There are a few basic components of what’s known by the older generation of naturopathic physicians as “Nature Cure.”  These include a good diet, water, sunlight, exercise, sleep, and fresh air.

But let’s not even go so far as to talk about fresh air… right now let’s just talk about air, period.  Americans tend to be a pretty stressed out bunch, and when we get stressed, we often unconsciously quit breathing.  Even if this happens only for a few seconds at a time, the effects may be cumulative.

What happens when you hold your breath?

There are a few primary routes for toxin elimination.  These include the urinary system, the liver, the bowels, the sweat, and the breath.  Most of us know that we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, in a reciprocal exchange with plants.  However, when we hold our breath, this delicate balance gets disrupted.  Carbon dioxide accumulates in our bodies, which acts as an acid in the bloodstream.  A complicated buffer system involving the kidneys has to kick in to buffer this process and keep us from becoming too acidic.  Without this buffering process, we would quickly go into respiratory distress, which can be very serious.  But it might be helpful to look at some of the symptoms of respiratory distress in order to better appreciate the importance of oxygen: these include confusion, fatigue, lethargy, shortness of breath, and sleepiness.  (Sound familiar – albeit in milder form?)

What contributes to insufficient breathing?

This can be as simple as the way you are sitting as you stare at your computer (like I am doing right now – I just sat up straighter as I typed this).  Proper breathing comes from your belly as your diaphragm lowers, and not from your chest.  Hunching over requires you to chest-breathe, which gives you less than adequate respiration.

Another cause, of course, is stress.  The autonomic “fight or flight” response (here’s an explanation of autonomic systems in this article) leads to short, shallow breathing; “rest and digest” promotes deep belly breathing.  Apparently stress can be caused by something as simple as overwhelming amounts of email (which lead to the term, “email apnea”).  A constant sense of urgency doesn’t help you remember to breathe deeply – this is something for which we have to fight.

The Solution

One of the most well-known and least utilized tricks for coping with anxiety is deep breathing.  Sit up straight; put your hand on your belly to remind yourself to breathe from there and not from your chest.  Close your eyes, and count as you inhale (and your belly expands) to 8 or 10 or whatever number feels right to you, but don’t rush it.  Then exhale just as completely, and for the same count.  Do this a few times and you will feel yourself become much more relaxed.

It’s a good idea to take breaks throughout the day and breathe like this.  You may not have to close your eyes and count, as long as you breathe consciously and on purpose.  Or, join a gentle stretching or exercise class such as yoga or Tai Chi, where breathing is a central component of the movement.  Many people report feeling a sort of euphoria after these classes, and while some of it is undoubtedly due to the movement itself, much of it is likely due to a much greater supply of oxygen to the brain than we typically get.