doing whatever it takes to improve the quality of your life, and the lives of those around you.

The switch to nose-breathing has been a huge blessing to my life so far. I urge others out there to give it a try for ten full days.

The breathing exercises you should do are two-fold:

Exercise 1:

Breath through your nose throughout your day.

During meetings, driving, shopping, while eating. All day long!

Exercise 2:

Breath through your nose during exercise of any form.

Slow down and take brakes if it becomes too uncomfortable.

I am convinced that you will see huge benefits. If you are an athlete, expect it to take a few months before you are performing at your normal speed again. A weight lifter will not see much, if any negative impact. A runner will have to slow down for a few months! Just be aware of this. Treat it like a game and have fun with it.

At work, notice how your breathing helps you deal with stress, improve focus and help you sustain your energy levels through the day. It’s possible to see big results in even a single day. This is what happened to me. The key thing is to breathe through your nose all the time.

Conclusion

It has been many years since I first started practicing nose breathing and I still find myself sticking to it all day long. It has become my natural way of breathing. However, I constantly find myself reverted to mouth breathing during intense exercise. Keeping up the nose breathing during workouts take a lot of focus and vigilance. It is worth doing but like any habit takes some tine and finesse to stick to it over the long term.

One tip for those who want to give nose breathing a try during exercise: sometimes you must take a step back to take two steps forward. The research and logic behind nose breathing is sound. My 30 day-trial erased my doubts. I was willing to put in the time and energy moving forward to see where it took me, even though it meant training at a slower pace and dealing with a little discomfort early on.

Have fun with it. I hope you give it a try!

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