There is no denying it – our bodies face stressors every day. We may not be consciously aware of it, but we’re in constant survival mode. Take eating, for example; when you unknowingly swallow a bite of food contaminated with harmful bacteria, a fight begins in your body as the food makes its way down the digestive tract. Our stomach acid is one of our primary defenders against bacterial and other infections. It’s there to sterilize food with its strong acid.
But what happens when you breathe in a bacteria or virus? Air doesn’t go through our digestive tract, so it isn’t exposed to that sterilizing stomach acid. How does the body deal with an infection that enters through the breath? The answer is the nasal cavity. This structure is the initial filter for the airway. It moistens the air we breathe in and entraps viruses, bacteria, and other particles within its network of hairs.
New research is even finding that good bacteria colonize the nasal cavity, helping to maintain balance and fight off these invaders. The mouth (oral cavity) doesn’t have those filters. It’s designed for food consumption –not breathing. Regular mouth-breathing raises the risk of these harmful invaders getting into your lungs.
The Importance of Breathing
Think breathing is just valuable for the respiratory system? Think again! An Australian study found that the way you breathe has a significant impact on many essential processes in the body, including:
- Blood flow
- Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) circulation
- Lymph flow
- Speech and vocalization
- Mental health and emotional states
- Control of the autonomic nervous system
- Heart rate
That’s just to name a few.
Another done on type 2 diabetics found that standard treatment + breathing exercises had significantly more improvements in depression, anxiety, stress, blood sugar, and HbA1c compared to a group that only received standard treatment.
How is this possible?
The body is an interconnected network, like the gears of a Swiss watch. As a result, changes in any one system will affect other systems. When one “gear” stops working or starts working better, the others will be affected, too. That’s why breathing exercises had the ability to change the brains and blood markers of the patients in this study. Even WebMD talks about the role breathing techniques like Pranayama play in improving mental health, stress levels, and lung function.
It may be surprising, but your gut and your lungs are connected! You may have heard of the gut-brain axis. Well, studies are now starting to reveal that there is also a gut-lung axis. Recent research has found that innate lymphoid cells, which are involved in tissue repair, move from the gut to the lungs in response to inflammation. There’s a clear pathway between the gastrointestinal system and the lungs. This pathway is called the mesenteric lymphatic system.
The mesenteric lymphatic pathway allows bacteria, metabolites, protein fragments, and other key players to communicate and travel between the GI and respiratory systems. As a result, an immune response in one system can directly cause an immune response in the other system.
You Have a Lung Condition, Now What?
If you’re concerned about a lung condition, the first thing is to determine whether it’s a primary or secondary condition. In other words, we need to find out if:
- The issue began in the lungs (primary)
- Or if the problem started elsewhere in the body and the lungs are having issues as a result (secondary).
Primary Issue (The condition began in the lungs)
If you’ve confirmed that your lung issue began in the lungs, the next step is to approach that issue head-on. An excellent way to do that is through breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing. This breathing technique helps clear toxins from our bodies more efficiently.
One researcher, Dr. Shields, M.D., found that “deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the cleansing of the lymph system by creating a vacuum effect which pulls the lymph through the bloodstream.” This “vacuum effect” is produced by the pump-like action of our diaphragms when we breathe deeply.
Normal breathing doesn’t have the same powerful effect that deep diaphragmatic breathing does for this reason.
A 2014 study answered a common misconception about which organ was the primary excretory organ for supporting weight loss. When surveyed, many healthcare professionals believed the body released fat primarily through heat, feces, sweat, urine, etc.
Researchers Meerman & Brown, however, explain how the lungs are the main elimination organs of our body. They eliminate toxins by removing CO2 through exhalation.
One way to take advantage of this knowledge is by performing full exhalations — breathing out to the point of completely emptying your lungs. Doing so can help cleanse your lungs from stagnant air and rid them of more toxins.
Some primary lung conditions will not allow you to breathe deeply. In that case, what can you do? One suggestion is to do your best to stop breathing through your mouth. As mentioned earlier, your nasal cavity is a natural filter, providing the first line of defense against potential intruders. If you already have a lung issue, you don’t want another “bad guy” joining the party to make things worse.
