Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Breathe Easy...

Have you ever watched a sleeping baby or even a sleeping animal? Do you notice how easily they breathe?

God created us with a natural rhythm for breathing. We each have a diaphragm, which is tailor-made for our specific body. It's function is to supply each of us with the right amount of air we need during rest and during normal activity.

This diaphragm is a thin, strong sheet of muscle that is attached to the lower edges of our ribs.
It flattens down to expand our lungs as we inhale oxygen-rich air. As it relaxes, it returns to its normal, somewhat domed shape, and carbon-dioxide filled air is expelled from our lungs. Our diaphragm also acts as a pump, helping the heart circulate blood up and down the body. It's gentle action on the stomach help digestion, as well.

The diaphragm works with the chest or intercostal muscles. When we are quiet, the lower ribs and upper abdomen flare gently, helping the diaphragm, while the upper ribs remain relaxed and still.

During moderate to strong exercises, the upper chest opens up like a reserve tank, to take in extra oxygen-rich air; this also happens when we feel fear or anger and the body prepares us for flight or fight. Sometimes, when needed, our neck and shoulder muscles even get involved. (Information on how our breathing works taken from the book, "Hyperventilation Syndrome by Dinah Bradley).

Now, God made it so that this breathing system works without much, if any, conscious effort on our part. For people who continue to breathe normally throughout life, this system naturally shifts back and forth from relaxed breathing to breathing for intense activity. God created our bodies so that they know just how much oxygen and carbon-dioxide we need, and it directs our breathing to keep our blood at just the right mix. This leads to a sense of overall well-being. Unless there is a malfunction of some other system or organ in the body, the person who breathes well feels well.

However, while most of our breathing happens without our even thinking about it, God did give us some control over our breathing. This is to our benefit. For example, think of the swimmer who times his breathing so that his overhand crawl stroke is efficient. Or, think of the singer who uses her breath to support her singing.

Unfortunately, many adults and even some children lose the natural rhythm of breathing that God gave us. When this happens, we develop poor habits of breathing and of posture.

We've all heard about people who have an intense attack in which they hyperventilate. In other words, they breathe too quickly and too shallowly in response to a trauma of some kind. They get their upper chests going in response to emotion, yet they should be breathing low and slow in order to calm themselves.

This hyper-breathing upsets the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the body. In an acute situation, this imbalance can make the person feel so sick that they may even fear they are going to die. Fortunately, hyperventilation is rarely dangerous, even though it feels catastrophic to the person experiencing it. It can be easily corrected by a few methods that helps the person return to normal breathing and normal levels of blood oxygen and carbon dioxide.

While we've heard about intense hyperventilation, many of us have not heard about chronic hyperventilation. Chronic hyperventilation occurs when someone develops long-term breathing habits that are unhealthy. Chronic hyperventilation is generally less dramatic than acute hyperventilation; no one could function on a daily basis at that intense level of over-breathing. Yet, while chronic hyperventilation is not as intense as acute hyperventilation, it still messes with the gases in our blood. This can lead to all sorts of symptoms, which can be frightening and discouraging.

Here are just a few symptom of chronic hyperventilation: Tingling and numbness in lips and extremities; chest-pains (Never self-diagnose chest pains! You must consult a doctor to rule out any cardiac causes!); frequent deep sighs and yawns; feeling light-headed or having a sense that everything is fading into white; feeling "spacey"; temporary changes in vision and other sensory perceptions; weakness; unusual fatigue; restless sleep; nightmares; achy muscles and joints; palpitations; anxiety; inability to relax; upset stomach; irritable bowel syndrome; unexplained breathlessness; "air hunger"; just feeling "off", etc.

Note: There are many conditions that can cause any of all of these symptoms. The body has only so many ways of signaling distress, so we need medical attention to help us sort out what's what. Once again, do not diagnose yourself. Let a doctor help you. Once the doctor has ruled out other conditions, you can investigate chronic hyperventilation as a factor.

So, if we are born breathing properly, then why do so many people become chronic hyperventilators? There are many reasons. Here are a few examples:

A. Some people have incorrect ideas about posture, which causes them to hold in muscles that are meant to expand and contract effortlessly.
B. Our culture values flat stomachs. It is good to avoid abdominal fat, which can lead to heart problems. And, there is some value in standing properly, so that our lower abdominal organs are held in their right place. However, it's not helpful to obsess about having unnaturally flat abs. Our abdomens are meant to expand when we breathe. If we continually suck them in tightly for vanity' sake, we can undermine our health.
C. Some children (and adults) experience a lot of stuffy noses. Consequently, they can get into a habit of breathing through their mouths, which encourages hyperventilation.
D. Likewise, asthma, by definition, is an interruption in our normal breathing cycle. Those who suffer from chronic asthma sometimes continue to breathe differently, even when they are not currently experiencing an attack. Asthma is nothing to fool around with, so get a doctor's advice in this regard.
E. During times of change, stress, or even happy busyness, we can get into a habit of holding in the muscles around our diaphragm tightly, rather than letting the diaphragm work as it normally should. We can do this without even realizing it. Many's the time I've been surprised to catch myself holding in my upper abdomen.
F. A woman's monthly hormonal shifts, as well as menopause, can affect breathing patterns. Once again, the body will try to to normalize breathing. However, if you have let yourself develop bad breathing habits, it will be hard for your breathing to correct itself.
G. People who have health problems, particularly heart or lung problems, can become over-anxious about their health and chronically hyperventilate as a result.
H. After surgery, people are given breathing exercises and breathing devices that help us keep our lungs clear and pneumonia free. In the short term, this is a good thing. But, it's essential to return to normal breathing once the recovery period is over.
I. People with permanent damage to their lungs and airways may not be able to breathe normally. A doctor's advice can help.

Next time: How to maintain or recover good habits of breathing.


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