Feb 23

The Power of Breathing and Holding Your Breath

Breathing is a rare example of something that happens automatically, yet you also have complete control over it. We evolved with breathing fundamentals that can be used to swing us further away from or closer to our health goals.

Learning and then working with these variables is a great way to prepare yourself not only from a performance perspective, but for the uncertainty that continues to touch all of our lives.

Effects of Breathing

The impact of the diaphragm extends past its local anatomy and out into the whole body system. The respiratory rhythm – directly and indirectly – affects the central nervous system (CNS).

It influences motor expression and has a measurable effect on intracranial blood shifts in respiratory activity.

The diaphragm is the tuning fork of the neural system. Breathing, in particular, affects gamma waves, which involve the neocortex (frontal, parietal, and temporal area); these areas are activated for cognitive function including memory, attention, sensory perception, problem-solving, and language processes [40].

Holding Your Breath

When you stop breathing, oxygen flowing to your brain actually increases—at least for a while.

The breathlessness we experience during hard exercise, or at high altitude, or when simply holding our breath has more to do with too much carbon dioxide in the blood rather than too little oxygen.

During apnea – the cessation of breathing – the human body triggers several mechanisms to protect itself against a lack of oxygen.

Heart rate slows down, decreasing oxygen demand of the cardiac muscle. The decrease in mTOI and increase in cTOI suggests a redistribution of blood flow prioritizing the brain over muscles.

However, this mechanism is not enough to maintain oxygen levels until breathing resumes.

Humans, like other mammals, have a “diving response” that kicks in when you hold your breath, with the goal of making sure your brain always has enough oxygen.

CO2 and The Brain

Carbon dioxide is considered a waste product of breathing. Most of us understand the basic process of taking in oxygen when we inhale and expelling carbon dioxide when we exhale.

Coaches will yell at fatigued players to breathe deeply to get rid of this harmful, performance-limiting gas. Many environmentalists have jumped on the bashing bandwagon and list carbon emissions as the biggest factor accelerating climate change.

But carbon dioxide is much more than just a waste product.

It is an immensely valuable gas with a vast set of communication skills within the body and brain.

Carbon dioxide acts as a powerful dilator, which means it can widen vessels and increase blood flow. You can actually pop a person into an MRI machine and ask them to hold their breath to witness in real-time the impact that dilation via increased CO2 is having on their blood vessels and neural tissue.

But what exactly happens to oxygen in the meantime?

Bohr Effect

In 1904, Danish physiologist Christian Bohr discovered that carbon dioxide has the ability to make red blood cells release oxygen from the blood and deliver it to our tissues.



The Influence of Breathing on the Central Nervous System

How Does Your Brain Respond When You Hold Your Breath?