What Pandemics teach us about Behaviour

When an obstetrician in the mid 1800’s named Ignaz Semmelweiss declared that invisible matter was transferred on the unwashed hands of surgeons from patient to patient and a likely cause of the disease that claimed up to ten percent of women who had newly delivered babies in clinical settings, he was thought of as a lunatic by the Gentlemen Doctors who felt that their hands were naturally clean.
Semmelweis; who paid for his discovery with his life and reputation; was later understood to be a man ahead of his time. Regular hand washing had become a new behaviour due to better understanding of germ theory, cholera, typhoid and of course, “childbed fever”; and the World had changed the way it thought about disease.
When a young doctor named Konstantin Buteyko first made his startling discovery regarding the depth and behaviour of breathing and how it contributes to disease; he was also on the brink of becoming an unintentional medical dissident.
Later, Buteyko mentioned in an interview that he learned from the experiences of Semmelweiss; and had to carefully prepared the research before presenting his discoveries to his medical superiors.

One of the most important contributions that Buteyko has made to our understanding of disease, is the understanding that humans are generally obligate nasal breathers, and that establishing and maintaining nasal breathing is a vital part of disease prevention.

Many of us do not understand the benefits of nasal breathing; which does the very important work of filtering and preparing the air before it reaches the lungs.
Part of the filtering process is mechanical, like trapping dust in mucus and wafting it away from the lungs using cilia. But another part of this natural “air conditioning” involves relieving our immunity of having to make adaptations to every inhaled pathogen; by actually destroying the replication abilities of viruses and bacteria before they get to the lungs where it is easier to enter the bloodstream and create infection.
Much of this immune function happens in the nose and paranasal sinuses where exhaled metabolic “waste gases” are concentrated – but this function only happens when we breathe nasally.
Some of our exhaled “waste gases” are more useful than we realized. Nitric Oxide, for example,  becomes concentrated at the nasal tip and re-breathed to form a “shield” that has protective qualities; because it is able to reduce viruses replication.  It’s so powerful that it is even being tested as a potential aspect of treatment of novel coronavirus with some success. It could even be helping to reduce the need for ventilators and has been used previously in SARS management.

Correct hydration of air is vital to allow oxygen to easily enter the blood. But air breathed through the mouth is unfiltered and dry, and contains dust and airborne particles that can irritate the throat and cause sensitivity in the airways. Air breathed nasally has been optimally hydrated within the sinuses, cleared of most particles and brought to the perfect temperature before it reaches sensitive lungs. All of these aspects of nasal breathing reduce stress on the immune system and the overall health of the individual by preparing air and reducing the load of pathogens breathed. Nasal breathing also creates the correct airflow, airspeed, and air pressure and allows for adaptive reduction of the volume of air breathed in reaction to particle load and partial pressures of oxygen available. If we reduce the amount of air breathed but still maintain optimum oxygenation to the cells, we also reduce the amount of work done by the body and reduce fatigue from oxygen overload. When effort is reduced, stress is reduced, immunity functions better and recovery is easier and more comfortable.

While breathing patterns are dysfunctional, health is likely to be disturbed, anxiety and panic heightened; and stress levels increased. Under these conditions, calm awareness, rational decision making, healing and possibly even resistance to illness is compromised.
Studies have shown that dysfunctional breathing patterns are more prevalent than previously understood in clinical settings, and that perhaps even one in ten people visiting a doctors office for all manner of reasons are also struggling with dysfunctional breathing. However, most people feel their breathing is normal, and have only thought of their breathing difficulty as a possibly minor symptom; and have never thought of their breathing as being a contributor or even a driverof their illness.

Many medical professionals know a lot more than before about how nasal breathing is important, and enabling obligate nasal breathing has formed the focus of many medical interventions, from tonsillectomies to polyp surgeries. But in most cases, the forgotten aspect that needs attention is that breathing behaviour also needs to change, and new behaviour; like establishing nasal breathing; takes time and effort and awareness – and preferably no stress – to cultivate effectively.

Nasal breathing is a behaviour that, like washing hands, is an important step in preventing airborne pathogens from entering – and leaving the body. When we breathe orally; tiny droplets of aerolyzed exhalate are spread further and can be a reason why respiratory illnesses spread so virulently. Wearing a mask reduces this spread by creating a barrier between you and the next person, but learning to breathe nasally reduces your spread – and your inhalation of another persons exhaled breath.
If people breathed nasally most of the time, their exhaled droplet load would be lessened and this would likely create a reduction in airborne disease transfer.

Like cultivating hand washing behaviour in the 1850’s; cultivating nasal breathing is a crucial new behaviour we need to adopt now in order to change disease outcomes of the future. Buteyko showed us why and how, we just need to make the effort to be aware so that we can maintain nasal breathing during all activities.

If nasal breathing doesn’t come easily to you, you may be interested to know that every single person’s breathing pattern is different. There is no one size fits all answer, but there are things you can do in the meantime, right here and right now without spending a cent.  By searching this site you may discover more info on how and why your breathing may have “hiccups”, and pointers for where to start looking at functional aspects of your breathing health.


©M.Mitchell, Buteyko South Africa

Picture Credit: Pixabay



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