Last month I returned from a trip to Colorado visiting my daughter, who recently relocated for graduate school. Denver is known as the “mile-high” city for obvious reasons. We left Denver on day two, heading for the Rocky mountains and a ski adventure at 14,000 feet. At high altitude barometric pressure is significantly lower than at sea-level. The result? Oxygen molecules are spread further apart, lowering the oxygen content of each breath. Because of the reduced availability of oxygen in the air, blood oxygen levels decrease, and the body struggles to efficiently deliver oxygen to tissues, muscles and the brain. The result for some people, including me, is headache, insomnia, fatigue, nausea and brain fog.
I could feel my heart racing as I lay in bed nursing a headache on our first night in Denver. Admittedly, an ill-advised margarita may have had something to do with it too, but I could feel my stress level rising as I thought “oh no…what if I’m like this the whole trip.”
In an effort to reverse the trend, I began to channel my yogi-friends Tara and Rosie who have taught me some awes
ome breathing techniques, such as pranayama, ujjayi and alternate-nostril breathing, all of which can be helpful. And then…I recalled the SIMPLEST YET MOST EFFECTIVE advice I have given to my stressed-out patients over the years.
Women, in particular, tend to carry their stress in their shoulders and neck. This habit can come from (and/or
lead to) a very shallow breathing pattern that can fuel anxiety, an increase in blood acidity, inflammation and pain. After their adjustment, as the patient and I review their “at-home” instructions, I’ve prompted over and over…
“BREATHE TO THE BASE OF YOUR LUNGS (touching around the lower ribs and diaphragm) AND DROP YOUR SHOULDERS.”
I tell them to think of me as the tiny angel/devil on their shoulder reminding them throughout the day to slow their breathing pattern and STOP over-using muscles that aren’t required for breathing.
It’s amazing how many patients respond to this very simple reminder, and how much better they feel as a result.
Upon remembering my own advice and incorporating supplemental oxygen therapy, I did enjoy a few days on the slopes. But the experience led me to further contemplate the importance of healthful and efficient breathing.
Working on an improved breathing pattern during the day is feasible, but what about during the night? Disordered night-time breathing can profoundly impact quality of life, and I’m not just talking about sleep apnea. Many people, especially those with sinus issues, breathe through their mouth, particularly at night. Your Dentist/Orthodontist will remind you that mouth breathing will change the shape of the hard palate and can cause TMJ issues, gum disease and crowded teeth.
Additionally, the nose is a miraculous organ. It filters, concentrates and moistens the air we breathe. The nasal and sinus mucous membranes produce an essential gas called nitric oxide (too bad it’s not nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, LOL!). Its list of important functions includes: vasodilation, decreased blood pressure, improved blood flow, support of normal hormonal secretion, normalizing bladder function, regulating the binding of oxygen onto hemoglobin and supporting digestion. It’s REALLY important, and you have a lot more of it if you breathe through your nose, not your mouth.
Once I learned this, I decided to try mouth-tape during the night to encourage nasal breathing, (see photo). It worked! Initially, I felt a bit claustrophobic, but the forced nasal breathing increased the nitric oxide present in my sinus’ and acted as a natural decongestant. I no longer wake with a dry mouth and feel better rested throughout the day While my sleep isn’t perfect (thank you menopause), my quality of sleep is much improved.
So, what’s the takeaway? Be aware of your daytime and night-time breathing patterns, relax your shoulders, breathe through your nose, but most importantly, remember to just breathe.