The breath of life: How you breathe affects every aspect of your health

5 simple tips for getting the most out of every inhale and exhale

For the past few months, I’ve been putting together a brand new online learning protocol on lung health. And, it got me thinking about breathing. After all, what could be more natural—and more important for your lungs—than taking a breath?

Of course one of the primary purposes of breathing is to get oxygen into the body. But that’s just the beginning. In fact, breathing plays various roles in the body, including helping to manage many chronic medical conditions. That’s why breathing techniques are a fundamental part of my natural approach to health.

But because breathing is thought of as an involuntary reflex, it’s often ignored by mainstream medicine. Many doctors don’t understand that there are ways to actually improve your breathing—which, in turn, improves your health.

So let’s take a closer look at how every breath you take affects every aspect of your health.

The complicated process of respiration

The most common way breathing impacts your health is through the respiratory process.

When you take a breath, the inhaled oxygen binds to the iron inside the red blood cells in your lungs before transporting the oxygen to every cell in your body and brain.

This is the sole purpose of red blood cells. They’re the only cells in the body that don’t carry DNA, but their role is vital because oxygen is highly reactive. If oxygen isn’t “caged” inside these cells, it can interact with almost anything in your body, creating the oxidative stress that leads to many chronic health conditions.

Once oxygen enters the cells in your body and brain, it’s used for a process called cellular respiration. This is when the mitochondria in cells “burn” the oxygen, together with carbohydrates, to create energy and water for the cells.

It’s a classic chemical combustion reaction, like burning wood in your fireplace or gasoline in your car. In your fireplace, the heat energy warms you. In your car, the energy is utilized to power the pistons and move the wheels. In your cells, the energy is harnessed to fuel all metabolic processes throughout your body and brain.

How breathing promotes vital energy

Mainstream doctors tend to only consider respiration when they think about breathing. But there’s a lot more to this “simple” act of inhaling and exhaling.

First of all, breathing can be described as a more general process of taking in “vital energy” from the environment.

In ancient Greece and Rome, inhalation relates to the concept of “anima” (spirit)—the energy that animates all life in the cosmos. In Latin, the word “inspiration” relates to spirit (anima). And in English, we use the related word “animal” to describe all living creatures.

To complete the circle, the word “inspiration” is used medically for taking a breath. When you combine this literal definition of inspiration with the figurative one of activation of the spirit or soul, you can understand the subtle energies interacting with the air and your outside environment.

In other words, the “vital energy” associated with breathing encompasses the body, mind, and spirit. That’s why breathing is also a fundamental component of mind-body approaches like massage, meditation, and yoga.

You are what you breathe

Medical conditions that involve breathing difficulties—such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—also illustrate this particular mind-body connection.

If you have one of these conditions, you may feel like you have a hard time breathing. This reduces your oxygen intake—triggering anxiety and panic attacks. Such emotions can make your breathing more shallow and arrhythmic, worsening your physical symptoms.

But controlling your breathing can help. For example, there have been studies on how breathing through the mouth or the nostrils during yoga can have different influences on your brain. (The new 6th addition of my textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine, discusses this further. To find this book, go to and click on the “Books” tab.)

Other research shows that the pace, depth, and route of each breath you take influences the mind-body connection and the “vagal tone” of the body, which regulates the nervous system.

This contributes to relaxation, which is a powerful form of stress reduction. (And we all know that too much stress can lead to everything from dementia to obesity.) That’s why proper breathing techniques are a fundamental key for reducing your risk of chronic health conditions.

And that’s not all. Evidence shows that proper breathing also helps improve your concentration, control your emotions, and facilitate restful sleep.

My top 5 breathing therapies

So what is “proper” breathing? Well, it’s basically slow, deep, rhythmic inhalation and exhalation.

When you’re calm and relaxed, you automatically breathe this way. So these breathing techniques will come into play when you’re not calm and relaxed.

If you practice the following breathing therapies regularly, you’ll find yourself “automatically” reverting to them in times of physical, emotional, or mental stress. And that can help regulate your breathing—no matter how stressful the circumstances—and get your health back on track.

1. Follow your breathing. This is an easy way to become more aware of your breathing.

Start observing each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the sensations as air passes through your nose and throat, and down into your chest, causing movement in your abdomen. As you relax and your thoughts begin to wander, gently bring them back to your breath. Try to do this for 10 minutes each day.

2. Alternate nostril breathing. This type of yogic breathing is good for mental health and concentration.

Begin by closing one nostril with your finger, and breathing in and out through the other nostril. Then reverse nostrils. You can also inhale through one nostril and exhale through the other. Repeat five to 10 times, as needed.

3. “365” breathing. Therapists use this common technique to combat accumulated stress.

At least three times a day, for five minutes at a time, inhale and exhale only six times per minute. You can do this by inhaling for five seconds and then exhaling for five seconds. Practice this technique all 365 days of the year.

4. “4-7-8” breathing. Try this technique, also known as rhythmic breathing, when you need to relax quickly.

Start by exhaling completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound. Then, close your mouth and inhale quietly for a count of four seconds. Hold that breath for a count of seven seconds, and then exhale through your mouth (making the whooshing sound again) for a count of eight seconds. Repeat the entire cycle three more times, for a total of four rounds.

5. Breath counting. This technique is harder than it seems, but it’s a good introduction to meditation and mental concentration.

Sit in a comfortable position and breathe normally for a few seconds. Then, every time you exhale, count “one,” “two,” etc., until you get to five. Then, start over, counting from one to five on each exhale. Try to do this for 10 minutes. If your mind wanders and you realize you’ve counted too high, just start over on the one-to-five count.

Other ways to improve your breathing

Just five to 10 minutes of moderate exercise leads to deeper and more frequent breathing.

Posture is also important for proper breathing, as sitting or standing up straight helps facilitate the function of respiratory muscles.

These muscles include:

  • The diaphragm, which moves up and down in your abdomen, bringing air into and out of the lungs
  • The intercostal muscles (between your ribs), that relax and contract to expand and narrow the chest around the lungs
  • The muscles from the neck to the chest (which include the upper trapezius, levator scapula, and pectoralis muscles) that raise and lower the lung compartment

You can also practice the sensation of breathing through your belly. You don’t really breathe air into your abdomen, but this technique can make you feel like you’re deeply inhaling calmness and exhaling stress in your core.

Begin expanding your abdomen by inhaling, as if to fill it with air. Then swell your chest. As you exhale, feel the sensation of “emptying” your belly.

What you really need to know about breathing and lung health

Breathing is an important part of lung health, and lung health is an important part of your overall health.

But the only time the mainstream, or even “natural know-it-alls,” seem to pay attention to the lungs is when there’s a cancer diagnosis. And by that time, it’s almost always way too late.

That’s why I’ve been working tirelessly on bringing together all of the non-drug, nutritional, and natural approaches to support lung health—and prevent and reverse lung diseases—in my new lung protocol.

You’re not going to find this vital information anywhere else. So stay tuned… as soon as this online learning tool is ready, you’ll be the first to know.