Breathing in Altitude

Breathing is something our body does automatically and unconsciously. In our every day lives, normally filled with tensions and stress, and we adapt incorrect breathing patterns. These patterns also create tensions, and in turn, affect our body and our mind. According to Patanjali, pranayama (The expansion of your vital force) is the process by which you can break your unconscious breathing patterns and alter it so that your breathing becomes longer and calmer.

The two most common unhealthy breathing habits are: shallow breathing and holding your breath. These not only cause unnecessary stress and tension but also cause your respiratory muscles to become weaker, they lose their mobility and your rib cage becomes rigid.

This is why breathing exercises (pranayama) are beneficial to help you prepare and perform at high altitude.

Basic Breathing Anatomy Facts

First thing is first: Should we breathe through our nose or our mouth? Although the response seems obvious, the human body is designed to breathe through the nose.

Secondly, although we commonly associate the lungs to be the breathing organs, it is actually the diaphragm that is the main muscle at work. The diaphragm resembles a large inverted bowl located at the bottom of your rib cage. It connects your lower ribs with your spine and separates the heart and lungs from the rest of our organs. Your heart lies at the top of your diaphragm, and so, when you breathe adequately, there is an important impact on your heart and its functions.

Finally, the vagus nerve, which passes through the diaphragm, is responsible for the parasympathetic control of your heart, lungs, and digestive tract. In result, diaphragmatic breathing helps calm and rejuvenate your body. Some research shows that breathing through your nose increases and activates the receptors in your lower lungs, an area not accessible if you breathe through your mouth or if you have shallow breathing patterns.

Altitude and Breathing

When talking about oxygen and altitude, there is a very common and incorrect misunderstanding. Many resume it as: the higher you go, the less oxygen there is. However, the oxygen content in the air is the same whether you are at sea level, or at the summit of Everest. What does change and affects us is the drop in barometric pressure, which in turn, diminishes our oxygen intake as we breathe?

The Importance of the Exhalation

In our day to day, we do not focus much on our exhalation, but it is a key part to improving our breathing habits. When you are in altitude, your body may instinctively react by breathing more rapidly to take in more oxygen; but slower and longer breaths will be more effective.

The greater release of CO2 from your lungs, the easier the oxygen exchange will be.

When an exhalation is not completed, there is an excess of carbon dioxide that stays in your lungs. Once your body realises that it needs oxygen, automatically it will start to inhale, but less oxygen can enter your body since your lungs are still partially filled with carbon dioxide. This breathing pattern can eventually cause hyperventilation, which must be avoided (especially in altitude) because it reduces the oxygen in your blood, causes stress in your body, and can hurt your lungs.

Even when you are at sea level, slowing down your breath has many benefits such as better gas exchange, increasing your pulmonary capacity, better blood flow, and your vagus nerve secretes acetylcholine, a substance that lowers cardiac rhythm, making it easier to calm your body and mind with ease. When your breathing is calm, your mind is calm.

General Breathing Tips for Altitude.

  • NEVER hold your breath
  • At times, exhaling through the mouth allows you to remove a maximum amount of CO2 from your body.
  • Breathing/Stepping rhythm: this will help you synchronise movement and breathing. If you feel breathless, focus on taking deeper breaths and smaller steps.
  • As you walk, it can be helpful to bring one hand on your belly. As you inhale and exhale, concentrate on pushing your hand out and in.
  • Make sure you acclimatise adequately to give your body the time to adjust and work more efficiently.
  • Increase your breathing rate, even at rest, to properly oxygenate your blood.

Breathing Exercise

Your breathing changes as you go higher. In order to prepare yourself, you want to train the different areas of your lungs so you can increase their intake capacity and make your respiratory muscles stronger. For example, your lower lungs are not used as much at sea level, but they are necessary in altitude.

The following exercise is ideal since it includes both diaphragmatic and thoracic breathing, using more muscles as you breathe. It obliges you to slow your breathing rhythm down, do at least 5 breath cycles or more every day. Make sure these movements are fluid and continuous, without being forceful. Do not pause between your inhalations and exhalations.

3-Part Breathing

1. Inhale and fill your belly completely. Exhale through your mouth, creating a filter with your lips as if you are blowing a balloon. Repeat for 5 times.

2. Next, inhale, fill your belly completely and continue to inhale and fill your chest. Feel the ribcage moving outward and upward. Exhale through your mouth, creating a filter with your lips as if you are blowing a balloon. As you exhale, lower your chest first and then your belly. Repeat for 5 time.

3. Every time you exhale, do it softly and completely through your mouth. You can use your abdominal muscles to push out the extra air inside your lungs.  Creating a filter with your lips will make the exhale longer than your inhale. As you exhale, feel the air touching your lips. This will relax your mind.

We live in our bodies and it is important to know and understand how they work. We learnt that breathing should be through the nose, that the diaphragm is the most important breathing muscle and that it is connected to the heart and vagus nerve, which all affect our parasympathetic nervous system. We also learnt that exhaling completely is important since it eliminates all the carbon dioxide, allowing us to inhale more oxygen and fill our body with it. Finally, learning how to notice and control our breathing is important to break unhealthy patterns and train our muscles to go to higher altitudes.

Original article posted on Healthy is Hot

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