The Oxygen Advantage: The Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques for a Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter Youby Patrick McKeown
This book will equip you with the understanding and practices to master your breathing, the most essential function of life. It will also debunk some very common misconceptions about breathing, providing simple and transformative exercises that anyone can do to experience radical improvements in health, fitness and performance.
Fundamentals of Breathing
“Better breathing is the gateway to a new realm of health.”
Breathing is one of the essential functions that maintains life. Most of us pay little to no attention to our breathing, as it happens completely unconsciously and without volition. However, many of us breathe in sub-optimal or even harmful ways, resulting in inefficient respiration and creating all sorts of problems for our health and quality of life.
There are three aspects to functional and healthy breathing:
breathing through the nose;
breathing lightly (rather than deeply);
When applied and practiced regularly, these three fundamentals can radically change the experience of breathing and transform your health and well-being from the cellular level up. Learning to breathe properly can help alleviate breathing difficulties, asthma, allergies, coughs and colds. Optimal breathing makes you healthier, supports better sleep, reduces anxiety and heart problems, improves concentration and mood, and enhances athletic performance.
An important indicator of breathing efficiency comes from the Basic Oxygen Level Test (BOLT). It involves timing the number of seconds you can comfortably hold your breath after an exhale, which is known as your BOLT score. The longer you can hold, the more efficient your breathing. A score of 40 seconds indicates healthy and efficient breathing, and is the ideal to aim for. At 40 seconds, breathing is effortless, gentle, soft and close to invisible.
Most people, even those who are healthy and exercise regularly, usually have a BOLT score of around 20 seconds. If you regularly experience breathing difficulties like congestion, coughing, snoring, or wheezing, your score is likely to be lower than 20 seconds. The aim of this program is to increase your BOLT score incrementally up to or over 40 seconds. As your BOLT score increases, your breathing will become calmer, lighter, freer and more relaxed, during both rest and exercise.
Actions to take
Breathe Through Your Nose
“The first step is to go back to basics and learn to breathe through the nose both day and night.”
The most important shift you can make in your breathing is to breathe through your nose as much as possible. The human nose and nasal passages are optimized for breathing and overall health:
Our nasal passages are structured to maximize absorption of oxygen from the air we inhale while filtering germs and bacteria from it.
Nasal breathing results in 10-20% more oxygen uptake.
Nasal breathing is more regular and calm, helping us maintain relaxation. Conversely, mouth breathing tends to move the upper chest area, which activates the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response in the body.
Our nasal passages produce a special gas called nitric oxide, which is carried into the body every time we breathe through the nose. Nitric oxide naturally dilates and decongests the nasal passages so we can breathe more easily. It also relaxes blood vessels, reducing blood pressure and improving heart health.
Breathing through the mouth is a habit that many people acquire over time, but it is both an inefficient and unhealthy way to breathe. The mouth is designed for eating, not for breathing. Mouth breathing contributes to ‘forward head’ posture, reduced respiratory strength and general dehydration; increases acidification of the mouth which leads to cavities and gum disease; alters bacterial flora in the mouth which can cause bad breath; and tends to increase snoring and obstructive sleep apnea.
Actions to take
Optimizing Breathing Volume
“When it comes to breathing, less is more.”
Most of us have been told at some point in our life to “take a deep breath” to help us calm down, reduce anxiety, etc. Many professionals like yoga teachers and physiotherapists teach and emphasize deep breathing. Most ordinary people believe that deep breathing is healthier and better for us than shallow breathing.
However, this is a fundamental and highly pervasive misconception that misunderstands the essential processes of respiration. Deep breathing usually involves taking in a large volume of air, loudly and fairly rapidly, often through the mouth. This is the exact opposite of what healthy breathing looks and sounds like.
It is a little-known fact that breathing too much has harmful effects too —just like eating too much or drinking too much water. We tend to mistakenly believe that getting more air is good for us, perhaps because it means getting more oxygen. This is incorrect in two ways:
It is the proper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body that brings about health; and
Taking deep breaths does not have any significant impact on oxygen levels in the body, which tends to remain fairly constant between 95% and 99% in the vast majority of circumstances.
