Asthma is a fascinating subject. Millions of people worldwide suffer from its symptoms - with mild to life-threatening episodes. A recent World Health Organization report states that 150 million people have this disorder; it affects people of all ages, all races 'humble or poor, rich or renowned'. It has even been observed in animals. Yet ask five different medical specialists what the causes are and you'll get five different answers. Similarly, asking five alternative health practitioners the same question will reveal the same diversity of opinion.
There have been hundreds upon thousands of books written on this mysterious, breathing-related disease, from orthodox sources through to alternative 'cures'. Research articles and latest findings are all freely available from numerous websites. Often patients know more about what's new than their overworked doctors.
People with asthma often develop truly dreadful breathing patterns. They use their chest muscles the wrong way, they breathe through their mouths, and they breathe too fast. We see this all the time in our clinics. There are many reasons why this happens, our concern is that these 'bad breathing' patterns can make asthma worse, even triggering attacks - or to use the more politically correct term, episodes. Curiously, since the advert of user-friendly inhalers thirty-odd years ago and newer asthma 'wonder drugs', less attention has been paid by the medical profession to the business of breathing itself.
Asthma awareness and education programmes highlight information about what goes on inside the chest - what happens to the airways, how to use the various devices for delivering asthma medications, how to reduce environmental triggers.
Knowing how to breathe properly and efficiently by employing physical coping skills enhances drug therapies, and in many instances helps people reduce medications, and their stress levels, and to exercise more enjoyably.
The second reason is that we believe you can breathe too much. Using the wrong combination of chest muscles leads to chronic over-breathing or hyperventilation. This in itself is stressful to both body and soul, and is a disorder people can do without, whether they have asthma or not. Over-breathing causes unpleasant and alarming symptoms which tend to be lumped together with the symptoms of airway hyper-reactivity (asthma). Two disorders for the price of one!
Newly diagnosed asthmatics are likely to be bamboozled by conflicting information and views on the right and wrong ways to manage their symptoms. Parents of young children with asthma report that problems in dealing with their own anxieties (and over-breathing) are compounded when they are faced with differences of opinion. This of course leads to more stress.
Make balanced breathing your starting point, and give any of the choices you subsequently take in managing your own asthma the very best start, from a strong foundation based on tiptop, dynamic, calm, beautiful breathing.
Good breathing patterns are vital to good health. When we look at the structure and mechanics of the body we see it is designed so that we breathe using our nose in conjunction with the power of a muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm draws air into the lungs as easily as a syringe draws up fluid.
When we talk about breathing muscles we refer to primary and accessory muscles. The primary muscles are the number one muscles used all the time, while accessory muscles are those called upon in certain situations - but they are certainly not designed to work all the time.
The diaphragm, the main primary muscles, is responsible for 70 -80 per cent of the work during quiet breathing; the remaining 20 - 30 per cent is carried out by neck and shoulder muscles that are attached to the ribcage.
The Mechanics of Breathing
During inhalation the diaphragm muscle brings down the powerful central tendon, which increases the vertical diameter of the chest cage. This movement is opposed by the bony limitations of the chest but also especially by the resistance of the abdominal contents contained in the abdominal girdle. The abdominal girdle is made up of abdominal muscles; it is important that these are also in tiptop shape.
The twelve ribs attached to the spine and chest-bone spin in their joints and stretch with the cartilage, allowing the outwards and upwards action of the ribcage to occur. This same action micro-massages the joins of the spine, maintaining flexibility and health of the joints like a well-greased hinge. The diaphragm and the ribcage co-ordinate to move downwards, outwards and then upwards - an action similar to raising the handle on a bucket.
This action creates pressure changes within the thoracic cage, causing the lungs to fill with air somewhat like a piano accordion that is stretched and compressed to create varying sounds. For the volume to increase the chest will expand and move in three different directions. The greatest increase will occur when all three vertical, transverse and anterior-posterior movements occur together. This combination of movement is commonly used in high-energy-demanding situations such as running.
The air you inhale is about 21 per cent oxygen; this travels in through your nose, and then passes into the pharynx and larynx. The air then travels through the bronchial tubes into bronchioles and to the alveoli, where the exchange of gases occurs, i.e. of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The musculo-skeletal structures surrounding the lungs relax, assisting the lungs to deflate and exhale the air. During breathing under load the abdominal muscles are called upon to help with forced exhalation. The air you exhale contains carbon dioxide, which is the end result of this process.
Although it appears quite simple the process of breathing requires a lot of energy and co-ordination.
Why Breathe Well?
