Written by Olfa Hafsa | Monday, 26 June 2023
We all know how crucial breathing is. It is, after all, the one single thing that we do continuously from birth to the last moment of our life.
Breathing has been receiving increasing attention in the last few years, and a plethora of techniques, books, resources, workshops, are now available to change breathing habits. But beyond its role in oxygen supply do you know what the roles of breathing are, and why it is so important for your health? And are you aware of the issues associated with impaired breathing, and what you can do to address them?
Breathing is not just about supplying oxygen to our cells.
The most known role of breathing is indeed about oxygen, which is continuously needed for our cells to function well and to produce the energy we need to think, move, detoxify, and more. However, breathing is also about eliminating carbon dioxide, a waste product of our cells that needs to be eliminated quickly for optimal function.
Breathing also plays an important role in regulating our body’s pH (acidity level), as pH needs to be kept within a very narrow range. The carbon dioxide produced by our cells increases acidity, and breathing helps eliminate it to avoid excessive acidity (acidosis) which can cause health issues. On the other hand, ‘insufficient’ acidity can happen if a person breathes out too much carbon dioxide (as in hyperventilation) and that can be a problem too!
Another little-known function of breathing is its role in the circulation of blood and lymph. Unlike arterial blood which is pumped out thanks to our heart’s contractions, venous blood and lymph rely on other mechanisms including the ‘respiratory pump’. This means that when we breathe in and out, we move specific muscles of our upper body which help to move these fluids so that nutrients can be delivered to our cells and wastes can be eliminated.
When a person is not exercising, normal healthy breathing is defined as involuntary deep and slow belly breathing through the nose. Any variation from this can be qualified as impaired breathing. If the impairment is chronic and cannot be associated to a specific condition (for example, asthma, COPD, heart disease), it is called ‘dysfunctional breathing’. There are different types of dysfunctional breathing patterns, the most common ones being:
Chest breathing: when the person mainly uses their upper chest to breathe instead of combining chest and belly breathing
Hyperventilation: when the person ‘over-breathes’ by breathing too fast or too deep
Paradoxical breathing: when the person draws their belly inwards with inspiration and outwards with expiration
Dysfunctional breathing has been associated with a wide range of physical and psychological issues, including:
It is important to approach all cases holistically. This means that each person needs a personalised assessment to evaluate the possible factors involved, and to decide which interventions could help. Here is a list of things to consider:
Raise the issue with your doctor: Your doctor can identify if a medical condition is causing the problem and should be addressed. Breathing issues can be associated with cardiac and respiratory/lung conditions.
Get your iron and haemoglobin tested: Low iron and low haemoglobin can cause shortness of breath and fatigue. Seek help from a professional to identify the causes of deficiency and consider adequate supplementation if needed.
Consider sensitivities: Immune reactions can also affect breathing. This includes allergies, but also reactions to salicylates, sulphites, histamines, and other chemicals in your food and environment. Seek help from a professional to identify if you are reacting to specific substances and address the issue.
Reduce stress levels: Anxiety is a well-known factor in dysfunctional breathing. To reduce nervous stimulation, schedule regular time for rest, practice relaxation, engage in activities you enjoy doing, and consider mental health support if needed.
Visit a musculoskeletal professional: They will be able to do a thorough assessment of your posture, muscle function and joint function to identify if any structural abnormality needs to be addressed.
Consider breathing retraining: This involves consciously practicing breathing exercises to develop healthy breathing habits. Breathing techniques can be learnt with meditation, yoga, Qi Gong, or with specific breathing therapies as the Papworth and Buteyko methods.
If you have been having breathing issues which cannot be not associated to a specific disease, it may be worth using a holistic perspective to identify what personal or environmental factors could be involved. Reach out to a naturopath who will be able to guide you on the journey, and create a holistic treatment plan tailored to your individual circumstances.
Empower yourself with knowledge — find out more about our range of Natural Health courses and take the plunge towards a happier, healthier you.
Boulding, R., Stacey, R., Niven, R., & Fowler, S. J. (2016). Dysfunctional breathing: a review of the literature and proposal for classification. European Respiratory Review, 25(141), 287-294. https://doi.org/10.1183/16000617.0088-2015
Chapman, E. B., Hansen-Honeycutt, J., Nasypany, A., Baker, R. T., & May, J. (2016). A clinical guide to the assessment and treatment of breathing pattern disorders in the physically active: Part 1. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 11(5), 803-809.
Hamasaki, H. (2020). Effects of diaphragmatic breathing on health: A narrative review. Medicines, 7(10), 65. https://doi.org/10.3390/medicines7100065
Malátová, R., Bahenský, P., Mareš, M., & Rost, M. (2017). Breathing pattern of restful and deep breathing. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(1), 28-39.
Singh, A., Gulyani, L., Singh, A., & Raghav, S. (2022). A Case Study on Breathing Rehabilitation in a 32-year-old Male with Dysfunctional Breathing. Asian Pacific Journal of Health Sciences, 9(4(S)), 210-215. https://doi.org/10.21276/apjhs.2022.9.4S.40
Vidotto, L. S., Fernandes de Carvalho, C. R., Harvey, A. & Jones, M. (2019). Dysfunctional breathing: what do we know? Jornal Brasileiro de Pneumologia, 45(1). https://doi.org/10.1590/1806-3713/e20170347
Olfa is a clinical Naturopath (BHSc Naturopathy, Dux) who practices in the areas of autoimmunity and mental health.
Her journey into complementary medicine started with her own experience of being diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune condition in her 20s, and her decision to take ownership of her health. Having experienced first-hand the remarkable benefits of Naturopathy in chronic disease, she has made it her priority to support people with autoimmunity to regain control over their lives.
Besides her naturopathic qualification, she holds a Master of Food Science giving her a deep grounding in science and biochemistry, and is currently training as a Counsellor to expand her therapeutic skills in the mental health area. She offers in-person consultations from her clinic space in Brisbane, as well as online consultations (telehealth) Australia-wide. For more information on Olfa’s work and approach, visit her website at https://avicenna-hw.com/ or simply get in touch at email@example.com.