Breathing in nature

Introduction to Breathing: Our foundation of health

6 minutes to read
Angela Mastronardi

Angela Mastronardi

(B.Med., CYT)

Beginner Evidence Based

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Breathing is something we do mostly unconsciously. However, breathing has a big impact on how we are feeling and how the rest of our body works.

Research has shown that breathing skills are an ancient and original method, predating modern medicine, to 

  • optimize survival strategies
  • help with energy control
  • prevent illness
  • promote health
  • improve quality of life

With this article we will start our journey and learn more about breathing, and how different types of breathing can lead us towards better health and greater inner joy.

What is breathing?

Breathing is the process of pulmonary ventilation, where we take oxygen from the environment (inhalation or inspiration), and release carbon dioxide from our body (exhalation or expiration).[1]

Breathing is an act that is forever present in our lives – from the very first breath as we are born until the last one as we pass away.

Breathing is one of the very first primal functions that we discover as we are born.

The survival rule of 3 says that we can survive

  • 3 weeks without food 
  • 3 days without water

but without breathing we can only go for 3 minutes on average.

We breathe 12 to 20 times a minute

Respiration rates per age

Still, breathing is an act that is unconsciously done by most of us, and since it looks to be such an easy process, we often forget the complexity of breathing and our respiratory system.

Respiratory system

Our respiratory system is a network of organs and tissues that allows us to breathe. It is divided into upper and lower respiratory airways.

Upper respiratory airways

Air comes into our body through our nostrils (most preferably) or our mouth.

If we breathe in through our nose, the air travels through the nose cavity down the throat, passing the pharynx. These are known as upper airways.[3]

These respiratory tracts take care of

  • heating
  • humidifying
  • filtering the air we breathe[4]

Breathing through the mouth circumvents this process and air that enters our lungs is raw, cold and unfiltered.

Lower respiratory airways

Once the air passes through the larynx (voice box – where the vocal cords reside), it enters the trachea (windpipe) which splits into an upside-down Y shape forming the beginning of our 2 bronchi, one for each lung.

Human Respiratory System
Source: Wikimedia

These will branch off and subdivide into smaller and smaller bronchioles.

We have 30,000 bronchioles in each lung

Each bronchiole ends with an alveoli, tiny clusters of balloon shaped air sacs where the exchange of gases happens through diffusion into the very small capillaries surrounding the alveoli.[5]

We have an average of 500 million alveoli in our lungs.[6] Bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli are surrounded by a membrane called pleura.

Bronchiole and alveoli

Trachea, bronchi and bronchioles give to the inside of the respiratory system the beautiful characteristic image of an upside-down tree. All of these respiratory passages represent the lower airways.

The lungs, situated in the chest cavity, are the main organs of the respiratory system.[7]

The right lung is divided into 3 lobes, the left one is slightly smaller and has only 2 lobes.[8,9] This is to allow enough space for the heart and lungs to be able to function properly.

What is the function of breathing?

For each breath we take in, both the diaphragm (the dome-shaped primary respiratory muscle that sits just under the lungs) and the 22 pairs of external intercostal muscles between the ribs contract.[10]

This expands the volume of the lungs and creates a negative pressure that acts as a vacuum drawing air inside the chest cavity.[11]

As the muscles relax, the chest cavity shrinks and positive pressure is created, so then the air is pushed out of our lungs with the exhalation.

This “simple” action has many different effects on our body, which we discuss in more detail below.

Breathing and gas exchange

With the ever present act of breathing we are able to exchange oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases in our lungs.

This fuels our internal, or cellular, respiration, allowing the body to break down glucose or ketones to provide energy to be used by the body.[12]

For each breath in oxygen is taken from the air and through the arteries is delivered to the body using our circulatory system.

For each breath out the venous blood that has reached the lungs releases carbon dioxide, as a by-product of our cellular respiration.

We use 550 litres of oxygen daily

At the same time, we also produce an average of 500 litres of carbon dioxide.

Yawning, sneezing, coughing, and breathing

Mother and baby yawning
Source: Rodnae @ Pexels

Common reflexes such as yawning, sneezing and coughing are other functions linked to breathing.

Yawning occurs when the brain needs more blood, so it increases the intake of air and speeds up our heart rate.[13]

Sneezing, or sternutation, is the expulsion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth, most commonly caused by the irritation of the nasal mucosa.[14]

Coughing propels air and particles outside the throat and lungs, protecting our respiratory system from irritants.[15]

Sneezing and coughing are protective reflexes

Breathing and laughter

Laughter itself is a very healthy breathing function.

While laughing our alveoli expand, ultimately generating a good cleaning from stagnant air in the lungs and allowing more oxygen to enter.[16]

Breathing and help with phonation

Another essential act that we gain during the process of exhalation is phonation, or creating of vocal sounds.

The air passing through the vocal cords in the larynx allows us to create sounds, which we have developed in languages, thanks to the muscles controlling the soft palate, tongue and lips.[17]

Breathing and the sense of smell

Olfaction, or the sense of smell, happens through the act of breathing in.

