Part 2: Respiration and Breathing Mechanics

aligning mechanics with chemistry
Respiration and Breathing Mechanics

RESPIRATION 

Respiration can be subdivided into three phases: external, internal, and cellular. External respiration is about breathing mechanics, moving air in and out of the lungs, e.g., slow/fast, deep/shallow, mouth/nose, diaphragmatic/chest, rhythmic/dysrhythmic, exhale completed/not completed, and so on. Internal respiration is about oxygen distribution to tissues, carbon dioxide management, and acid-base regulation (pH and electrolyte balance) of extracellular body fluids (e.g., blood plasma). Cellular respiration is about creating ATP molecules (adenosine triphosphate) in the mitochondria of cells, which are then broken down by cells for energy. Carbon dioxide generated during cellular respiration is a precious gas that ultimately makes possible moment to moment acid-base regulation (as will be seen). 

BREATHING MECHANICS (external respiration) 

Breathing and respiration are not the same phenomenon. Respiration is a subset of breathing. Besides providing for respiration, breathing serves us in many and diverse ways. 

Breathing is behavioral. It serves us in powerful and unsuspecting ways. Breathing habits, good and bad, are learned unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, for self-regulating emotions, cognitions, personality, coping styles, physiology, health, performance, and consciousness. This is to say that breathing is psychological in the sense that experience sets the stage for its reconfiguration. Embedded in this reconfiguration is a personal history that regulates breathing based on the principles of learning, perception, motivation, reinforcement (benefits), attention, and memory. The richness of the psychology of breathing provides for both its far-reaching benefits and for its, all too frequent, profoundly debilitating effects (e.g., 60% of USA ambulance runs). 

Respiration is reflexive. External respiration is about the regulation of breathing mechanics by brainstem reflex mechanisms governed by moment to moment changes in respiratory chemistry, that is, changes in extracellular pH, oxygen concentration (PO2), and carbon dioxide concentration (PCO2). Although breathing mechanics continuously shift as a function of being bored or excited, stressed or relaxed, upset or pleased, and meditative or physically challenged respiration generally remains within an optimal respiratory envelope. Unless an unconscious habit or intentional manipulation gets in the way, respiratory requirements will dictate the coordination of breathing mechanics in the context of other interacting behaviors, e.g., eating and talking. It would, of course, make little sense that breathing could serve respiration only when one is relaxed or in a positive space; if so, given what daily life is usually about, respiration would be compromised most of the time. 

Practitioners from diverse disciplines and perspectives focus on manipulation of breathing for achieving beneficial outcomes, that is, self-interventions that involve “doing the breathing” in prescribed ways. Unfortunately, however, one of the outcomes of prescriptive breathing is not infrequently deregulated respiration, and unfortunately even the acquisition of dysfunctional habits where both practitioners and clients misunderstand and misinterpret the associated physical and mental changes. 

Healthy breathing provides for self-regulation of mechanics in the service of chemistry, except where respiratory chemistry is intentionally manipulated for reasons such as identifying dysfunctional habits and exploring their effects, or for personal and therapeutic consciousness explorations (e.g., holotropic breathing). Self-regulatory breathing means “allowing the breathing” while simultaneously breathing for meeting other objectives, e.g., talking, meditating, relaxing, exploring. 

Optimal respiratory health means maintaining a stable “chemical axis of breathing” wherein internal respiratory requirements are immediately and expeditiously addressed, despite the highly variable acrobatics of breathing mechanics during daily life that may be serving us in so many other important ways, e.g., talking. Understanding this connection of breathing mechanics with breathing chemistry points to the most fundamental, practical, and profound factors that account for: 

(1) the far-reaching effects of dysfunctional breathing habits, such as disturbed extracellular pH (e.g., blood plasma), deregulated electrolyte balance (e.g., bicarbonate), compromised blood flow (e.g., brain and heart), unfriendly hemoglobin (compromised delivery of O2), compromised muscle function (e.g., jaw tension and pain), fatigue, mood changes, and performance deficits; 

(2) the surprising benefits of good breathing habits and breathing self-interventions, such as improved physical performance (e.g., sports), symptom abatement (e.g., panic), improved cognition (learning, memory, and attention), enhanced task performance (e.g., test taking), successful management of emotions and stress (e.g., anxiety, anger), expanded consciousness (e.g., being present), improved self-awareness (e.g., sense of self), and better overall health (balanced chemistry). 

Written by Dr. Peter Litchfield

Read Part 3 - Breathing Chemistry

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