Months of being cooped up and riding the pandemic’s economic roller coaster have left us all a bit more anxious. And this little bugger of a bug has caused us all to wonder what we can do to boost our immunity, stay healthy, and reduce our anxiety levels.
There are no easy answers or magic pills, but there is one simple change that can help with these concerns — and it may surprise you.
The change? How you breathe.
That may strike you as odd. After all, isn’t breathing just something that we do?
Although breathing is predominantly automatic, we do have the power to modify the way in which we breathe to optimize the 20,000 some-odd breaths we take every day.
And it’s this simple modification that can boost your immunity and reduce anxiety.
Unlocking the Secret
The secret is in a little two-atom combo: nitric oxide, or NO. Just be careful not to confuse it with NO2 – commonly seen in the greyish-brownish blanket covering Los Angeles!
Nitric oxide is naturally produced within the trillion (yes, trillion with a ‘t’) endothelial cells that line the blood vessels of your body.
Their function is to control blood pressure, prevent inflammation of arteries, and ensure that we don’t get unwanted clotting of blood.
Unwanted, because you do want your blood to clot when you accidentally cut yourself chopping those beautiful chanterelles for soup, but not when it’s just running through your veins, which may lead to a stroke.
If you want proof of the impact that nitric oxide can have on blood flow, look no further than Viagra!
The way this “quicker picker upper” works is to just increase nitric oxide in our… um, respective parts’ tissue, increasing blood flow and, therefore, engorgement of genitalia. Et Voila!
Okay, getting back to business! 😉
The Connection Between Breathing and Nitric Oxide
The connection between these endothelial cells, nitric oxide and how we breathe comes down to something that was discovered only about 15 years ago.
In a series of Swedish studies, researchers found that we actually have those same endothelial cells in our nasal cavity. This fact means that when we breathe through our nose we deliver even more of that endothelial-created nitric oxide straight to our lungs, dilating the pulmonary arteries!
This dilation is critical because when your blood flows through the lungs, it will pick up more oxygen and allows the bronchi and trachea to expand, increasing blood flow, and increasing oxygenation!
Net-net? Breathing through your nose — rather than through your mouth — kicks off a process that increases your blood oxygen levels.
Optimizing your blood oxygen levels is essential because if they start to dip, your body begins to function a little bit like a car with an empty tank. If our blood doesn’t have oxygen to carry to the cells through our body, this can cause hypoxemia, leading to things as simple as a headache, or difficulty catching your breath.
Over the long haul, since our cells ARE made up of 70% H2O, and need oxygen to carry out standard tasks, if they are lacking oxygen, it can lead to cell malfunction and death, and ultimately, ramifications on a cognition level.
When you breathe in through the nose, however, not only are you increasing direct oxygenation, but you also raise levels of CO2 in your body, allowing for hemoglobin to release yet more oxygen into the bloodstream, supporting the tissues that need it. As we accumulate CO2 in our bloodstream, we also create a cardio-inhibitory response of the vagus nerve, that stimulates the parasympathetic response, and allows our immune system to function at its best – improving our metabolic health and boosting our immunity.
When you over-breathe by using your mouth, conversely, you are actually depriving your body, brain, and most acutely, cells, of oxygen. Weird, right?
Even worse, the reduced oxygenation that these short, shallow mouth breaths create, causes your body and mind to enter into a stressed, fight—flight—or—freeze state, in which your immune system does not work at full capacity, and which increases anxiety.
Shifting the Way You Breathe
Ok, so the change is to make sure you’re nasal breathing. Simple, right?
Well, it may be harder than you think. First, you probably don’t pay much attention to how you breathe. So step one is simply being mindful about it and observing how you’re breathing on a regular basis.
If you’re like most of us, you’ll probably find that you’re not quite as consistent of a nasal breather as you thought. So, step two is to actively focus on changing how you breathe, working to ensure that you’re breathing through your nose most of the time.
And, if you want to try something a little bit weird, but super helpful (especially if you’re struggling to shift your breathing habits), you can experiment with taping your mouth shut to kickstart your nasal breathing.
That’s not a joke — or a punishment! This is a real thing. These little tapes are a great tool. You can experiment with using them at night, while exercising, or whenever you think they’ll be most helpful.
Regardless of how you do it, shifting your mouth breathing to nasal breathing can help you sleep deeper, decrease blood pressure, eliminate snoring, improve oral health (by increasing moisture in your mouth), and boost your immunity!
And if that doesn’t reduce you’re anxiety, I don’t know what will!
In times like this, we need more than ever to optimize our breath. It’s not some magical cure, but it’s a simple change that can have a meaningful impact on your nervous system and your overall health and wellbeing. Sounds like a good deal to me!
Hang in there, and keep breathing!