One of the most important organ systems in our body are our lungs. Unbeknownst to most people, the lungs are a major organ of detoxification. Think about it, you can not eat for weeks, you can not drink water for days but hold your breath- you’re not going to last very long. Part of that drive to breathe is not because of a lack of oxygen, it is because of the carbon dioxide building up and poisoning the tissue. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that we need to get rid of, making our lungs one of the most valuable organs of elimination in our body. Another equally as important aspect of our lungs is that they give us access to our nervous system.
All of the unconscious processes in our body are controlled by our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which has two parts:
sympathetic nervous system- our fight, flight, and fright response. This is essentially our stress response.
parasympathetic nervous system- our rest, digest and relax response.
All of our organ systems are inundated by both of these branches of the nervous system- our heart rate, our digestive tract, etc. We don’t have to and we can’t tell our stomach to produce HCL or our gallbladder to contract, it just happens automatically. Our lungs are also controlled by our ANS. We don’t have to think to breath, it just happens. But the unique aspect is that we can choose to breath or not, if we want to. With that choice, comes the ability to control our nervous system. So, inhalation - breathing in- is mediated by a sympathetic nervous system response. If we are frightened or scared, what do we do? We gasp - inhalation. On the flip side, exhalation is mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. A good way to think about this is when you slide into the bathtub at the end of the day, you let out a long exhale.
What this reveals to us is that we can have tremendous power over our body and our mind. We can use our lungs and breath to gain access to our nervous system. The reason this is so important is because we live in what I call a very “sympathetic dominant” society. This dominance leaves our nervous system in a constant state of fight or flight. We live a little high strung and wound up, not only mentally but also physiologically. Why does that matter? Well, if we live in a sympathetic dominant state, it’s like we live with our foot always on the gas pedal. This is like a constant state of stress and it can disrupt our digestion, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and it can even increase pain. So promoting the parasympathetic response is something we really need to practice. To practice getting into this parasympathetic state one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to incorporate a deep breathing practice into our daily routine.
Deep Breathing Routine Example:
- stop what you’re doing for 2-3 minutes and focus on your breath.
- inhale for 4 counts
- hold it for 4 counts
- exhale for 8 counts.
The take home message from this breathing pattern is that the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation. It gives a preferential massage to the relaxation centers of the brain and of the body. In this routine, we are exercising our parasympathetic nervous system response. It’s very simple and it can be very powerful. I call this going to the gym for your nervous system. The more you do it, the better you become at it. The more you do it, the closer your baseline comes to a more balanced, relaxed state. I’ve talked to hundreds of patients about this because it has the potential to be life changing for people who have anxiety, depression, digestive problems, chronic stress, etc. We as humans function better in this state, it’s more enjoyable and more relaxing, so go ahead, try it out!
By: Derek Lawrence, ND