Breathing is hard-wired from birth - nose, belly, rhythmical and flowing. It is one of the things parents look for, listen to and use as a tool to guide them on the wellbeing of their children.
Babies spend long periods suckling, which would be impossible if they had to pause to draw breath all the time. They breathe at a rate of perhaps 50 breathes per minute; this changes to 15-25 breathe as a child; and finally as an adult we should be breathing 10-14 breaths a minute at rest.
Nose-belly breathing is the pattern we are designed to maintain at rest (and during light-to-moderate activity - depending on fitness levels) throughout life. But for many children and adults this pattern has been lost for a variety of both physical and emotional reasons.
Control Of Breathing
Breathing is controlled by the respiratory centre in the brain. It mainly works on automatic control from feedback from nerves in the lungs, muscles and the carbon dioxide levels in the blood. It is remarkable in that it is under both voluntary and involuntary control.
We can control our breathing at a conscious level - for example when we learn to play a wind instrument we alter our breathing pattern. Think about it; you can change your breathing if you feel like it. Don't worry that you will stop - the drive to breathe will always prevail.
The Benefits of Good Breathing Patterns
· Postural stability: Creating a mobile, supportive spine that leads to correct posture, fluid movement, agility and correct locomotion.
· Good spinal health leads to the good health of the nervous system (which is housed in the spine), allowing us to remain in a physiologically and emotionally balanced state.
· Good breathing maintains good lung pressures for energy-efficient breathing.
· Good breathing ensures oxygenation of the lower lobes of the lungs which have a rich blood supply.
· Voice production: Our voice is the result of the breath flowing over the vocal folds (formerly known as vocal cords). Good diaphragm (belly) breathing gives us an easy, flowing breath, creating good pitch and voice control. Upper chest-breathing can give us a gaspy, higher-pitched voice. The state of the voice can assist as a warning sign for parents with children who have asthma, as voice change is a sign of tightened airways or poor breathing patterns.
· Removal of waste products: Breathing is one of the most important ways for the body to eliminate waste products; 70 per cent of the body's waste products are eliminated through exhalation.
· Assisting the pumping of fluids about the body by the lymphatic pump and the cardiovascular pump. The lymphatic pump is essential for maintaining the health of our immune system - for people with asthma the healthier the immune system the better.
· Developing the 'relaxation response'. The sensation of breathlessness and restricted breathing easily creates frightening feelings of anxiety and panic. While this is entirely understandable, it's very important to know how to release muscle tension during asthma episodes. This helps reduce nervous as well as physical tension and 'turn down the volume' of the attack.
Three Main Things That Happen When We Breathe
1. Breathing charges the blood with oxygen. Oxygen helps convert food into energy which powers the body and enables all cells to function; this is known as the metabolic process.
Breathing has an inverse relationship to energy; the rate, rhythm, depth and flow of our breaths will determine the quality and quantity of energy we receive.
If our breathing rate speeds up so does the amount of energy we use. For example, when we sprint our breathing is fast, explosive and peaked; the energy output is high. When we are tense and breathe into our upper chest the breath is faster, larger and sharper, and more energy is used. Large volumes are more demanding of muscular work, which also uses up more energy.
If the breathing rate slows down so does the energy we use. For example, in long-distance running the breath is easier, less peaked and well regulated; this gives endurance, as energy consumption is low over time.
When we are relaxed the breath is rhythmical, low and slow, and energy consumption is less.
Good breathing is like putting large amounts of money in the bank; at times we will withdraw and spend a lot of money - this occurs when our breathing speeds up in times of increased demand such as exertion, increased stress and demanding situations. But there is a problem if we spend to much, which is common in today's fast-paced society.
At the end of the day we must return to a balanced state, to allow recovery, normal functioning and optimum health. If we do not, ill health and chaos occur.
2. Breathing removes and maintains the levels of carbon dioxide required in the body. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the end result of the metabolic process. Although we all know how vital oxygen is, many people don't understand the importance of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide in our bodies regulates our breathing and our nervous system - the 'autonomic nervous system' which controls all our organs.
3. Breathing regulates the body's pH, i.e. the acid-alkaline balance. The pH in our body is
no different from the pH in a swimming pool or in products such as shampoo or soap, in
that they must all have a certain level of pH or they can be potentially harmful. The pH
level in our bodies maintains our internal homeostasis, that is, the internal balance
within our body. The pH level must stay the same; if this alters, a number of bodily
changes occur to try to regain the balance.
All three functions described above are essential for health, energy, vitality and wellbeing.
This places breathing as the overseer of everything that happens in our body: in short, if breathing is not right it is difficult for any bodily function to work properly.
By Dinah Bradley & Tania Clifton-Smith
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