While breathing is a function that the body constantly performs, the physiological process of breathing is something that most people are largely unfamiliar with. In this article, we will discuss the respiratory system, how it works, how it influences the other systems of the body, and things that you can do to improve your respiratory health.
The breathing mechanism of the body is constructed so that one may breathe through either the nose or the mouth. However, it is optimal for us to breathe exclusively through the nostrils unless our nasal passages are clogged, or we’re practicing specific breathing exercises that instruct one to breathe in through the mouth.
The organs of respiration have their only protective filter, or dust-catcher, in the nostrils meaning that respiratory system function is crucial for our health. When the breath is taken through the mouth there is nothing from mouth to lungs to strain the air, or to catch the dust and other foreign matter in the air. From mouth to lungs dirt and foreign particles have a clear pathway, and the entire respiratory system is unprotected. The nostrils also filter out harmful bacteria and viruses in the air that are often contracted through mouth breathing, and also warm the air before it enters the lungs, whereas breathing through the mouth admits cold air into the system, which can potentially damage the lungs.
If you haven’t already developed a habit of nostril-breathing, then this would be an important breathing practice to take up. The nostrils are our natural filters and air purifiers, protecting our respiratory system from harmful particles, bacteria, and viruses.
The Anatomy of Respiration
Before answering the questions what is respiratory system and what makes it so crucial, let’s let take a look at the anatomy of respiration. The organs of respiration consist of the lungs and the air passages leading to them. The two lungs occupy the pleural chamber of the thorax, one on each side of the meridian line, being separated by the heart, the greater blood vessels, and the larger air tubes. Each lung is free in all directions, except at the root, which consists chiefly of the bronchi, arteries, and veins connecting the lungs with the trachea and the heart. The lungs themselves are spongy and porous, and their tissues are very elastic. They’re covered with a carefully constructed but strong sac, known as the pleural sac, one wall of which closely adheres to the lung, and the other to the inner wall of the chest, and which secretes a fluid that allows the inner surfaces of the walls to glide easily upon each other in the act of breathing.
The air passages consist of the interior of the nose, pharynx, larynx, windpipe or trachea, and the bronchial tubes. When we breathe, we draw in the air through the nose, in which it is warmed by contact with the mucous membrane, which is richly supplied with blood. The air then passes through the pharynx and larynx and on to the trachea or windpipe, which subdivides into numerous tubes called the bronchial tubes, which in turn subdivide into and terminate in small subdivisions in all the small air spaces in the lungs, of which the lungs contain millions.
The air is drawn into the lungs by the action of the diaphragm, a thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. It contracts and flattens when you inhale, which creates a vacuum effect that pulls air into the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the air is then pushed out of the lungs.
The Importance of Oxygen
All of the systems in the body are interconnected, and they all depend upon oxygen to function. Some of the most oxygen demanding organs are:
- The brain, which uses 20% of the oxygen we consume. When there’s a shortage of oxygen, the brain will work slower, and since the brain regulates a lot of other functions in the body, these are then also affected by a shortage of oxygen.
- The heart which is constantly active and beating about 100,000 times in a single day. The heart is a massive consumer of oxygen and shortage in supply of oxygen means the heart can’t pump out blood as efficiently. This leads to bad circulation, and cold hands and feet.
- The muscles. Oxygen shortage makes the muscles go stiff, tense, and tired faster, which naturally has a negative effect on athletic performance.
The health and proper functioning of the body is totally dependent upon the breath, and while every body system relies upon oxygen, in this article, we will just describe its influence on one very important system—the circulatory system.
The Circulatory System
The circulatory system is a network consisting of blood, blood vessels, and the heart. This network supplies tissues in the body with oxygen and other nutrients, transports hormones, and removes unnecessary waste products.
The body contains approximately 1.5 gallons of blood, all of which is circulated by the heart, through the arteries, into the capillaries, thus reaching every part of the body, which it vitalizes, nourishes and strengthens. It then returns by means of the capillaries by another route, the veins, to the heart, from whence it is drawn to the lungs.
The blood begins on its arterial journey, bright red and rich, loaded with life-giving qualities and properties. It returns by the venous route, poor, blue and dull, being laden down with the waste matter of the system. It goes out like a fresh stream from the mountains; it returns as a stream of sewer water. This stream of waste matter goes to the right auricle of the heart. When this auricle becomes filled, it contracts and forces the stream of blood through an opening in the right ventricle of the heart, which in turn sends it on to the lungs, where it is distributed by millions of hair-like blood vessels to the air cells of the lungs.
The waste stream of blood is now distributed among the millions of tiny air cells in the lungs. A breath of air is inhaled and the oxygen of the air comes in contact with the impure blood through the thin walls of the hair-like blood vessels of the lungs, which are thick enough to hold the blood, but thin enough to admit the oxygen to penetrate them.
