Breathing is usually an unconscious process. However, there are some optimal ways to breathe. This article looks at what happens inside a person’s body when they breathe. It also provides some tips and exercises for improving breathing efficiency. These are suitable for people with respiratory conditions and those without them.
What happens when a person breathes?
Breathing, or respiration, is a complex process of air exchange that involves the following parts of the body:
- The lungs: These are a pair of spongy organs that sit on either side of the chest. The lungs expand when a person breathes in and contract when they breathe out. Each lung is surrounded by a thin membrane called the pleura, which protects the lung and allows it to slide back and forth during breathing.
- The diaphragm: This is a thin muscle that sits beneath the lungs and above the abdominal cavity. Its up-and-down movement helps the lungs contract and expand.
- The intercostal muscles: These are muscles that run between the ribs. They assist breathing by helping the chest cavity expand and contract.
The lungs, diaphragm, and intercostal muscles work together to allow a person to breathe.
To breathe in, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward. This increases the space in the chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand and fill with air.
To breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes, reducing the space in the chest cavity. This causes the lungs to deflate and let out the air.
What is the correct way to breathe?
Although breathing is a natural process, some people may be surprised to learn that there is a right and a wrong way to breathe.
The American Lung Association (ALA) provide the following advice on how to breathe correctly.
Use the nose
Breathing through the nose can slow the breath and make the lungs work more efficiently. It also facilitates the intake of nitric oxide, which helps with oxygen transportation throughout the body.
Breathing through the nose also allows the nostrils to:
- filter toxins and allergens from the air, thereby preventing them from entering the body
- warm air that is too cold
- humidify air that is too dry
However, breathing through the mouth is sometimes necessary if a person is exercising or has sinus congestion.
Use the belly
The most efficient way to breathe is by bringing the air down toward the belly. As the diaphragm contracts, the belly expands to fill the lungs with air.
“Belly breathing” is efficient because it pulls the lungs downward, creating negative pressure inside the chest. This brings air into the lungs.
Tips for healthy breathing and lungs
The following tips can help support breathing and maintain lung health.
Do not overthink it
Although it is useful to know how to breathe correctly, it is important not to overthink breathing. In some people, this could lead to anxiety and shortness of breath.
People should remember that normal breathing is a carefully regulated process that does not require conscious thought.
Together, the lungs and kidneys keep the blood’s pH within a narrow range to allow the body to function properly. Receptors in the body monitor blood pH and oxygen levels. These receptors send signals to the brain, which, in turn, sends nerve impulses that tell the body how often to breathe, and how deeply.
Maintain a healthful lifestyle
People can improve their breathing by maintaining a healthful lifestyle. Try:
- Exercising regularly: Getting regular aerobic exercise helps improve lung capacity, which is the amount of oxygen a person can take in with each breath.
- Avoiding large meals: Eating large meals can cause abdominal bloating. When the abdomen is bloated, it can press against the diaphragm, preventing it from efficiently moving up and down. This can lead to shortness of breath. People who are prone to bloating should opt for smaller, more frequent meals.
- Maintaining a moderate weight: Having overweight increases a person’s risk of experiencing breathing difficulties such as obstructive sleep apnea. People can reduce this risk by maintaining a moderate weight.
- Quitting smoking: The lungs contain tiny air sacs called alveoli, which are responsible for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and capillary blood vessels. Smoking damages the alveoli, making them less efficient.
Monitor the air quality
People can monitor the air quality in areas where they live and work. They can use this information to limit their exposure to pollutants and allergens that affect breathing.
When possible, people should avoid areas of heavy traffic and always check the air quality before they exercise outdoors.
Tips for people with respiratory conditions
For example, they can try:
- Staying hydrated: Drinking plenty of water helps the throat and mouth add humidity to the air a person breathes in. Humid air is less likely to irritate the airways.
- Eliminating sources of indoor air pollution: People should ensure that their living and working environments are clean, well-ventilated, and free of mold. This will help prevent irritation of the airways.
- Using protective equipment at work: Some people may work in an environment where they have exposure to dust, chemicals, or vapors. These people should wear a mask to avoid inhaling these irritants.
- Getting the flu shot or pneumonia vaccine: These vaccinations help protect people with respiratory conditions.
- Trying relaxation exercises: Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques can help a person stay calm and prevent them from hyperventilating.
Breathing exercises help slow down a person’s breathing pattern and improve lung efficiency. They are particularly beneficial for people with asthma, COPD, and other conditions that cause shortness of breath. They can also help calm a person who is feeling anxious.
However, people should try to begin practicing breathing exercises when their breathing is normal — not while they are experiencing shortness of breath.
The ALA recommend two different breathing techniques for people to try: pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic (belly) breathing.
Ideally, people should practice both exercises for 5–10 minutes every day. Some people may need to build up to this duration gradually.
Pursed lip breathing steps
- Sit down in a chair and relax the neck and shoulder muscles.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose while keeping the mouth closed. Inhale for 2 seconds.
- Pucker or purse the lips, as if whistling or blowing out a candle. Exhale slowly for 4 seconds.
- Repeat the above steps.
Diaphragmatic breathing steps
A person can perform the following steps while lying down or sitting up straight in a chair.
- Place both hands on the abdomen, feeling the rise and fall of each breath.
- Close the mouth and take a slow breath in through the nose, while feeling the abdomen rise and inflate like a balloon.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed lips, as if blowing bubbles, with each expiratory breath taking about two to three times as long as each inhalation.
- Repeat these steps for 5–10 minutes. Keep the hands on the abdomen to help improve awareness of the correct breathing technique.
Using correct breathing techniques can help improve a person’s lung efficiency. It can also help alleviate stress and anxiety. Correct breathing is therefore beneficial for both physical and mental health.
Taking a few minutes each day to practice breathing techniques can help people form better breathing habits. It can also help people with respiratory conditions manage periods of shortness of breath.