Take two tomato plants. Plant one in nutrient rich soil, the other in depleted soil. Place one in bright sunlight, the other in filtered light. Give one plenty of water, the other just enough to keep it going.
Both plants may live, but only one will thrive.
The quality of the things we need to live – food, water, oxygen, sleep – similarly helps determine whether we will merely live or thrive. We’ve already taken a look at a few of these. What about the air we breathe?
Something in the Air Tonight (and Today, for That Matter)
Unfortunately, between the ravages of drought and the summer’s massive wildfires, the quality of our air has taken a turn for the worse.
While you may not personally or immediately notice the difference, air pollution takes a major toll on human health. A 2014 study in Nature estimated that outdoor pollution alone contributes to 3.3 million premature deaths each year. This number is echoed in more recent data, which also estimates another 3.54 million deaths annually from indoor pollution. The most common causes of those deaths? Heart attacks and stroke.
According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, 90% of Californians are exposed to unhealthy levels of at least one air pollutant, including carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and ground-level ozone (not to be confused with the therapeutic ozone used to treat oral – and other – infections). Exposure can lead to difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, allergic reactions such as coughing, sneezing and stuffiness, and lung inflammation. Prolonged exposure may worsen heart and lung disease and increase risk of developing cancer, neurological disorders, and infertility and premature birth. (If you want to learn more about the air quality where you live, visit airnow.gov.)
Unfortunately, pollution isn’t just an outdoor thing. In fact, indoor pollution is usually worse – anywhere from two to five to even 100 times worse. Where does it come from? Dr. Mercola offers a good summary of prime offenders in the typical American home:
Unfortunately, there’s little you can do directly about outdoor air pollution other than stay indoors as much as possible on particularly bad air days and making overall healthful lifestyle choices so your body remains strong and capable of clearing the toxins its exposed to. But you can do something about indoor pollution – for instance, using air purifiers throughout the home and steering clear of products especially prone to emit harmful chemical vapors.
You’ll find more tips for reducing indoor pollution here.
The Right Way to Breathe
Now, you may be thinking, “I already know how to breathe! If I didn’t, I’d be dead.” But are you breathing through your mouth or through your nose?
Nose breathing filters, warms and humidifies the air, basically preparing the oxygen to be used more efficiently by your body. In fact, it’s been shown that nasal breathing improves athletic performance precisely because it improves the blood’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body.
Mouth breathing is not only less efficient for delivering oxygen. It can cause dry mouth, raising your risk of caries (decay), gum disease, and bad breath. It can make snoring and sleep apnea more severe. In children, it can even change the shape of their face. Myofunctional therapist Sarah Hornsby explains the phenomenon nicely:
Believe it or not, breathing through your mouth can actually change the shape of your face and alter your appearance. This is especially true for children because they are still growing. Children whose mouth breathing goes untreated may suffer from abnormal facial and dental development. Symptoms include long, narrow faces and mouths, less defined cheek bones, small lower jaws, and “weak” chins. Other facial symptoms include gummy smiles and crooked teeth. A “mouth breather” facial expression is typically not viewed as an attractive or desirable appearance to have.
Another common breath habit is overbreathing – a/k/a hyperventilation syndrome – which
not only reduces carbon dioxide, it also reduces the delivery of oxygen to the tissues and organs in your body — essentially the opposite of what people normally think happens when you breathe heavily. This is part and parcel why hyperventilating through your mouth during exercise is ill advised. In a nutshell, hyperventilation can cause severe constriction of your carotid arteries, and can reduce the amount of available oxygen to your brain by half.
It can also trigger problems such as heart palpitations, coughs, muscle cramps, neurological damage, and digestive distress.
Yet another common yet inefficient habit is breathing too shallowly, living a life of what amount to half breaths.
Though we usually take it for granted, we use the breath in lots of different ways every day: gasping when we cry, hyperventilating when we’re panicked and breathing deeply when we laugh. But most of us still live day-to-day taking shallow, unconscious breaths—and that’s not good for us.
Rather, the ideal is to breathe from your diaphragm – a muscle between your lungs and stomach. (When you breathe from this muscle, your stomach will move out a little.) It’s a type of breathing that’s central to yoga. Unsurprisingly, it can have a deeply relaxing effect. (You’ll find a quick and clear explanation of how to do it here.)
Additionally, practices like Buteyko breathing and myofunctional therapy can help you train yourself to breathe more efficiently and effectively, supporting your overall health and well-being.