Many moons ago while randomly navigating the Internet, I stumbled upon a novel idea: improve your breathing and improve your health.
(Sidenote 1: it was only about 1 moon ago. Sidenote 2: when I use "navigate", I think sailing, but "stumbling" is clearly not very nautical. Does web browsing lend itself better to sea-based or land-based metaphors?)
Maybe the idea itself wasn't so novel, but the subsequent explanations, details, and theory to back it were fairly interesting. It was the application of actual science that made it interesting, not any new-age spirituality mumbo-jumbo.
(Sidenote 3: For now, I'm sticking with the standard "western view of the world is correct, and eastern ideas should be dismissed until proven otherwise" rhetorical approach. Personally, I'm more pragmatic. Things that work, work. I'd rather have an explanation based in science or medicine, rather than religion or spirituality, but I don't discount the results.)
If you read a handful of new-agey health stuff -- often a western "hippie" or "magical" reinterpretation of eastern knowledge -- there are a lot of recurring themes that revolve around the breath. E.g., "deep breathing" and "belly/diaphramagtic breathing" are good for you. Clustered in with these are concepts like "meditation", "[progressive] relaxation", "calming the mind", "mindfulness"... and slightly further out from that conceptual core is stuff like "aromatherapy", "accupressure", "developing the chakras", and even slightly more socially acceptable things like "herbal remedies", "raw/organic/paleo/whatever diets", "anti-genetically modified foods", etc.
In my experience, almost all of those get lumped together, and there's a love/hate reaction.
At one end of the spectrum, people just dismiss the whole lot.
At the other end, people go knee-deep in a bunch of pseudoscientific mysticism, thinking if they change [everything] in their lives and become more zen/in-tune-with-nature, that everything will become magically better, they'll end up happier. Some even become fad-chasers: take a million vitamins and you'll be "better"; reject modernization, and the world will be "better"; etc. There's a deep end, and a lot of people who get lost in it, one way or another.
Given that background, I found this breathing idea interesting precisely because it took the approach that the "eastern" techniques and results are valid, but that there's a "western" explanation as to why. Additionally, once you acquire the "western" understanding, the techniques can be optimized. Not only just to be more effective, but also to avoid the spiritual nuances in the original techniques.
A very incomplete example: Pranayama breathing in yoga focuses on extracting more "prana/life-force" from the air. Likewise, studies have shown that pranayama breathing allows more physical energy to be produced from a single breath, as compared to a single breath of the average American. Remove the "yoga" and "life-force" part, and you can effectively say "there are ways to improve your breathing that will give you more energy". Something relevant to everyone.
So what follows is my very naive summarization of what I've researched and learned. This isn't meant to be any end-all repository of knowledge. I found it interesting, and I'm no expert, but what I have learned I think is worth sharing.
One of the core ideas is that most people chronically OVER breathe. (Red herring: in "health" articles, you'll often see claims that Americans breathe shallowly with their chests, and that somehow conclude with telling you to breathe with your belly/diaphragm. The only real explanation is that "deeper breathing is better".)
A significant set of research findings shows that people with chronic diseases actually breathe far more air than a healthy person. As in, 2-3x as much air. Healthy people should breathe around 6-7 liters per minute. In contrast, people with Heart Disease breathe 12-16L/min; Cancer at 12L/min; Diabetes at 10-15L/min; Asthma and COPD at 12-15L/min; Cystic Fibrosis at 10-18L/min; etc. There's a lot of data, but the correlation is the same.
So we can say without much dispute: sick people breathe much more than healthy people.
What's a bit harder to quantify is "breathing less air (per minute) will make you healthier". For that, we need some basic physiology. I'm only getting a grasp of this myself.
Most people were taught that carbon dioxide is a "bad thing". Thus the faulty conclusion that if you breathe more, you get rid of more carbon dioxide and get more oxygen, which will make you healthier. This ties in with the whole "deep belly breathing is a 'good thing'" idea.
It turns out the truth is not quite as simple. Not only is carbon dioxide necessary, the body actually regulates CO2 levels far more precisely than oxygen levels. Additionally, if it weren't for CO2 in the bloodstream, your organs and muscles and other tissues wouldn't be able to get enough oxygen.
It's the fact that "you need carbon dioxide for your body to get oxygen from the blood" that's counter-intuitive based on my education (and probably yours too). Since oxygen requirements can vary from moment to moment, there are mechanisms to deliver more oxygen to some places and less to others. One of these is called the Bohr effect, and it says that areas with higher CO2 need more oxygen. Another is the process of vasodilation and vasoconstriction: your blood vessels get bigger to let more blood through, or smaller to restrict the blood supply.
