Breathing—it’s pretty important. And, unless you’re a respiratory therapist, yoga or Pilates instructor, or master meditator, it’s probably not something you think much about. It’s just something that kind of happens. But as we age, breathing can be compromised or impaired, making breathing a conscious effort. Slow down this natural aging process by tuning into your respiratory system and making small changes to improve your respiratory health.
The respiratory system is made up of the mouth, nose, sinuses, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, and lungs.
The sinuses are hollow chambers in the facial bones surrounding the nose. The trachea is a hollow tube-shaped organ that connects the nose and mouth down to the lungs. It runs parallel to the esophagus (an important part of the digestive system). The trachea ends at the bronchi, which is where the hollow tube splits into two directions toward the lungs—a pair of organs in the chest under the ribs. Within the lungs are several smaller tubes branching off the bronchi, called bronchioles.
The entire purpose of the respiratory system is to take in oxygen—that is, to breathe! We take air in through the mouth and/or nose. The air passes through the sinuses first, which regulate the temperature and humidity. Then the air continues through the trachea, down to the bronchi, and into the lungs. The air passes through all the bronchioles, which are lined with tiny hair-like cells called cilia. The cilia filter out dust particles and mucus. At the end of each bronchiole are small air sacs called alveoli. These tiny sacs fill with air and send oxygen into the blood stream while simultaneously pulling carbon dioxide out of the blood stream.
The diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle under the ribs, and the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) allow the ribs to expand and contract as we breathe. The diaphragm pulls down, drawing air into the lungs so they fill up (much like a balloon). Then the diaphragm releases back up to help the ribs contract and expel carbon dioxide.
Here’s an interesting fact: Speaking, singing, and laughing all require the same exchange of air as breathing. The nuances of speech (volume, speed, inflection, and tone) come from subtle articulations of the rib muscles, in addition to the movements of the jaw and tongue.
The respiratory system has two major roles—to take in oxygen and to rid the body of carbon dioxide. These two tasks are incredibly important. If we fail to take in enough oxygen, major damage occurs, first to the brain, and then to other major tissues in the body. If we retain too much carbon dioxide, it is toxic to the body. The respiratory system is responsible for balancing these two levels so our body can function optimally.
Strengthening the respiratory system really boils down to one thing: increasing lung capacity. The more air you can physically take into your lungs, the more oxygen the lungs can release into the blood stream. So let’s break it down further. Lung capacity is dictated by alignment, cardiovascular health, and air quality.
Let’s start by focusing on alignment; specifically, the alignment of the ribcage. The ribcage is designed to expand and contract as we breathe. The ribs can expand in all directions (front, side, back, up, and down). However, most people fail to utilize the entire range of motion of the ribcage and favor one direction more than another. Some expand into the top of the ribs more than the bottom, the front more than the back and sides, the left side more than the right, or any combination imaginable. This imbalance is often not conscious. It can be the result of misalignment elsewhere in the body, a past or present injury or malady, or even emotional trauma that leaves you feeling vulnerable and guarded. The problem is, over time, habitually underusing certain parts of the ribs leads to a buildup of fascia, a type of connective tissue, which causes them to feel “stuck.” Gentle movement can start to break up this fascial tissue and increase the range of motion in your ribs, leading to greater lung capacity.
Cardiovascular health refers to the way the circulatory system and the respiratory system interact. When you perform cardiovascular exercise, the muscles in the body require more oxygen, which causes the heart to work harder. Just like any other muscle in the body, the best way to strengthen the heart is to use it. Think of the arm: with each repetition of a bicep curl, the bicep gradually fatigues. Similarly, when the heart needs to exert more force than it is used to (more powerful pumps), it grows fatigued. However, unlike the bicep, the heart never really gets a full break. Even after exercise, the heart has a job to do. During periods of rest, any time you are not doing cardiovascular exercise, the heart and lungs heal themselves and grow stronger to prepare for future cardiovascular exercise. Over time, your heart becomes stronger and more efficient, exerting less effort to pump blood through the entire body. The lungs also become stronger and more efficient, needing fewer breaths to obtain the same amount of oxygen.
Finally, controlling your air quality as best you can is a surefire way to avoid damaging your lung tissue. Avoid smoking and the smoking of others, as this deposits tar in the lungs and constricts blood vessels, making the heart and lungs less efficient. If you live in a city, consider bringing some plants in your home or apartment. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen (exactly the opposite of humans), making them a great partner for us. They purify the air, which is especially useful for those who live in places with excessive air pollution.
Some maladies related to the respiratory system include the common cold, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary embolism, and lung cancer.