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Breathing - Do You Take it for Granted?

Light headedness, headaches, fatigue, neck and shoulder tension, and jaw pain – could all these symptoms be a result of poor breathing habits? Breathing is often considered a simple task essential to life; however, when asked to demonstrate how to breathe most adults fail to perform this task properly.

So, what’s the catch?

Most people have heard the terms belly breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing) vs chest breathing. To understand how to effectively breath we need to follow the example set by babies and toddlers. Babies are the stars of belly breathing. As you watch a relaxed baby breath you will see the gentle rise and fall of their abdomen, while their neck, shoulders and face remain relaxed. As we age there tends to be a sub-conscious shift towards taking shorter, shallower breaths that often don’t go deeper than our upper chest.

Belly breathing is by far more advantageous than chest breathing. It allows people to maximize their lung capacity, and therefore, optimize uptake and release of oxygen and carbon dioxide respectively. So why is belly breathing so ineffectively used by adults?

Factors That Affect Our Breathing

When it comes to optimizing how we breathe a few factors can either facilitate or inhibit our ability to do this properly.

· Body Posture – Poor posture is one of the major contributing factors restricting peoples’ ability to breathe. Rounding of the shoulders, forward head posture, or tilting and twisting through the upper body can all compress and restrict movement of the rib cage. This reduces our ability to full expand through our diaphragm and results in shallow chest breathing. Chest breathing, in turn, often over utilizes secondary respiratory muscles, including the scaleni, upper trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, and pectoralis muscles. When these muscle groups become short and tight the resulting feeling is often that of neck and shoulder pain and tension. This can also be a pain referral source to tension headaches and jaw pain.

· Tongue Posture – Where our tongue rests in our mouth may be more important than most of us realize. In a neutral resting position, our tongue should be gently pressing against the roof of our mouth as opposed to resting on the bottom. This helps to keep the upper airway open and tends to promote more nose breathing. Chronic mouth breathing can cause the tongue to shift to a more depressed position and may be a factor in causing slight airway obstruction. In addition to optimizing our airways, nose breathing helps to warm and clean the air before it reaches our lungs. It also triggers the release of nitric oxide, a gas that helps to relax blood vessels, which in turn can improve gas exchange across our lungs.

· Stress- This is likely one of the major contributing factors to poor breathing technique in adults. When under stress, our body kicks into fight or flight mode. This tends to tighten our flexor musculature (perhaps also contributing to the above two factors) resulting in short, shallow breathing. As a result, we do not use our full lung capacity, reducing the amount of oxygen uptake, which can result in feelings of fatigue, light headedness or dizziness, headaches, and muscle tension.

Benefits of Proper Breathing

Though most people recognize the importance of breathing for life, there may not be a full appreciation for all the benefits a proper breathing technique provides the body. Some of these include:

• Improved energy production

• Improved sleep

• Reduced stress and anxiety

• Reduced muscle tension

• Improved mental focus

• Regulation of the body’s pH

• Enhanced detoxification

Steps to Breathing Better

Knowing all the positive health benefits proper breathing technique provides, it is no wonder there has been such a strong focus on incorporating breath work and breathing exercises into health and self-care routines. The first step to improve your breathing function is to recognize bad habits- whether that be poor posture, mouth breath, or chest breathing. Once identified, there are several ways to go about breaking and improving these habits.

If you suffer from poor posture habits, a regular stretch and exercise routine that focuses on chest expansion and core stability can help to create more flexibility and movement of the rib cage and thorax. In some cases, working with professionals who specialize in identifying poor posture and movement patterns can help guide your through this process.

Mouth breathing or abnormal tongue postures can also be retrained through different exercises. A myo-oral functional therapist is a healthcare professional who can specifically identify these dysfunctions and work with people to reverse these habits.

Finally, though stress may be a factor in restricting our breathing mechanics, breathwork exercises are often a recommended tool to help manage and reduce stress. There are several different types of breathwork exercises, both guided and self-directed, that tap into the benefits of proper breathing and help to restore balance to the body.

Although breathing is a relatively simple task, understanding the intricacies of proper breathing can help you regain control of this vital function and use it as a tool to improve the health of both your body and mind!


Dr. Speranza is an upper cervical Chiropractor in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She follows the protocols of the National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association (NUCCA) to help people experiencing problems with postural related dizziness regain balance, return to doing the activities that they love, and ultimately take back control of their health.

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