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Clearing the air

Reading time: 4 minutes

We do it every day without thinking—in, out, on average 7.5 million times a year. And we think that if we just get the air into our lungs, it doesn’t matter which way it comes in. But new evidence suggests we’re doing it all wrong. 

If we’re to achieve optimum health, we need to take in far more oxygen than we ordinarily do, and we need to make sure that it gets into places it’s just not reaching. The main reason we’ve got an oxygen deficiency has to do with the very way we breathe. 

With all the stresses of modern life and hours spent hunched over computers or phones, our breathing has become too quick and too shallow. But as Celeste McGovern reports in The Healing Power of Breath the greatest problem has to do with the almost universally accepted idea that breathing through your mouth is equivalent to breathing through your nose.

Mouth breathing has become ubiquitous, partly due to the effect of soft processed foods on the structures of our faces, which causes our nasal airways to shrink. But taking in oxygen through our mouths, particularly at night, can be responsible for a host of illnesses, including sleep apnea, asthma, panic attacks, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases—even mental illnesses like depression. These problems can begin in a matter of days after breathing through our mouths. 

As McGovern discovered, James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Riverhead Books, 2020), tried out a little experiment with a colleague of his in which their noses were blocked during sleep. Within days, both began to suffer from snoring and sleep apnea.

Nestor contracted microorganisms in his nose that would have developed into a full-blown sinus infection had he carried on the experiment for more than 10 days. Both their blood pressures began to skyrocket, and their heart rate variability scores (a measure of good heart health) nosedived.

Nestor also began suffering from anxiety and high stress levels. Once he and his colleague reversed the process and taped up their mouths to sleep, all the conditions reverted back to a healthy normal in a matter of days.

Nose breathing owes its superiority to the added effect of nitric acid it produces, which delivers nearly a fifth more oxygen to the body, kills bacteria and viruses including Covid, and dilates arteries to deliver more blood and oxygen to the body, among many other effects.

In fact, learning to breathe slower and deeper through the nose can also help to heal asthma and even high blood pressure, one of the most common health problems.

The other aspect of breathing that affects our health is that we’re not getting adequate oxygen in the first place. To maintain a healthy body, we need our red blood cells to be saturated with 96–100 percent oxygen. But if our breathing is impaired in any way, as it is with emphysema and other lung diseases, like asthma, our red blood cells just don’t get enough.

Pollution and other toxins and even trauma can limit the amount of oxygen we take in, which can eventually result in all the diseases listed above and more. The good news, as Dr Leigh Erin Connealy covers in How Oxygen Therapy Can Heal Your Body and Mind, is that you can boost your levels of oxygen quickly via a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which delivers pure oxygen to the body at two or three times the pressure in the atmosphere.

This therapy entails stepping inside a little hyperbaric chamber and breathing in oxygen while the air pressure is gently ramped up. 

As Dr Connealy explains, the oxygen delivered in this way largely bypasses the red blood cells and heads directly to blood, plasma and cerebrospinal fluid, among others, flooding the body with about 15 times the usual amount of oxygen.

Although conventional treatment uses hyperbaric oxygen for certain conditions, Dr Connealy includes it in the array of treatments she uses against cancer. Because cancer cells are anaerobic (they live without oxygen), a blast of pure oxygen into the blood cells makes it harder for them to survive. 

Pure oxygen delivered in this way also mitigates some of the damage wreaked by chemotherapy and radiotherapy in their indiscriminate attack on both healthy and cancerous cells. What’s more, hyperbaric oxygen cranks up the body’s production of stem cells, reduces inflammation, and gives the brain a cognitive boost by increasing cerebral blood flow.

As with breathing correctly, getting enough oxygen through a hyperbaric delivery tunes up the immune system, helping to both ward off infection and promote rapid healing. Besides hyperbaric oxygen, Dr Connealy also recommends other types of oxygen delivery, such as Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning (CVAC), which changes the oxygen pressure as it cycles through the machine, plus different types of ozone therapy (another type of therapy that infuses the blood with oxygen), oxygen baths, and oxygen and ozone combined.

The bottom line for all of this is that the most effective treatments are often the simplest. In this case, it’s a matter of making sure we have plenty of the right air and we are getting it to the right places.

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