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Why We Should Change the Way We Breathe

by Stefanie Broes(more info)

listed in breathing, originally published in issue 287 - June 2023

 

We all breathe. It’s the first thing we do, and the last thing. And everything in between. As babies, we are born perfect breathers. Just think of a baby, and visualize how it takes light, rhythmic belly breaths, all through the nose. Somehow when we grow older we shift to more inefficient, chest breathing, or worse mouth breathing. Most of us don’t realize this because we breathe unconsciously, without paying much attention to it. But what if by changing the way we breathe, we can change the way we feel, sleep and live?

Paying conscious attention to our breathing can have tremendous health benefits, ranging from deeper sleep to more creativity and everything in between. And the beauty of it is that this is available to all. We just need to become aware of the full potential of our own breath in order to tap into its effects. CEO and female founder of moonbird, Stefanie Broes holds a doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences, is an experienced yoga, meditation and breathwork practitioner, and an ex-insomniac. She applies slow breathing on a daily basis to combat her insomnia and has made generating more awareness around breathing her lifelong mission. She recently moved to London to support the launch of her business moonbird.

Dysfunctional Breathing Signals the Body to Constantly be on Alert

As babies, we are born perfect breathers. Just think of a baby, and visualize how it takes light, rhythmic belly breaths, all through the nose. As we grow up, many aspects influence and change our breathing patterns. From, sitting for 8 hours in classrooms, tight clothes, traumatic events, injuries, to unhealthy environments, lack of activity, stressful and sedentary  lives, diseases or medication. This causes people to shift more rapid breathing, often through the mouth, holding tension in their neck, lifting their shoulders and breathing high in the upper chest. These changes may be very subtle and can happen over a long period of time, but eventually will lead to chronic overbreathing.

If you are a chronic over breather, you may notice chest and throat tightness, chest pain around the breast bone, tingling and colder hands,  and breathlessness.  Simultaneously, more carbon dioxide is being exhaled from the lungs and less being available throughout the body. Carbon dioxide is often referred to as a waste product, but nothing is less true. Lower levels of it decrease the oxygen release from the red blood cells to the body, making the overall breathing less efficient. On top, it signals the body to be in a state of alert, promoting the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Such chronic higher levels of these hormones have detrimental effects in the body.

We can live without water for days, food for weeks, but air for just a few minutes. Still, we spend a great deal of attention on what to eat and drink, but not on the quality and quantity of our breathing.

"It is estimated that over 10% of people are chronic overbreathing with major health consequences, and 1 out of 3 adults are mouth breathers." Broes points out. “When I saw these numbers and learnt what the consequences are, I found it striking that so little attention is paid to this. Even more so taking into account that the answer is so simple and literally everyone can do something about it, with very little effort. We can live without water for days, food for weeks, but air for just a few minutes. Still, we spend a great deal of attention on what to eat and drink, but not on the quality and quantity of our breathing. Just as in Eastern traditions, I firmly believe  proper breathing should be taught at school.”

Breathing

Breathing as a Self-Care Tool

 

Proper Breathing Brings Proper Health

The good part is that we are all born perfect breathings. Thus it is more about re-establishing and readopting what we have unlearned over the course of years, then new complex techniques. Many different breathing techniques exist, but for everyday life it is fairly simple and not too exotic.

First, breathe through you nose. Nose breathing warms and filters the air, but even more importantly, it ensure the release of nitric oxide in the nasal cavity. This molecule opens the blood vessel in our lungs which increases the exchange of gasses and thus optimizes overall breathing efficiency.

“Even if you go running, try nose breathing to the extent possible. You are simply using the inhale oxygen more efficiently, despite taking fewer breaths ” according to Broes.

Second, get the depth and rhythm of your breathing right. An optimal breathing rate for an healthy adult at rest is approximately 10-15 breaths per minute. The air enters and leaves the nose in a gentle, rhythmic manner, not too deep, not too shallow. The age old adage “take a deep breath” is often applied by breathing very deeply, lifting the chest and shoulders but could not be further from the ideal, calming breath. It is however true, but taking a deep breath actually means inhaling the air deep into the lowest part of the lungs. Because that’s where the alveoli are.

That’s why, third, you should breath diaphragmatically. By inflating the belly when inhaling the diaphragm – the muscle under the ribcage which you know very well since hiccups are caused by involuntary contractions of your diaphragm – contracts. This draws the air in the deepest parts of the lungs. Vice versa when you let the air out of you belly, the diaphragm relaxes and pushes the air out.

Lastly, pay attention to your posture. Relax your shoulders, maximizing the space between your ears and shoulders. Try pointing your shoulder blades towards each other, creating the space to let the air pass.

