What is Functional Breathing?

women hiking and looking peaceful in the woods

Breath, Something Worth Thinking About

As you might know, humans can live weeks—even months—without food, approximately three days without water, but only three minutes without air. The average human breathes 17,000 - 20,000 times per day.

And yet, we tend to only think about our breathing when something goes wrong. It does not come to the top of our mind when thinking about how to live long and live well.

But if you want to impact your health and longevity, you need to breathe functionally.

Our breathing has a direct impact on what happens in the 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body and the amount of oxygen our cells receive.

Healthy breathing can unclog a stuffy nose, open constricted airways, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and stop a panic or asthma attack. It even affects the structure of our face.

Functional Breathing

So what does it mean to breathe functionally?

Functional breathing means breathing as efficiently and maximally effective as possible. Functional breathing is beneficial to your health, longevity, and quality of life.

In order to understand more about what makes for functional breathing, let's get into the details of breathing, which has primary and secondary functions.

The primary functions are divided into:

  • Biochemical -  the regulation of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and the PH of our bodies
  • Biomechanical - the physicality of breathing including the muscles of the respiratory system especially the diaphragm, the functions of the rib cage, and our changing patterns of breathing (calm, stress, exertion etc)

There are also secondary functions of breathing:

  • Regulation of the nervous system
  • Regulation of fluids like the blood and lymph
  • Maintaining the structure of our muscles and bones (spine, core, pelvic floor)

So what does healthy breathing look like? Healthy breathing (while resting, with light movement, or when walking) should be:

  • Almost unnoticeable, quiet
  • Slow
  • Through the nose
  • From the diaphragm

What does unhealthy breathing look like?

  • Mouth breathing
  • From the upper chest
  • Chronic hyperventilation: overbreathing, taking in too much air
  • Irregular breathing
  • Unexplained breathlessness

There are many signs of unhealthy or dysfunctional breathing patterns. They include excessive breathlessness, yawning, and sighing.

Dysfunctional breathing has a wide range of negative effects on an array of health issues including: asthma, anxiety, sleep apnea, snoring, insomnia, panic disorder, blood pressure, metabolic issues, and allergies. Overall, poor breathing exacerbates physical and mental health conditions

The Good News

We can use breathing exercises that are simple and easy to learn. They can be done while sitting, doing everyday activities, walking, or during more vigorous exercise. These techniques can be used with adults as well as children.

By doing these breathing practices, we can not only address issues that occur while we’re awake, but also alleviate nighttime issues including insomnia, snoring, and sleep apnea.

How do I correct dysfunctional breathing as a breath coach?

When working with clients to improve their breathing, we work on nose breathing first. Breathing through your mouth allows cold, unfiltered air to enter and constrict the airways. It causes hyperventilation, creating an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. In essence, overbreathing allows less oxygen to leave the blood and enter the cells. It makes mental, physical, and sleep conditions worse.

We also correct biomechanical dysfunction because most people with dysfunctional breathing are inhaling from the upper chest and/or from the belly—not the diaphragm. This exacerbates conditions such as  anxiety, asthma, snoring, and sleep apnea. It has an effect on musculoskeletal issues as well. Correcting your breathing mechanics can reduce pain in the body, especially low back and pelvic floor muscles.

Many “mouth breathers” have a hard time switching to breathing through the nose, but a breath coach can provide you with techniques that can smooth over the transition. We also practice cadence, which means reducing how many times the person breathes in a given period of time. The average person breaths 10-14 breaths per minute, and ideally should be closer to 5-6 breaths per minute.

What A Breath Coach Can Do

Every person has a unique path to wellness, because everyone’s body is unique. This is called bio-individuality, and that just means no two people can do the exact same thing with the same results.

Your bio-individuality is one reason why having a breath coach at the beginning can be really helpful. I customize practices for each of my clients based on their specific health, time restrictions, and preferences. I still use a breath coach on my own journey to better breathing and better health.

So why does functional breathing matter? Functional breathing improves overall health mentally and physically. Dysfunctional breathing exacerbates current health issues and decreases the quality of sleep, making it harder for the body to obtain and use oxygen efficiently.

When you breathe better, you feel better.

This first appeared as a guest blog on Functional Physical Therapy's website. To find many other great articles related to physical therapy and health, check out Nick's blog.

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