Unconscious breathing is the norm, but should it be?

Unconscious breathing is the norm, but should it be?

“Sit up straight, put your shoulders back, stop slouching.” We’ve all heard it before--from our parents, from our doctors; there’s no doubt that people know posture is important.

But in everyday life, you’ve probably never heard someone comment on your breathing pattern. Most people don’t give much thought to their breathing; it goes on in the background completely independent of conscious thought, but it’s one of the most important processes that happens in our body.

And we’ve always known that breathing is important--we couldn’t survive without it--but aside from patients with respiratory conditions, the medical community hasn’t paid much attention to breathing for the average patient. Unconscious breathing patterns have been considered sufficient and normal.

Research is beginning to reveal that breathing is something everyone should be paying more attention to! There are important connections between poor breathing--from respiratory disorders, sleep apnea, and open mouth breathing--and processes of disease development. There are also clear connections between the practice of diaphragmatic breathing and positive benefits--like reduction in stress, negative affect (bad feelings), and anxiety.

Posture and breathing go hand in hand. It would be very difficult to blow up a balloon if someone were sitting on it, right? Well, when posture is collapsed, when we’re slouching and bent forward, the balloons in our chest--our lungs--have a much lower capacity to fill with air.

The purpose of breathing is to bring oxygen into the body to feed our cells the resources they need to function and survive. In other words, oxygen is one of our most foundational sources of energy. But if oxygenation is limited due to poor posture, respiratory conditions, or insufficient unconscious breathing patterns, our cells are starved of oxygen--not completely starved, but starved enough to lower our present energy levels and make us sick over time.

The diaphragm is designed to be the muscle behind breathing. Breathing with the diaphragm allows the lungs to use their full capacity, and it is, therefore, the best way to oxygenate the body; it feeds the body 600% more oxygen than unconscious breathing patterns.

When poor posture and other barriers to healthy breathing keep us from using the full capacity of our lungs, the muscles in the upper chest and throat get overworked trying to compensate, which causes serious problems of its own. The constant tension in these muscles along with low oxygenation from poor breathing can cause anxiety, low tone headaches, migraines, TMJ, and other disabling problems.

Many chiropractors, posture specialists, physical therapists, and doctors who deal with these types of problems have picked up on this connection between posture, respiration, and the issues they work to treat every day. Many have begun examining postural respiration with their patients to evaluate why their breathing is inefficient and implement strategies to correct it for future healthy breathing. It gets to the root cause of so many of the painful issues that send them to the doctor in the first place!

Thinking about how you breathe all the time is unrealistic, but simply being aware of your breathing and posture is a huge start towards healthy breathing! Here are some great tips and strategies for better breathing and posture:

1. Work for and maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight, especially across the abdomen, makes it harder for your body to keep a healthy posture.

2. Engage in regular exercise. This not only serves to help you maintain a healthy weight, but also strengthens your muscles and supports flexibility to make it easier to hold correct posture.

3. Keep a healthy spine. If your spine is misaligned, it’ll be much more difficult to hold healthy posture. Seeing a chiropractor frequently ensures that you have proper musculoskeletal alignment and helps reduce any pain caused by improper alignment. 

4. Sleep on a good bed. If your mattress is too soft, it can cause your spine to go out of alignment from poor support.

5. Get your vision checked. This might seem like a misfit for this list, but think about how much your posture suffers if you’re constantly straining and leaning forward to see. Good vision goes hand in hand with good posture.

6. Practice breathing techniques. Practicing conscious breathing for even just a few minutes a day activates the diaphragm; it wakes up the muscles you should be using to breathe, making it easier to stay in a healthy breathing cycle throughout the rest of the day, and it reduces anxiety and stress. I personally like the Wim Hof breathing method

7. Invest in good ergonomics. If you’re sitting at a desk or over a computer all day, your posture is sure to suffer. Standing desks and chairs that promote healthy posture are great solutions for this!

8. Go on a technology hiatus. Stop leaning over your phone and computer for a day, and see what it does for you! This is sure to have benefits that reach far beyond improved posture.

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