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  • Writer's pictureCandy Widdifield

Breathing for Optimal Health

Updated: 3 hours ago

If you ask someone to demonstrate what a healthy breath looks like, they would likely take a deep slow full breath in and out. This is a common misconception, deep breathing does not equate to optimal health. There's a lot of research that demonstrates the optimal breath for us is actually a long, light (not deep) slow breath into the diaphragm with a natural 4-5 second pause between our exhale and our next inhale. If you watch how babies breathe when they are sleeping deeply, that is what they do.

Think about this for a second. Imagine two people going for a leisurely walk. The first person is someone who is young and healthy. The second person is older and in poor health. How is the young fit person breathing? Their breath is probably barely noticeable. How is the older person breathing? Likely huffing and puffing. Deep breathing is stressed breathing, and chronic deep breathing mimiks a state of physiolgical stress in our body (including the nervous system).

For a long time it was thought that oxygen was the key to health. That's where the idea of taking deep breaths came in. The more oxygenated we can be, the healthier. But here's the thing: oxygen saturation levels for most people are between 95% & 99% all the time. We are already optimized with oxygenation, even at rest. Bringing in more oxygen with deep breathing into an already optimized system isn't helpful. Neither is going from 99% to 100% - it really doesn't make a difference.

Rather than oxygen, it's actually our CO2 levels (carbon dioxide) that plays the critical role in health. It's not just a waste gas that our body needs to get rid of, as previously believed. In fact, we breathe out a lot of oxygen along with carbon dioxide when we exhale. We retain a bunch of CO2 when we exhale and that CO2 helps deliver oxygen to our cells. Without getting into too much detail, our red blood cells carry oxygen through hemoglobin. Hemoglobin only releases oxygen into our cells in the presence of CO2. CO2 is required be able to get the oxygen into the muscles, brain, organs, etc. When we take deep breaths, it doesn't help get more oxygen to the cells. In fact, it has the opposite effect, decreasing our CO2 levels. According to Ari Whitten (founder of the Energy Blueprint & creator of the Breathing for Energy program), people can be overbreathing by 200%-300% without being aware of it, and chronic overbreathing is one of the biggest factors in both low energy levels as well as high anxiety.

Mouth breathing is another cause of poor health. We were designed to breathe through our nasal passages. The nose acts as a filter and nose breathing causes the release of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide influences our lung and immune health, as it is antimicrobial and antiviral. It also plays a role is airway and blood vessel dilation, opening up our circulation which improves blood flow and oxygen release to the various cells in our bodies. If you catch yourself mouth breathing make a conscious effort to breathe through your nose instead. The health benefits of nose breathing are worth the efforts to retrain ourselves around this! To increase nitric oxide levels even more, try humming while you exhale. This has been shown to increase those levels by 15 fold!

(If you are interested in learning more about this I highly recommend the book Breath: the new science of a lost art, by James Nestor. Even though it is filled with factual information & tips it is written like a story and is easy to read). I am not entirely clear on whether mouth breathing is related to overbreathing, but I can see how it would be.

What causes overbreathing? Chronic stress, to be sure. Processed foods have been shown to play a role. Low fitness levels are also a factor. It naturally follows then, things that are regulating to our nervous system (like regular meditation) are helpful for changing this. Good overall diet, and walking daily (even just a little bit) is critical. In addition, we can start working directly with our breath itself to change the automatic pattern.

Ideally we want light, slow breaths through the nose that reach into our diaphragm (rather than just our chest). The ideal is 4-12 breaths per minute. We can start simply by noticing where we are at and working to decrease our overall volume and rate of breaths. Ari Whitten recommends putting your hand up to your nose and notice how much air is coming out, then trying to decrease it by half, wait a few breaths, then decrease it by half again. You will reach a point where you feel like you're starving for oxygen and need to talk a deeper breath. Regularly practicing challenging that edge will help to reset the automatic breath pattern.

Here is where it gets even more interesting. CO2 is necessary for ideal oxygen release into the cells and therefore good health, but higher CO2 levels have also been correlated with increased anxiety. Additionally, lower thresholds for CO2 wires the brain into a chronic state of stress & anxiety. To help decrease anxiety in the moment we can benefit from decreasing CO2 levels. Outside of the moment, we want to work toward increasing our CO2 tolerance (which will ultimately decrease overall anxiety levels).

To release anxiety and increase calm in the moment, try the sigh breath (otherwise known as the physiological sigh). It's really simple: a double inhale followed by a long exhale while sighing. Breathe in a full breath, then do a second quick powerful burst of additional air intake, then breathe out a long exaggerated exhale while making a sighing sound out loud. It only takes 2 to 3 breaths like this to make a big difference in your physiology. If you want something more in-depth, there are breathing programs out there, like the SKY Breath (now known as Art of Living Part 1) that have been proven to reduce anxiety & stress levels, along with depression and many other benefits.

If you are looking to increase your energy levels, using Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) improves mitochondrial function (which are the energy generators in our cells). IHT induces lower oxygen levels to teach our cells how to use it more effectively (a process known as hormesis). IHT has also been studied as an intervention for COVID rehab and is considered to be an anti-aging protocol. There are many different ways to do IHT, but one of the easiest ones is holding your breath while walking. Here you would exhale out your air and then hold your breath with your lungs empty for as many steps as you can. Then as you continue walking let the breath return back to normal and repeat. Do 4 - 12 rounds at a time. Another option is the breath of fire. This is often done in Kundalini yoga (for a short instructional video click here). Three to five rounds of 30-50 breaths is recommended. Other ways to induce hormesis include cold showers, infrared sauna, red light therapy, fasting & exercise. Essentially what we are doing is putting our bodies through short bursts of mild stress. It may seem counterintuitive, but self inducing mild states of physiological stress has a very different impact on us than being at the mercy of stressors. These self induced states acutally foster our resilience, improving our overall health and longevity.

The key takeaways today are to notice how you are breathing, do what you can to optimize your breath, and use the anxiety or energy related breathing tools (if applicable) to help assist you in rewiring your brain!

Best wishes!

Caelum's Insights (A Functional Neurology Perspective):

Exercise is the best medicine for almost everything. There have been numerous studies on the effects of exercise on the body and brain. It helps to regulate the nervous system and improves brain functioning. According to one study done by Harvard Medical exercise reduces inflammation, reduces insulin resistance, and stimulates the release of growth factors. These are chemicals in the brain that affect brain health and the growth of new blood vessels to supply the brain. Exercise also increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which is essential for cognitive function and improvement of functioning (including memory). If exercise is a challenge, starting small and working your way up will still have huge benefits. Even just moving more is a great place to start.

If you have any questions you would like answered in this blog or to be added to my coaching waitlist, please email me at


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