When the oxygen comes in contact with the blood, a form of combustion takes place, and the blood takes up oxygen and releases carbonic acid gas generated from the waste products and poisonous matter which has been gathered up by the blood from all parts of the system. The blood then purified and oxygenated is carried back to the heart, again rich, red and bright. Upon reaching the left auricle of the heart, it is forced into the left ventricle, where it is again forced out through the arteries on its journey of distributing nourishment to all parts of the system.
It is estimated that in a single day, 35,000 pints of blood traverse the capillaries of the lungs, the blood corpuscles passing in single file and being exposed to the oxygen of the air on both of their surfaces. Understanding this process of circulation, one can see that unless fresh air reaches the lungs in sufficient quantities, the toxic stream of venous blood cannot be purified, and consequently not only is the body thus robbed of nourishment, but the waste products which should have been destroyed are returned to the circulation and poison the system.
Breathing impure air has a similar effect, only in a lessened degree. If one does not breathe in a sufficient quantity of air, the work of the blood cannot go on properly, and the result is that the body is insufficiently nourished and disease ensues, or a state of poor health is experienced. If the blood is not fully purified by the regenerative process of the lungs, it returns to the arteries in an abnormal state, insufficiently purified and imperfectly cleansed of the impurities which it took up on its return. These impurities, if returned to the system, will begin to manifest some form of dis-ease, either in a form of blood disease or some disease resulting from impaired functioning of some insufficiently nourished organ or tissue.
The blood, when properly exposed to the air in the lungs, not only has its impurities consumed, and parts with its noxious carbonic acid gas, but it also takes up and absorbs a certain quantity of oxygen which it carries to all parts of the body, where it is needed in order that the body may perform its processes properly. When the oxygen comes in contact with the blood, it unites with the hemoglobin of the blood and is carried to every cell, tissue, muscle and organ, which it invigorates and strengthens, replacing the damaged cells and tissue with new materials.
Arterial blood, properly exposed to the air, contains about 25 percent of free oxygen. Not only is every part of the body vitalized by this oxygen, but the act of digestion depends materially upon a certain amount of oxygenation of the food, and this can only be accomplished by the oxygen in the blood coming in contact with the food and producing a certain form of combustion. Therefore, it is necessary that a proper supply of oxygen be taken through the lungs.
Ways to Improve Respiratory Health
Breathwork is simply working with your breath in a conscious way for improving physical and psychological health. Different practices involving breathing for health can be traced back to many cultures, though one of the most longstanding traditions is that of the pranayama system of India, dating back thousands of years.
There are many different breathing practices that one can engage in, however, the most simple and important practices are conscious breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and complete breathing.
Conscious breathing involves being aware of your breath as you are breathing, which, as simple as it seems, actually has profound benefits for physical and mental well-being. The most notable benefit is that it helps to relax the mind and reduce stress, which in turn has a positive effect on the body.
Diaphragmatic breathing involves training the breath to be directed into the abdominal region of the body, which is how the body is anatomically designed to breathe. Many people develop the unconscious habit of breathing primarily into their chest and upper diaphragm, which limits the amount of oxygen one inhales, and also leads to mental anxiety and unease.
Complete breathing, also known as the Yogic Breath in pranayama, involves consciously and slowly filling your total lung capacity upon inhalation, starting with the lower diaphragm, moving up to the mid-torso as the lungs fill, and moving up to the upper chest in one continuous and fluid breath. This practice is very nourishing to the body as it gives the body a greater amount of oxygen them one typically offers through their regular pattern of breathing.
The environments that we live, work, and spend our time in have a significant influence on our health. The quality of the air that we breathe naturally affects our respiratory health. Do the best you can to spend time in clean and natural environments, or find ways to purify the air in your home or office by using an air filter, essential oil diffuser, or purchasing house plants. Take time whenever possible to go outside and get fresh air.
There are many herbs and herbal supplements that can greatly improve respiratory health. Mullein leaf, for example, has been used for thousands of years to support respiratory health, cough and inflammatory conditions. Osha root has been used by Native American and Hispanic cultures for hundreds of years, and offers potential lung support, lung detoxification, cough, and anti-viral benefits. Lungwort, another traditional herb for respiratory health, is a potential remedy for respiratory infections. Lungwort contains antibiotics that specifically fight bacteria responsible for chest infections.
Our team has included these three herbs, as well as plantain leaf and peppermint leaf, two other herbs that are beneficial for respiratory health, in our Lung Support Formula. This powerful combination of herbs helps to increase circulation in the lungs, making it easier to breathe, promoting lung and respiratory health, and clearing congestion. Together these herbs also help to thin mucous, relax the airways and muscles of the respiratory tract and promote free breathing. As modern humans, we breathe exhaust, industrial chemicals, artificially circulated air, and other pollutants that comprise the health of our lungs. Our Lung Support formula is a beautiful blend of natural herbs designed to open up the lungs and promote easier breathing.
The breath is something that many people don’t give much thought to, and is really something that many of us take for granted. As simple as the process of breathing is, it is absolutely essential for life, and directly affects every system in the body. Learning how to breathe properly, and taking in adequate amounts of oxygen in the lungs is essential for the health and proper functioning of the body.