Chemicals in the air bind with the olfactory fibres in the nose and thanks to a cascade of electro-chemical processes, this is turned into smell by our brain’s olfactory cortex.[18]

Breathing and thermoregulation

Thermoregulation is a homeostatic process by which internal body temperature is maintained consistently even when the external environment changes.

One of the mechanisms for the maintenance of a steady internal body temperature happens through breathing.

Just like in dogs and other mammals, panting allows loss of excess heat simply by intaking cooler air and expelling hot air.[19]

Breathing techniques can increase or decrease our body temperature

As an example, a faster breathing pace will naturally speed up the blood circulation and warm up the body, while breathing in slowly through the mouth is a way to cool the body when overheated.

Breathing and other bodily functions

When breathing is performed in healthy ways, it acts as an additional pump for our lymphatic system.[20]

Breathing also influences voluntary movements and body posture, as well as homeostatic functions in other systems like the autonomic nervous system (heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, digestion, hormonal secretion, etc), the circulatory system and the metabolic system.[21]

Breathing and our mind

On a psychological level, the way we breathe is intimately correlated with the emotional states we undergo.

Stress and breathing rate
Stress and breathing rate
Source: Spencer, C. A Comparison of Unimodal and Multimodal Measurements of Driver Stress in Real-World Driving Conditions. (2017)

When we are feeling relaxed, happy or simply secure or rather anxious, depressed or in panic, our breathing pattern changes.[22]

If we are calm and relaxed, the breath will flow calmly. When we feel upset or anxious, the breath will become fast and irregular.

Breathing and our autonomic nervous system

According to how we are breathing, different muscles and different parts of the lungs are engaged. But the way we breathe also determines what part of our autonomic nervous system is more engaged.

The autonomic nervous system is a peripheral branch of the nervous system that controls involuntary physiological processes including our heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.[23]

Research has shown that when we are in a more alert state, or in fight or flight state, also known as sympathetic activation, we tend to breathe in and out using our upper chest.

A higher activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest system, is linked with diaphragmatic breathing.[24]

This is when our body is allowed to nourish, nurture and repair itself.

Breathing in different cultures and history

If we look back in history, we see how much awareness there has been in ancient cultures on the importance of breathing, and how this awareness intertwines in different religions around the world.

In Indian tradition there are references to Prana, meaning breath as well as life force, in texts as old as 3000 BCE.[25] The development of pranayama, control of the breath techniques to achieve different states of consciousness, is dated 600 BCE.[26]

Buddhist monk in prayer
Source: Prince @ Pexels

In Chinese tradition the character of Qi (breath/life force) has been tracked back to 3500 years ago, and there is evidence that the “breathing” has been used as healing practice for 1500 years in the taoist culture.[27]

In Buddhism as well as Sufism, the breath has a central role for the ascetic path of the practitioner. 

Buddhism originated in the 5th century BCE, and through focusing on the breath it is said that enlightenment can be reached.[28]

In Sufism, originally dated in the 6th century, the intention is to concentrate on the breath and use it as a medium for the remembrance of God.[29] Breath practice is also used in Shamanism for healing.[30]

Breathing was also mentioned in the Bible, where once God formed human beings from dust, he then “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).

In many languages and dialects, including Hebrew, Greek, Andean Quechua, Amazonian Quechua, Tibetan, Aramaic, and others, the word for breath is the same word that is used to describe life, spirit, and soul.[31]

In fact, in the English language, the word Spirit originates from the Latin word Spiritus, which means breath.

Related Questions

1. What is the composition of air that we breathe in and out?
The air we breathe in is 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen with the remaining 1% made of argon, carbon dioxide and other gases.

The air that we breathe out is 4% carbon dioxide, as well as about 17% of oxygen, while we expel the full amount of inhaled nitrogen and other gases.[32]

Therefore, each breath has the purpose to exchange 4% of oxygen with 4% of carbon dioxide.

2. What is the normal rate of breathing?
A healthy adult at rest breathes in and out between 12 and 20 times a minute, where a breath is considered the full process of inhalation and exhalation.[33]

3. What is the difference between chest and belly breathing?
Chest breathing utilizes the chest muscles to pull the upper part of the lung during inhalation.

Belly breathing uses the diaphragm and the abdomen expansion to pull the lower part of the lungs during breathing in. This increases the entire lung capacity.

If you are interested in more articles on breathing, please check our Relaxation page.

Originally from Italy and now rooted in Aotearoa, Angela holds a Bachelor Degree in Neurophysiological Techniques, and has been practicing yoga since 2005, becoming a trained yoga teacher in 2013.

Angela has combined her 2 lifelong passions in Neuroscience and Conscious Breathing, creating Manawa Ora Neuro Breath Consultancy, to support people in finding their health through breathing patterns, and to help them understand the neurophysiological mechanism behind the power of conscious breath.


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