“Overall it’s simple. Always breathe through your nose, inhale by expanding your belly to draw the oxygen to the lower parts of the lungs, and point your shoulder blades towards each other to create the space to breathe freely. Try adopting these basics in your everyday life,  and your efforts will start to pay dividend soon.” according to Broes.

Different Breathing Techniques Lead to Various Health Benefits

Breathwork is a widely used term and it comes in many different shapes. It can be described as “any form of conscious breathing in order to influence certain processes in body and mind”. This is in contrast to meditation, where you do not control your breath, but passively observe it.

Think of 'simple', slow breathing exercises that you can do at home for more relaxation, inner balance or energy. On the other hand, you can also use breathwork – under the guidance of a certified breathwork coach – as a tool for personal development, trauma processing and transformation. This often involves the use of 'connected breathing', as seen in various popular methods such as Wim Hof, Transformational Breath and Rebirthing Breathwork. Connected breathing is a breathing technique in which the breather intentionally connects the inhale with the exhale without any pauses. This sometimes is combined with breath holds to create short moments of hypoxia. And while nose breathing is sound advice to follow for everyday breathing, open-mouth breathing is often used  during the deeper, more transformational work.

During such a session, you may experience deep peace, heightened present moment awareness, more aliveness in (parts of) your body, as well as release trapped emotions and outbursts of laughter or crying. It is recommended to practise this with a trained facilitator because it can move a person into an altered consciousness as quickly as after a few breaths.

“What happens in our body is pretty remarkable.” Broes explains “When using the connected breathing technique, we trigger a form of controlled hyperventilation, lowering the levels of carbon dioxide. On the one hand this will trigger our body to get into alert modus, releasing adrenaline and cortisol just like in the situation of overbreathing. But when this is short-lived, it does not harm our body. On the contrary, it gives our immune system a boost. On the other hand, our blood will become less acidic. This causes the blood vessel in our brain and body to close slightly, causing light-headedness, tingling sensation in the limbs and muscles, and release of emotions”

Let a Coach or Tech Guide You

Concentrating on the breath is a form of meditation. Focusing on one thing will relax the monkey mind and alleviate concerns. It also helps to cut off from stimuli in the environment, and from the emotions of others, while keeping their own emotions in check.

The beauty about breathing is that it is free. But just as any other workout or training, it can be hard to practise on your own. A bit of external motivation and guidance can come a long way. “The best guidance you can get obviously comes from an experienced coach of breathwork therapist. The past year, I have met and spoken to some wonderful UK-based coaches such as Aimee Hartley, Stuart Sandeman, Riche Bostock, Alan Dolan, Matthew Bagwell, Sophie Belle, Fini Cooper…” says Broes.

“Unfortunately, your coach is not always there by your side. Especially when you are lying awake in bed, or having a panic attack you are on your own. That’s where tech comes in handy. There are a multitude of apps available, but sometimes you want to be disconnected since phones itself can be overstimulating or distracting. That’s why a breathing tool such as moonbird is really helpful. Moonbird gives a tactile signal of contracting and expanding in the palm of your hand. You don’t have to think or count, just feel and breathe along.” Broes continues. “In addition, moonbird provides optional biofeedback which is a strong motivator to (continue to) practise, for people that  are sensitive to rewards. The app presents immediate feedback on whether you are doing well. Another plus: moonbird makes no noise, so it doesn’t disturb your partner in bed.”

When asked what the plans for the future are, Broes mentions “At this moment we focus solely on offering guidance during slow breathing, mainly for relaxation purposes. Overtime I want moonbird to also assist in the more deeper breathwork. I’ve used the device during online connected breathing sessions and it just makes the experience much more immersive.  I think there’s still a role to play when it comes to creating products and services that guides people to (re)discover the full potential of their own breathing to improve their mental and physical health. And I hope moonbird will do just that.”

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About Stefanie Broes

Stefanie Broes PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences and her brother Michael Broes Economist founded the breathing device moonbird in 2019. The young Belgian health tech start-up wants to make breathing techniques more widely accessible, to improve people’s overall well-being. Moonbird is a compact device based on scientifically proven principles and helps people to relax, become calmer and fall asleep faster.

In total, moonbird has raised 2,5 million euro of growth capital that will be used for international expansion. Amongst others, Akiles, ScaleFund, imec.istart, the Flemish investment company PMV, Buysse & Partners and several private investors are contributing. Stefanie Broes may be contacted via Tel: +32 485 63 81 41; stefanie@moonbird.life   https://www.moonbird.life/

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