WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOUR LUNGS
By Pam Hunt, RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist)
Life begins with our first breath.
We inhale. We gather in. We pull the outside in.
And we exhale. We release. We push the inside out.
We exchange. In and out. In and out. And we do it again. And again. And again.
And our rhythm is established for our lifetime, until it ends with our last breath.
Since a COVID infection generally enters through our lungs, understanding how our lungs work can be helpful to staying healthy these days. As well, promoting efficient lung function with some simple exercises is a boon to breathing more effectively, and can enhance relaxation and calm for our entire being.
Let’s consider how the lungs do what they do.
With inhalation, air is brought in through your nose and mouth, through the pharynx, larynx and trachea, into your lungs. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles contract, and the rib cage expands. As lung volume increases, pressure drops, and air rushes in.
With exhalation, the muscles relax, the lung volume decreases, air pressure increases, and air is expelled.
This is pulmonary ventilation.
Within the lungs, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide waste.
Oxygen from the air we breathe is diffused through millions of microscopic sacs (called alveoli) into pulmonary capillaries surrounding the alveoli. The oxygen then binds with hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells and is pumped through the bloodstream. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide from deoxygenated blood diffuses from the capillaries into the alveoli and is expelled. Thus, gases are exchanged, oxygen for carbon dioxide. This is external respiration.
Within the body, the blood stream carries oxygen in the red blood cells to the capillaries, where oxygen is released into body tissue. Carbon dioxide is diffused from body tissue into the red blood cells and plasma to be carried back to the lungs and exhaled. This is internal respiration.
During exhalation, air is passed through the larynx, the voice box. Muscles in the larynx move cartilages when we speak, which in turn pushes the vocal cords together. When air passes through the vocal cords, they vibrate, creating sound. Greater tension creates more rapid vibrations with higher pitch. Lesser tension creates slower vibration and lower pitch.
Thus we speak and sing!
As air enters the nasal cavities, chemicals in the air bind to and activate nervous receptors in the cilia. The brain takes the nervous signal from the nasal cavities through openings in the ethmoid bone to the olfactory bulbs and then to the cerebral cortex.
Thus we can smell the roses and garlic!
So, lung function encompasses not only the breathing that enables life itself, but also gives us the ability to experience communication and sensation, opening the door to living a life of purpose and, perhaps, a bit of delight.
Below are two exercises to improve respiration, offering the opportunity to maximize ventilation, ward off the effects of COVID invasion, and enhance relaxation and meditation practice.
Remember that our autonomic nervous system is divided into sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Inhalation stimulates the sympathetic nervous system by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone, and sweat secretion, preparing the body for physical exertion. Exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tone, preparing the body for rest, relaxation, sleep and digestion.
2-to-1 Breathing Technique
This technique regulates the motion of the lungs and quiets the nervous system and the energy fields that influence the body and mind.
- Sit comfortably with your feet parallel and flat on the floor, with your head, neck, and trunk in alignment.
- Release tension from all your muscles.
- Establish quiet, smooth, nasal diaphragmatic breathing.
- Breathing normally, count the duration of inhalation and exhalation.
- Begin by inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 4 (so each breath has a total count of 8). Gently and gradually lengthen your exhalation until it is twice as long as your inhalation (inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 8.)
- Remember to be patient as you build your capacity.
This breathing pattern facilitates deep relaxation by decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (that stimulates us for exertion) and increasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (that calms us down).
This 2-to-1 breathing also helps to quiet the autonomic nervous system, so that we can stabilize our mind and become responsive to more subtle energies and vibrations.
PLBT (Pursed Lip Breathing Technique)
This exercise slows down the pace of breathing by deliberately applying effort to each breath. While you may practice this any time, it is especially helpful with activities (such as bending, climbing, and lifting) as well as improving exercise tolerance.
This breathing pattern is also excellent for anyone suffering with lung diseases (such as COPD) that cause the inflammation of airways and the destruction of the air sacs (alveoli). In this case, the lungs become overstretched and lose elasticity (like an overstretched rubber band). While oxygen can still enter, carbon dioxide is trapped and cannot be released, so your breathing is compromised.
Pursed lip breathing (as in whistling) creates a small amount of positive pressure that opposes the forces exerted on the airways during exhalation, increasing the release of carbon dioxide and easing breathing.
- Relax your shoulders and neck.
- Inhale through your nose, breathing into your abdomen, for a count of two (or three or four.)
- Purse your lips, like whistling or gently blowing on a candle to make it flicker.
- Exhale slowly and completely for a count of four (or six or eight), making the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
Pursed lip breathing relieves shortness of breath, decreases the work of breathing, and improves gas exchange. Very importantly, it also offers a sense of regaining control over breathing while simultaneously increasing relaxation.
I hope this information is helpful to you.
Wishing you all good health and well being.