This story first appeared on capsulenz.com
For something that I do about 23,000 times every day, I’ve thought surprisingly little about the simple act of breathing in and out.
I briefly gave it some thought when I took up yoga classes 10 years ago, although my focus was more on just feeling grateful for my medulla – that little portion of our brain stem that automatically controls our breathing, meaning I didn’t have to spend all day outside of yoga class obsessing over it.
But then my health took a bit of a nosedive after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and I realised that maybe I did actually have to start paying serious attention to my body, and all the things I took for granted that it would do.
In the midst of it, a specialist told me I should get surgery on my sinuses to help put a halt to the constant colds and infections that plagued me. Avoiding getting sick sounded great, but surgery was the last thing I wanted to contend with at the time, so I put it on the back burner. Three years later I circled back to the idea and went to another surgeon for a second opinion before I went under the knife.
* Feeling anxious/stressed today? Here's one proven (and free!) thing that can change everything
* Why practising breathing exercises will actually improve sleep and reduce anxiety
* Canterbury mum's 62kg weight loss after being told she wouldn't live past 50
After a 15-minute chat and having a camera plunged down my nasal passages, which was about as pleasant as it sounds, the surgeon noted that I did have a slightly deviated septum, but followed that up with something rather surprising.
“You could get surgery,” he said, throwing his plastic gloves in the bin. “But can I offer you something else to try first? Work on your breathing.”
He had noticed that I was taking lots of shallow breaths – definitely not the slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths I assumed my time in yoga had ensured I had adopted. I needed to stop taking sharp breaths from high in my chest, and never inhale through my mouth again, he said. If that didn’t work for me, then I should come back for another look.
That surgeon, who was the first I had been to who steered me away from an operating theatre, was clearly on to something. I got my hands on everything I could read on the subject, including James Nestor’s book, Breath.
James, a journalist, spent years researching the breath, and along the way turned himself into a human guinea pig, testing the results of mouth breathing. The results were staggering. In 10 days, he developed sleep apnoea, high blood pressure and his stress levels were off the chart – just as a result of not breathing through his nose.
Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and studies, more findings he found on breathing correctly were miraculous. Modern research shows that if we make even a slight adjustment to the way we exhale and inhale, it can have wide reaching effects on our health – from jump-starting athletic performance to halting asthma and autoimmune disease. It can even straighten scoliotic spines.
I thought about Nestor’s book and what my surgeon said every day, and I went months without a sinus infection, let alone a cold. But then, I got a huge one. The link between that sickness and a very stressful few months leading up to it (where I had slipped back into bad, old habits) was undeniable.
Perhaps a breathing coach could help?
I went to see Dina Ceniza of The Breathe Clinic. With a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science) under her belt, Ceniza is a certified practitioner in buteyko – a method of retraining your breathing, developed in the 1950s by Dr Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian doctor.
Ceniza came across the method after ending up in the emergency department with heart palpitations and difficulty breathing, and fearing that she may be having a heart attack.
“I went to medical school. I’m not a doctor because I didn’t finish, but my husband knows I’m not someone to say I need to go to the hospital unless I really mean it,” she says.
Her heart was fine, but she continued to have issues, and was hospitalised twice with suspected allergies and asthma attacks. That was when she was introduced to buteyko by a doctor, and was able to significantly reduce her medication.
Eager to share her passion, Ceniza took me through a range of tests at her practice, including hooking me up to a capnograph, which measures the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in exhaled air, and can evaluate your breathing patterns and habits.
There is a great focus on CO₂ levels in buteyko, as its inventor found that changes in those levels – caused by unhealthy breathing habits – actually cause changes in blood chemistry and our metabolism. Over time, that shows up as a range of symptoms and diseases.
“We know CO₂ helps to regulate breathing,” Ceniza says, “but CO₂ also calms the nervous system, so people who have low CO₂ have a hyper-reactive, hyper-vigilant nervous system. So, for those prone to it, it can also cause anxiety, panic attacks or, at the very least, high stress.”
For me, the capnograph delivered some good news. When I was at rest, I was only breathing through my nose, and my oxygen saturation levels were spot on at 97 per cent.
To do our own test on the effect of mouth breathing, I spent a minute inhaling just through my mouth. My CO₂ levels began dropping drastically and, even once I resumed nasal breathing, it was more than five minutes before my levels recovered to what they were before.
But, the capnograph wasn’t all good news. “You have chronic hyperventilation,” Ceniza told me. “It’s currently mild, and the good news is there is something you can do about it.” My results came as little surprise to Ceniza, as she has seen a constant link between chronic illness and hyperventilation.
Ultimately, she says, we each want to be breathing in just four to six litres of oxygen each minute. I was taking in 7.5 litres. Added to that, when I wasn’t thinking about it, my breathing was 100 per cent happening in my upper chest again, rather than being diaphragmatic. As a result, my CO₂ levels were below optimum.
While I’m still in the “mild” stage, Ceniza suggested some exercises I do at home for just five minutes a day, and to check in with her on my progress, which could be enough to improve my breathing by 20 per cent and bring me in line with where I should be.
But, already, I’m considering the investment of a course with her as a breathing coach. If something so small, something we all do without thinking, can make such a big difference to our health, surely it’s an investment worth making.