Balanced Breathing

Breathing correctly makes our body balanced. Is your breathing doing the best it can for you?


The air that we breathe is mostly nitrogen (78%), with about 21% being oxygen and the rest being traces of other gases. Carbon dioxide for instance is only about 0.03% of the total air. Because there is such a small amount of carbon dioxide in the air, and it was long ago discovered that oxygen was the most basic fuel for the body, somehow it became common knowledge that oxygen is the only important gas for humans. What no one ever told us at school when we were doing basic biology, is that it's not enough to have oxygen; you have to have carbon dioxide too. What we do need is the right amount of each gas. If we had too much or too little carbon dioxide in our system, this would be just as bad as having too much or too little oxygen.

We squirrel away about 100 times more carbon dioxide in the body than oxygen, probably because we have to make our own carbon dioxide, but we get more oxygen than we need every time we take a breath and so there isn't really much point in storing lots of oxygen.

There is so much oxygen in the atmosphere that in every heart beat, the haemoglobin in the blood going through the lungs is filled with it, and we breathe most of what we inhale right out again. This is why we can do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for a long time while still delivering ourselves with plenty of oxygen.

A while back anti-oxidants became a new buzz word and today we are told to eat lots of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables because they are full of anti-oxidants. Now if oxygen is so good for us, why would we need plenty of anti-oxidants? In fact, in the 1950s some new-born babies were blinded when they were given too much oxygen because the poor little things didn't have enough anti-oxidants in their systems. It really comes back to balance: our bodies want the right amount of oxygen and the right amount of carbon dioxide.

Our lungs have got it figured out how to keep the right balance. By making smaller and smaller tubes leading into the air sacs called alveoli, they can make sure that only about one seventh of the air you inhale each time reaches the alveoli. This allows the concentration of carbon dioxide and oxygen stay static at their correct levels in these air sacs. If the concentration of carbon dioxide starts to get too high in the alveoli, the airways automatically open up a little bit to let more out, and if the concentration gets too low, the airways automatically narrow slightly to retain a bit more. Similarly, if the oxygen concentration gets too high, the blood vessels surrounding these air sacs will open, and if the oxygen concentration gets too low there will be less blood flowing around these particular air sacs.

It all works perfectly then until you start doing crazy things like deliberately practising deep breathing exercises. There is no scientific evidence that doing deep breathing exercises are good for you; and plenty to show that it's bad. Look around you – look at animals, and look at little kids. You never see any of them deliberately forcing air in and out of their lungs – well not unless you drive cats around in cars, or get kid to blow up balloons. It's not a natural thing to do. So why would you want to do it as an adult?