Both of these processes -- vasodilation/vasoconstriction and the Bohr effect -- depend on carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Simply stated... if you don't have enough CO2, your body isn't getting enough oxygen from your blood. The blood might have enough oxygen, but your body isn't getting it. (Other areas of physiology have shown that insufficient oxygen at the cellular level is the root of almost every illness.)
And that's one reason why certain breathing techniques work: they increase the carbon dioxide in your blood.
Increased CO2 is called "hypercapnia". In medical jargon, "Hyper" = "more" and "Capnia" = "carbon dioxide".
The techniques vary, but hypercapnia can be induced by two primary means: 1) keeping more CO2 in the lungs, 2) breathing in more CO2. To keep more CO2 in your lungs, you can hold your breathe or exhale slower. To breathe in more CO2, you can introduce "dead space" that captures the air you exhale, and breathe it back in (mixed with fresh air). One simple way is to breathe through your nose all the time; your nasal passages and sinus cavities trap some of the air you exhale and when you breathe it in, you get a higher concentration of CO2. There are other techniques like breathing through a gas mask, or through a paper bag.
Once this discovery of the relationship between hypercapnia and body oxygen was made, several techniques were developed. There are specialized breathing techniques that involve breathing at the same speed, but not as deep. Others involve breathing deeper, but breathing very slowly (potentially 1 breath a minute or slower.) There are also several devices that enforce rebreathing the exhaled CO2.
So, increased body oxygenation through hypercapnia is part of it, but there's more.
Another pseudoscience health topic these days refers to acidic and alkaline foods, and their respective effects on the body. Some doctors have said there's absolutely no truth to it, other "natural" healers say that this is one of the most important discoveries ever.
Regardless of the validity of the food pH argument, pH in the bloodstream is incredibly important. The body has a two primary means of regulating the acidity of the blood: respiration/breathing, and removing bicarbonates in the kidneys.
A few prerequisites:
Just like how baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) neutralizes acids like vinegar, the body produces bicarbonates to "buffer" the acidity of the bloodstream. If the bloodstream is too alkaline, the kidneys will remove these bicarbonates from the bloodstream, and the blood will become more acidic.
On the other hand, while carbon dioxide is a gas in the air, in the bloodstream it is "carbonic acid". As you exhale carbon dioxide, you remove the carbonic acid from the blood, and it becomes less acidic.
So, breathing makes blood less acidic, the kidneys make it more acidic. These two mechanisms serve to keep the blood pH at the right levels.
However, something can go wrong when you start to over breathe. The body has a very strong reaction when the blood becomes too acidic, but it doesn't react nearly the same when it's too alkaline.
(Acidic blood is part of what causes you to breathe in the first place; if you hold your breath long enough and let the carbonic acid build up, muscles will begin to convulse and eventually force you to breathe. Breathing gets rid of this acid buildup via exhaling CO2. As another example, physical exercise releases acid into the bloodstream, so you end up breathing more to neutralize the acidity.)
Unfortunately, there aren't anywhere near as strong mechanisms to increase the acidity of the bloodstream if it gets too low. The kidneys remove the bicarbonates which makes it more acidic, but those bicarbonates are now no longer available for use elsewhere. Likewise, there's a finite supply of bicarbonates.
What ends up happening is that chronic overbreathing can lead to chronically alkaline blood. Very rarely is it alkaline enough to cause any problem on its own, but over time it can cause damage and other chronic symptoms. Unfortunately, I don't know enough to elaborate. From what I've read, this can cause spasms in the smooth muscle lining the digestive system, thus affecting how well the body is able to get energy from food.
A final (but not THE final) factor is that reduced oxygen levels -- hypoxia -- can actually be good for you. There is a lot of sports science that involves hypoxic training for better performance; sometimes this is done by training in the mountains with the thinner air. There are numerous studies discussing the benefits of hypoxia, but I'm not entirely sure how it works. The net result seems to be that the body becomes more efficient at using less oxygen.
These factors -- hypoxia, hypercapnia and blood pH -- seem to lead to better health, and so there are different techniques that can be used to generate those effects.
The Buteyko breathing method focuses on reduced breathing, slower and or shallower with some breath holding; yoga Pranayama focuses on deep and slow abdominal breathing with resistance (one nostril at a time) with breath holding; and the Frolov device and variants provide resistance, dead air space for hypercapnia, and use slow controlled abdominal breathing.
There's a ton of information on all of these topics, and the more I dig, the more I learn. While nothing is conclusive, the evidence and studies indicate that improved breathing can help manage symptoms and potentially eliminate chronic diseases. And, now that we know some of these mechanisms, there are things you can do at home with minimal effort to get these same results for yourself.
Some sources of information:http://www.normalbreathing.com/http://www.intellectbreathing.com/principle/http://amurklub.narod.ru/index.html
google searches about freediving and apnea training
youtube and google searches of capnography (used by paramedics and anesthesiologists to monitor CO2 levels)