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I’d like to hit you with a tip this week that is often overlooked as a culprit behind multiple issues when it comes to your health and wellbeing. The seemingly subconscious act of proper breathing. On the surface this appears like such a simple act that we all take for granted. But as we all know, we must breathe to live. Period.
WHY WE BREATHE
Let’s first breakdown what actually transpires when we breathe. When you inhale you are delivering oxygen to an interface between your lungs and blood vessels. Here, freshly inhaled oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide, which you then expel during exhalation. Your beating heart provides the force to deliver the carbon dioxide to this interface bounded to hemoglobin molecules in your blood.
When the exchange is made, oxygen is then delivered to all of your tissues bound to that same hemoglobin molecule. Oxygen is a vital fuel for your cells to function properly. One of the waste products of this metabolic process is carbon dioxide, which is then taken by the blood back to the lungs for the cycle to continually repeat itself.
Sounds simple enough. But what if I told you that you’re probably not breathing correctly and this could be contributing to a myriad of issues including that discomfort in your neck.
HOW WE BREATHE
Most people do not realize this, but breathing is actually a brain directed function carried out by muscles, the chief one being the diaphragm. This is a muscle that separates your abdomen from your chest cavity. Breathing in is actually a function of this muscle descending, enlarging your chest cavity and creating a negative pressure that sucks oxygen rich air into your lungs. Once this has transpired, the diaphragm then ascends, reversing that negative pressure and pushing the now carbon dioxide laden air out of your lungs.
If you observe someone breathing you will more than likely notice that the shoulders and chest rise and fall. This is actually the incorrect way of breathing and signifies the use of what are called accessory muscles of respiration. These muscles are connected throughout your cervical spine (neck), ribs, clavicle (collar bone) and sternum.
By breathing incorrectly you are putting these muscles to work all day, every day. Couple that with the fact that these muscles are already being overworked by that anterior posture from being hunched over at our computers, and these muscles become quite fatigued. When this occurs you become more susceptible to injury due to the fatigued muscles (that would normally stabilize your neck during strenuous movements) failing.
There also begins to be an accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles. Most of us have felt this before when riding a bike and our thighs start to burn. This is the same concept, expect in these over contracted neck muscles that tend to lead to tender and uncomfortable trigger points.
So what can you do? You can start by practicing breathing correctly. Correct breathing is actually from your belly, not your chest. When you inhale, your belly (or that six pack) should expand outward. When you breathe out your abdomen should then sink back in. This seems counterintuitive, but the motion should be mostly all in the abdomen, and minimally in the shoulders and chest.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Note the motions that take place while breathing in and out. If you notice that it is off, make a conscious effort to correct it. This exercise can be done at any time during the day, even when at your desk or sitting at a light in the car. Doing this should begin to offer some relief to those aforementioned accessory muscles. Couple this with some postural exercises and you should be able to decrease that neck discomfort tenfold.
Proper posture and breathing mechanics also allows a deeper breath and thus more oxygen. As stated above, oxygen is vital for almost all functions in the body. Any deficit in its concentration or delivery can lead to all sorts of problems including headaches and lack of concentration. It, along with glucose and activation are the absolute necessities required for survival and proper function of your nervous system. That’s your brain, spinal cord, and nerves wired throughout your body we are talking about here. Make sure you’re giving it the fuel it needs to perform as intended.
Another interesting effect that you can take advantage of by utilizing this belly breathing technique comes by way of parasympathetic nervous system stimulation. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, there are two opposite nervous systems that should balance each other out in order to maintain optimal function. The sympathetic system which is your fight or flight response, and your parasympathetic which is basically for rest and digest.
Being that the parasympathetic system is in charge of digestion, it has a vast number of connections to the organs involved in the digestive process, particularly the intestines located in your abdomen. When you breathe with your belly you are causing stimulation to the abdomen, which we just said is heavily parasympatheticaly innervated. This connection leads to subsequent stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you de-stress and relax.
This is the reason a proper breathing technique is one of the main components of successful meditation. Increased delivery of oxygen to your brain allowing you to elevate your mind. Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system facilitating calmness.
If you practice this method of breathing you have the potential to not only begin to mechanically relieve some of that nagging neck pain, but it will also help you to remain calm and relaxed. Who would’ve thought such a seemingly simple task could carry such potentially positive ramifications?