Researchers are devoting more time to analyzing the number and types of bacteria in our respiratory systems. It’s known that the types and balance of bacteria throughout the body significantly impact our health. One study found higher concentrations of some bacterial groups in patients with asthma or COPD compared to healthy controls.
Bacterial imbalances in the lungs (known as dysbiosis) can be triggered by invaders from the environment. These include things like infections, antibiotics, cigarette smoke, etc. Over time, these may lead to primary lung conditions. It’s critical to remove toxins and invaders and allow our bodies to repair themselves from the inside out.
We can support this healing through abdominal breathing (belly breathing) exercises and short-term supportive supplementation.
Secondary Issue (The issue started elsewhere in the body)
Remember the gut-lung axis mentioned earlier? The first place the body shows symptoms isn’t always where the problem began. It may have started in another area of the body (even months earlier) but didn’t produce any symptoms in that area.
For example, an infection, parasite, or imbalance in the gut can lead to a weakened immune system and affect lung health. A food choice or something applied to the skin can trigger an allergic response that can cause breathing issues and even asthma.
Did you know your entire respiratory tract has bacteria in it? We’ve known for a while that a healthy upper respiratory tract has a variety of bacteria. But until recently, experts thought a healthy lower respiratory tract was sterile when healthy. Not so!
Not only do people with healthy lungs have bacteria in them, but they have more bacteria in common between their mouths and lungs than those with unhealthy lungs. Our bodies are so interconnected that there are significant bacterial connections between the mouth and lungs. Who would have guessed?
The Third Player
You’ve heard about oxygen and carbon dioxide. This dynamic duo is the basis of our entire respiratory system, right? Recent research has discovered a potential third player, making a trio. That player? Nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide (NO) may debatably be the most critical player in the respiratory system. Without it, oxygen can’t efficiently get to the tissues it needs to supply. Oxygen is carried by our body’s red blood cells (RBCs). More specifically, the hemoglobin on the red blood cell carries oxygen and delivers it throughout the body.
In addition to oxygen, hemoglobin carries NO. NO controls the flow of blood in the blood vessels. For a long time, scientists believed the vessels controlled blood flow. Now we know that the RBCs play a role in this process. Red blood cell dysfunction may be a key player in many life-threatening conditions like stroke, heart attacks, high blood pressure, heart failure, etc.
Optimizing the level of NO has also been found to lower cholesterol, limit the pain of arthritis, reduce the risk of dementia, reverse erectile dysfunction, and much more.
Not only does NO play a role in widening blood vessels; it also widens respiratory tubes, helping us breathe. Scientists have found asthmatic patients have higher NO levels in the air they exhale. This may be due to the presence of inflammatory cytokines. Thus, elevated exhaled NO may be an early marker of lung inflammation and a great potential tool for diagnosing lung conditions before they present symptoms.
Another study found elevated NO levels in “healthy children with positive skin prick test to common allergens.”
As with anything, there are two sides to the story. Certain conditions and diseases are associated with decreased levels of exhaled NO; not increased. Exhaled NO is lower than usual in those with chronic cough, sinusitis, after exposure to tobacco, etc.
The way you breathe has a massive impact on the NO levels in your respiratory system. Research has found that the nasal airways have a significantly higher amount of NO. Nasal breathing helps our body utilize that nitric oxide to support the function of the lungs and lower respiratory system.
Chronic mouth breathers aren’t as efficient at using NO. Over time, this can lead to many health conditions. Our oral bacteria also produce NO; for that reason, we strongly encourage avoiding any mouthwash that kills oral bacteria (antiseptic). These mouthwashes can contribute to NO-deficient conditions and should be avoided.
Clearly, nitric oxide is a key player in our bodies. Fortunately, you can increase it through diet and supplementation if your body needs it. At The Wellness Way, we can test the nitric oxide levels in your saliva and see if it’s low. If you’re deficient, we can help support production and find the reason for it during the process!
Breathwork and Stress Management
Raise your hand if you encounter stressful situations every day! Mental stress plays a significant role in overall health and can make you sick. Cortisol, your fight-or-flight stress hormone, is significantly elevated when you experience mental stress. While cortisol is helpful for your body temporarily, when it’s chronically elevated, it can lead to many health problems.
