Integrative Care
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Breathing right may benefit public health

5 March, 2013 by David Finer

Correct breathing could improve public health. Breathing the right way is part of human nature. But we have lost contact with this innate ability. This was one of the take-home messages from the first so called Breath Day held in Stockholm recently, writes physical therapist Lisa Danåsen Wikström.

The theme day was inaugurated by the popular Swedish singer Marie Bergman who led some practical exercises and tongue-in-cheek toning. We have a lot to learn from children and animals like dogs, she said. When they cry or bark, they use their whole body without becoming hoarse.

Coaxed people to breathe naturally
During my lecture, I also guided practical exercises in order to coax people to breathe in a natural way with their body relaxed. Actually, we should not need to be taught to breathe correctly; it is something we all know how to do, part of our nature. But a part most of us for various reasons have lost contact with. Tensions and blockages often prevent us from breathing in a free, natural way. We need to be more in contact with our body and to release what prevents us and try to think less about our performance. Breathing and relaxation are related. Resting in the outbreath is a simple everyday exercise to achieve calmness and relaxation.

Anders Olsson, breathing instructor and the author of the book Conscious Breathing (in Swedish) explained the common practice of overbreathing or light hyperventilation, whereby we exhale an excess of carbon dioxide, which can lead to reduced oxygen uptake. He showed various breathing graphs, and demonstrated the slow, soft, rhythmic waves of natural breathing.

Benefits of breathing naturally
Anders Olsson talked about the many benefits of breathing naturally. Nasal breathing is important and considerably improves respiratory functioning, even when we move around in our everyday lives and do exercise. In order to improve quality of sleep and recuperation during sleep, he recommended experimenting with taping the mouth with surgical tape to prevent breathing through the mouth. Try this at first during daytime.

Håkan Wester, fitness coach and marathon runner, presented positive changes he had noticed in terms of strength, endurance and faster recovery, following special breathing exercises. He had trained for 28 days, breathing through his nose, taping up his mouth at night and using a so called breath trainer. This is a small plastic valve, which you put in the mouth and which prolongs respiration and slows down breathing. Carbon dioxide tolerance increases, and exercise-related lactic acid production falls.

During a break, Lena Eliasson, Rosen Movement instructor, introduced and shared the method developed by the legendary American physical therapist Marion Rosen. The key to the movements, which are executed to musical accompaniment, is their simplicity. It is important to feel one’s limits. Movements involving the whole body allow you to discover a form of relaxed breathing.

Breathing exercises for improved public health
Bo von Scheele, PhD in psychology and Professor of Medical Technology, delivered a presentation about the “stop and start” system of the body, and how this influences the heartbeat and the flexible variability of cardiac functioning. An estimated 70-80 percent of diseases are stress-related. Breathing may in that context serve as a major lever/solution towards improved public health. According to research, breathing exercising alleviates hypertension, and hence many people unnecessarily consume antihypertensive medication.

With the assistance of a volunteer, von Scheele demonstrated the speed with which a change in breathing can be seen in terms of parameters such as heartbeat, breathing rhythm, and blood pressure, so called biofeedback. He speculated that it would be interesting to pursue research on biofeedback and diet in young people with ADHD, as an alternative to medicinal drugs.

Retiree Ulla Knape related how she had treated her various stress-related problems and fatigue with the help of different breathing exercises, which afforded her more energy and helped her keep inner stress at bay. Lina Lanestrand, instructor in breathing and mindfulness, guided the participants through the exercise program called The Breath Anchor.

Hyperventilation cause of unspecific ailments
Consultant physician Johannes Lindh, the Lung–Allergy Section, Falun Hospital and the author of the book Symptoms Lacking Apparent Medical Cause argued that unspecific complaints (found among the diagnoses fibromyalgia, amalgam poisoning, electrical hypersensitivity and chronic fatigue syndrome) have features in common, which allow them to be grouped under the heading of a functional syndrome.

Hyperventilation emerged in his presentation as the culprit behind such unspecific complaints, a form of breathing brought on by lack of rest and recuperation, together with high strain and demands. Lindh had experience of such patients being helped – their shortness of breath improving upon taking walking exercise – by a few months of breathing training in the shape of breathing in a small paper bag 3 min 3 times to restore carbon dioxide levels (observe that the bag should be held approximately 4 inches in front of the mouth).

Other important parts of the treatment are mindfulness, relaxation or training in setting limits. But patients with such problems should be prepared that treatment may take a long time.

Got help for her asthma
At the end of the day, there was a lecture where Lottie Stjernqvist, a mother and her 10 year-old son described how their asthma had improved by nasal breathing and prolonged exhalation using a breathing valve, and how they were able to stop using their asthma medication. Previously, the son almost always breathed through the mouth, and he benefited greatly from taping his mouth at night.

On February 2, 2014, there will be a new Breath Day Conference. The conference was inaugurated by the Swedish journal Health in 2012 and was organized together with the National Association of Health Promotion (NAHP, Hälsofrämjandet), the firm Sorena AB, the Swedish Association for Integrative Medicine and the Swedish Medical Association for Integrative Medicine. There was also an exhibit. The moderator was the well-known TV personality Annika Dopping.

Breathing exercises, a longer report and some film clips will soon be available on the homepage of the NAHP

Lisa Danåsen Wikström, physical therapist, active in the Association for Integrative Medicine and NAHP


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