Breathing is important for almost all elements of bodily function

The basic function of breathing involves getting oxygen into, and carbon dioxide out of, the lungs in an efficient manner. Breathing is normally a continuous and relaxed cycle of what we call inspiration and expiration. Better O2/CO2 exchange means greater levels of oxygen in the blood which in turn leads to better body function.

The diaphragm is a particularly important element in this process – it has a dual role in both breathing and stabilising the body. The diaphragm is assessed indirectly by assessing individual breathing patterns and there are a number of important elements to consider.

Many factors can affect normal breathing; a history of trauma around your ribs or chest, a significant stressful incident, hospitalisation, surgery or poor posture for a prolonged period. Think about whether you’ve experienced any of these? (Note: If you notice a sudden, unexplained change in your breathing it is important to talk to your GP as this may require urgent medical assessment and treatment.)

Inefficient breathing patterns can lead to:

  • Snoring and sleep apnoea
  • Panic attacks and anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Neck, shoulder and lower back pain

You can perform a quick self-assessment of your breathing pattern by following these steps:

  • Start by lying down flat on your back, with your head supported by a pillow
  • Note how many breaths you take in a minute – the common wisdom is around 10 to 12 breaths a minute (however, according to the Bradcliff method, an ideal breathing rate is probably round 6 to 8 breaths a minute)
  • Next, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. What we are looking for is whether you predominantly breathe from your chest or your abdomen.

The ideal breathing pattern is approximately 90% of the movement coming from your abdomen and 10% coming from your chest. Additionally, you should see the belly expanding as you take a breath in and then relax passively whilst breathing out.

It is also important to establish if one of your nostrils is more blocked than the other and note which side this is. There is evidence to suggest we alternate (every 90 minutes or so) breathing dominance between our left and right nostrils both when awake and asleep. This allows us to revitalise one nostril while the other does the majority of the work of filtering and warming the air.

This would also explain why we turnover in bed at night; in order to allow the best possible entry of air into the left or right nostril. If we have a blockage in one side or nostril we will tend sleep predominantly on the side that gives us the best air entry for that nostril. This in turn can lead to irritation of neck, shoulder, lower back and hips as the majority of sleeping is done on a single side.

Therefore, making sure that you have good air entry both to the left and right nostril may require using a nasal washout each night prior to going to sleep. This has been shown to be an effective way to maintain good air entry into the nose. This is particularly important when you having had a cold or sinus related illness.

In order to help normalise our breathing patterns it is beneficial to spend some time practising slow diaphragmatic breathing. The Bradcliff method suggests just 2 sessions of 10 minutes a day will kick start the re-training and develop your new normal. Certainly the Western version of mindfulness, a very popular technique for calming, is based on diaphragmatic breathing.