Did you know deep breathing exercises can directly impact your cortisol levels? A study done in 2019 found that those who performed diaphragmatic breathing exercises had a significantly greater decrease in cortisol and blood pressure and an increase in focused attention time compared to a control group. Harvard Medical School recognizes that “simple breathing exercises incorporated throughout the day can disengage a potentially harmful chronic stress response.”
Chronic mental stress and elevated cortisol levels can show up in other areas of health like high cholesterol, low estrogen, weight gain, high blood sugar/insulin levels, hormonal imbalance, and many other issues.
Finding a way to incorporate diaphragmatic breathing into your daily routine can have a very positive impact on stress levels and your overall health. These breathing techniques allow your body to turn off the sympathetic nervous system (“fight-or-flight” response) and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest-and-digest”).
Asthma: A Different Perspective
When you think of asthma, which comes to mind: oxygen or carbon dioxide? Many people believe rapid breathing, hyperventilation, and asthma are due to a lack of oxygen. The opposite is true. Research has shown that a lack of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the real problem.
At rest, asthma patients have lower CO2 levels. During an attack, they have acute decreases in CO2. Asthma attacks cause people to panic and create a desperate need for a breath. Studies now show that asthmatics who practice reducing their ventilation with shorter, shallow breathing through the nose have far better outcomes than those who try to force a deep breath.
This approach also appeared to help those suffering from mental health issues like anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Shorter, shallower breaths increase CO2 levels, allowing the respiratory tubes to relax and dilate. These people don’t need more oxygen. They need more carbon dioxide!
An excellent breathing method for practicing this hypoventilation (slow breathing) technique is called Buteyko. You’ll find an instructional video on how to perform it here. While practicing Buteyko breathing to increase CO2 levels is a great natural alternative to a rescue inhaler, an inhaler may still be necessary during an emergency. This breathing method should not serve as a substitute for an inhaler.
Consider the inhaler for a moment. What is it doing for the body? Typically, it contains corticosteroids that force your respiratory tubes to expand. It’s just a temporary fix and ultimately harms the microbiome in your lungs and other areas. It’s not addressing the factors that initially triggered that asthmatic response. The same goes for this breathing exercise. Yes, the breathing exercises help increase your CO2 levels, but what caused those CO2 levels to be low in the first place?
- It could be dysfunctional breathing- asthmatics tend to breathe too much even when not experiencing symptoms.
- It could be a gut issue (remember our gut-lung axis).
- It could also be an environmental allergy or food allergy.
We don’t know without testing. Asthma and other lung issues can have many causes. That’s why the comprehensive, in-depth testing done at The Wellness Way is so important. One person’s lung issue may have a completely different origin than another person’s lung issue. Our understanding of how the body is interconnected helps us solve the health problems others can’t.
What Can You Do Today?
To promote healthy breathing, lower your stress, or optimize your nitric oxide levels, here are some diet and lifestyle strategies to consider:
- Breathe through the nose as much as possible, even when you sleep. If you think you may mouth breath when you sleep and/or snore, try “mouth taping” and see if it works for you.
- Find a breathing exercise that’s beneficial to you here.
- Get scheduled for a chiropractic adjustment. Chiropractic may help decrease inflammatory markers throughout the body. (Potentially through its influence on the vagus nerve).
- Eat more foods that promote nitric oxide formation in your body, like kale, arugula, spinach, beets, cauliflower, chicory, etc.
- Stop using antiseptic mouthwashes that kill off the beneficial nitric oxide-producing bacteria in your mouth.
The Wellness Way Can Help!
At The Wellness Way, we focus on personalized nutrition. We don’t guess; we test! If you have a lung issue, reach out to Wellness Way clinic, and get tested! Environmental allergies, food allergies, and mold toxicity are a few major contributors to respiratory challenges. Wellness Way practitioners can assess these factors and determine which traumas, toxins, and thoughts are creating the imbalance or dis-ease. You can also get your nitric oxide levels tested via saliva testing. Our top supplements that support the lungs and respiratory system include Osha Root, Nettle Leaf, and a nitric oxide-promoting formula called Neo40. Consult your Wellness Way practitioner to see if these are right for you. If you are not yet connected to a Wellness Way clinic, find one here.