Deep breathing does, however, dramatically reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the body. Carbon dioxide is not simply a waste by-product of breathing but is absolutely vital for a vast array of biological functions. It enhances oxygen delivery to cells, smooths breathing and blood flow, reduces strain on the heart and boosts endurance. These are only some of the many important functions of C02 in the body. Unfortunately, most people have been breathing too much for too long, and have developed a very low tolerance and high sensitivity to C02 levels. We cannot handle even low concentrations of C02, which is what makes us want to take big gulps of breath through the mouth, or breathe too much and too frequently.
The easiest and quickest way to restore the oxygen-carbon dioxide balance is to practice reduced breathing. This means actively reducing the volume of air we breathe in order to gradually build up our tolerance of C02 and increase baseline C02 levels. Over time as we practice, we will adapt to a lighter, more relaxed, and efficient breathing pattern. We are aiming at healthy breathing that is quiet, slow, light, and nasal.
Think of the way an animal breathes when at rest, or the way a child breathes when they are asleep: their breathing is barely visible or audible, indicating high efficiency and a lesser volume of air being exchanged.
Begin by practicing reduced breathing during rest, either sitting or lying down. Begin with just a few seconds or a minute and increase the duration of your practice over time, so that your body can gradually adapt. As you practice more often, you will be able to do it even during exercise and exertion.
Actions to take
“The beauty of breath holding is that while the air shortage can be relatively extreme, it is entirely under our own control and for a short duration of time only.”
Breath-holding is a natural part of the respiratory process that most of us have forgotten. In fact, those who breathe well often have natural pauses at the end of their exhale of around 4-5 seconds. Humans have safely practiced breath-holding for many centuries, as free-divers and underwater foragers can attest. Longer and deliberate breath holds, when practiced safely and appropriately, are one of the most powerful tools for enhancing breathing and improving health and well-being.
When the amount of air you breathe in is reduced, the oxygen in your blood decreases while carbon dioxide builds up. Carbon dioxide has tremendous benefits, including the facilitation of oxygen delivery to cells and the promotion of healthy blood flow by dilating blood vessels. Breath-hold training (in which the breath is held after exhaling) enhances the benefits of reduced breathing even further.
Breath-holding firstly prompts the spleen to contract and release previously-stored red blood cells into the bloodstream. More red blood cells mean more oxygen in the blood, more oxygen delivered to cells, and therefore greater work output. Breath-holding also stimulates the release of a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the maturation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. EPO is released from the kidneys as a response to reduced oxygen levels in the blood. Thus breath-holding stimulates red blood cell production and release through two different mechanisms.
Breath-hold training supports exercise and athletic performance and can be used to both warm-up before exercising and cool down afterward. It can also be used to simulate the benefits of high-intensity exercise for those who are unable to perform it due to injury or lack of fitness. High-intensity exercise and breath-holding improve aerobic and anaerobic energy supply for greater endurance, strength, speed, and power, increase the volume of oxygen transported and utilized during exercise, improve recovery time and tolerance of intense work and reduce stress and fatigue of tissues. Breath-holding also improves the respiratory strength of the diaphragm and breathing muscles and reduces lactic acid buildup during exercise.
There are a few important points to remember as you embark on breath-hold training. Firstly, always practice appropriately for your body, physical condition, and environment. Do not practice breath-holding while swimming or driving. Take your time and play around with experiencing light, moderate and strong air shortages until you can easily discern the difference between them, as well as your upper limits:
A light air shortage is when you don’t feel the urge to breathe.
A moderate air shortage is from the first involuntary contraction of the breathing muscles until contractions become frequent.
A strong air shortage is when you feel you absolutely must breathe, which is when you should take a breath.
Don’t overdo it—learn to go to your limit but not over it. Your body has built-in safety mechanisms that will not allow you to go too far. If you feel dizzy or faint, stop. You may develop a headache but it should disappear within 10 minutes of rest. You can trust your body and your reactions to be good guidelines. Secondly, maintain relaxation as much as possible while holding your breath. The more you can relax, the easier it will be and feel to hold your breath for longer, as you won’t be wasting energy in tension.