Breathing is a natural thing: breathe in, breathe out…not much to it, right? Well, guess what: there actually is a wrong and right way to get oxygen into your system through your lungs. Below, Mark Courtney, a respiratory therapist with American Lung Association's Lung HelpLine, gives some tips on how to get the most out of your lungs.
1. Use Your Nose
There are two ways to breathe—through your mouth and your nose, but the nostrils filter, warm and humidify air in a way that the mouth cannot.
"At times, breathing through your mouth is necessary (increased physical activity, sinus congestion) but breathing in through your nose helps, especially in a very dry or cold environment," Courtney says.
2. And Your Belly
Humans are "belly breathers," and just above your stomach is a major muscle in the respiration process, the diaphragm. Proper breathing starts in the nose and then moves to the stomach as your diaphragm contracts, the belly expands and your lungs fill with air. "It is the most efficient way to breathe, as it pulls down on the lungs, creating negative pressure in the chest, resulting in air flowing into your lungs."
3. Practice Proper Breathing, Especially if You Live with a Lung Disease
A person with a chronic lung disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may need extra energy to breathe, so breathing through the nose and from the belly is particularly important for these individuals. Courtney says it's common for people who have to work harder to breathe to use other muscles, such as those in the neck, shoulders and chest, which is inefficient.
"Some people need to re-learn how to belly breathe again, as this can help them breathe more efficiently, and decrease their shortness of breath," he says.
Also, "pursed-lip breathing", when you press your lips together and inhale through the nose with the mouth closed, is also a good technique for patients with COPD.
4. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Regular exercise keeps your lungs functioning well, and a well-balanced diet can help you stay active. Avoid large meals and foods that cause bloating to prevent the abdomen from pushing up and limiting the diaphragm's movement. For those with lung diseases, Courtney recommends relaxation exercises to stay calm and in control to avert hyperventilation. Also pay attention to air quality in your area and monitor daily levels as irritants, pollution and allergens can affect breathing.
Breathing out of your nose will be more of a challenge when you are sick and have nasal congestion, but staying hydrated can help, Courtney says. "Hydration helps thin secretions and helps the mouth and throat add humidity to the air we breathe."
He also recommends asking your doctor or physician about over the counter and prescription medications that reduce nasal congestion and making sure to get your annual flu vaccine.
5. Keep it Simple
Courtney says that a lot of people tend to overthink breathing, but it's important to remember that your body is built for it. Your respiratory systems know exactly when to tell you to change your depth of breathing, depending on your activity.
"Along with the kidneys, the lungs keep the blood's pH in a very tight range to allow all body functions to occur," he says. "There are receptors in our body that constantly monitor the blood's oxygen and pH levels. It automatically sends signals to our brain to tell us how often and how deep to breathe."
Even if breathing comes naturally, lung health and air quality are so important you should keep it on your mind! Learn more about how your lungs work and about the importance of air quality in your area.
Blog last updated: October 10, 2023