Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Close Your Mouth for Health

People who are concerned with their health and longevity would do well for themselves to examine and be aware of how often their mouths are open. 
It is more healthy to breathe through our nose. 
The nose is a filter that prepares air for the body’s consumption.  The nasal hairs and the mucus therein serve as a trap for many of the impurities in the air before it reaches our lung tissues.  When this mucus accumulates enough soot, it will harden and flake off, creating boogers. If you’d ever examined how disgusting a booger is, you’d be grateful for them; they’ve prevented all of that filth from entering your lungs. Taking a breath through your mouth delivers completely unfiltered air directly into your lungs, leaving all of that impure and toxic soot for your sensitive lung tissue to deal with. 
The nasal passage also serves to warm the air. The inside of our body is just under 99 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even a slight deviation from that precise temperature can cause big problems.  Notice how dramatic it is when you have a fever or if the temperature inside your body drops just three degrees below the norm; it can be life-threatening at 95 degrees. It is shocking and stressful for the body to be supplied with air that is too cool. Inhaling through the mouth does nothing to adjust the temperature before introducing it to the lungs, whereas the nasal passage is designed to do just that.
(Habitually drinking ice water is the subject of another blog post for another day.)
The nervous system is also effected by the way we breathe. Breathing through our mouths will trigger our sympathetic nervous system, which is intended to kick in when we are in danger and need to run or fight. It is a stress response. But nose breathing stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system which is supposed to be our default setting; relaxed. It’s no secret that our society is over-stimulated and research has been showing for years that our health relies largely on our ability to reduce and manage stress levels. Nose breathing is a great way to do this.

If you're like me, you'll immediately wonder, "why is it so commonly believed that deep breaths are relaxing?"  But I don't know the answer to this.  I will say, though, that many commonly held beliefs are not scientifically sound nor true.  Just because it is commonly believed doesn't mean it is correct.

I did this experiment on myself: for one minute I breathed shallowly and noticed the state of my nervous system.  I noticed that I became very relaxed within a few seconds. And then I took a deep breath; as deep as I could. And I could feel my body tense up, my heart rate increase and I could even perceive a slight increase in my body temperature.  Through this experiment I was convinced that I triggered my stress response by taking a deep breath.  I invite you to do this same experiment. I'd be interested in hearing what you find.
Chemically, even though it may seem counter-intuitive, we need a generous supply of carbon dioxide in our bodies in order to properly utilize oxygen. Look up the Bohr Effect if you want a more technical, scientific explanation.  But for now, I’ll keep it simple. Carbon dioxide molecules bind with oxygen molecules in our bloodstream and deliver that oxygen to our organs and tissues when needed.  Without a proper supply of carbon dioxide, not enough oxygen will be delivered to our tissues; it will remain, unused, in the bloodstream. This could be a cause of many modern diseases.
The research and life’s work of Dr Konstantin Buteyko, a scientist and medical doctor from Russia, has shown that about 150 modern diseases can be directly linked to improper oxygenation, due to lack of carbon dioxide.  Most specifically addressed are those breathing diseases like asthma and common allergies, but many other diseases have been shown to be caused by the environment created in the body when we have chronically low levels of carbon dioxide. This low level of carbon dioxide is caused by breathing too much and too fast (known as “hyperventilating” or over-breathing).  The carbon dioxide is not given enough time to accumulate so the body is starved of oxygen.
Our bodies are very intelligent.  It will know when we aren’t getting or aren’t retaining enough carbon dioxide, and it will respond by doing anything in its power to reduce the gas exchange and allow the carbon dioxide to accumulate.  This is often achieved by narrowing the sinus passages or bronchial passages. The answer to this situation is not to open those passages and breathe full and deep, but rather to follow the lead of the body and breathe less!  Only when we can relax and breathe less, will those airways respond by immediately relaxing and returning to normal. 
Snoring is an unhealthy habit that indicates a very serious problem; nighttime mouth breathing. Breathing through your mouth through the night will interfere with a restful sleep and hinder your body’s ability to perform many of the rejuvenating and healing processes that sleep is supposed to provide.  If you wake up from a full nights sleep and don’t feel rested, it may be simply because you were breathing through your mouth all night, which keeps your body in a agitated, excited state and prevents the proper amount of oxygen from reaching your tissues.
People sometimes go to great lengths (surgery!) to help prevent snoring because of how many problems it is associated with.  But a simple piece of tape placed over the lips during the night, combined with some diligent awareness of nose breathing during the day, can often cure this problem in a matter of weeks by forcing the body to return to its natural state of nose breathing.
Breathing through the nose is a great way to make sure we’re not hyperventilating or dumping pollution into our lungs.
I want to mention a specific exception to this general rule; which is yawning.  Although it may seem like I’m about to say not to yawn, I don’t say that at all.  Quite the opposite in fact.  If you feel the urge to yawn, let ‘er rip!  This is an important function of your body attempting to equalize the molecular balance in your body. And contrary to how it may appear, not a lot of air is being exchanged.  So rather than stifle a yawn, which is unhealthy, stretch your mouth open and let it happen. 
To take this all a step further...
You can use your ability to breathe through your nose and your ability to tolerate high carbon dioxide levels as a gauge of your health. Many people will find it difficult to close their mouths for more than a few seconds. These people are very unhealthy.  The people with the highest tolerance to carbon dioxide are the ones enjoying the highest levels of health and the lowest incidence of disease.
By learning to control and minimize your breathing,  you can create an environment in your body where your tissues are receiving plenty of oxygen, you are breathing mostly filtered and properly warmed air in the correct amounts and you are relaxing your nervous system as well.
Once you incorporate this simple habit into your life, you may start to notice your thinking becoming more clear and focused, you may become more sensitive and aware of your surroundings and may even notice an increase in your confidence and intuition.  You may notice that meditation comes a lot easier and that you actually WANT to make more healthy food choices over junk food choices. In short, this one step you take towards better health can create a healthy snowball effect throughout the rest of your life.
Think of nose breaths as organic produce or filtered water.  When given a choice, for health and longevity, we’d choose organic and filtered, right?  So whenever possible choose nose breathing over mouth breathing.  Don’t let this make you tense or struggle to breathe, but make this adjustment to your life gradually and comfortably give your body time to adjust. Depending on your current levels of health you may find it difficult to breathe through your nose exclusively right away.  Don’t worry.  Keep practicing and soon you will find that is not only much easier, but it will quickly become habitual because your body will thrive on it.
Part of the adjustment will be mental. We are conditioned to think that we need four or five times more breath than we actually need.  So in the beginning many people attempting to reduce their breathing might experience a mild panic. This is certainly something to be honored, but ultimately it becomes a matter of trusting that you are getting enough breath and once you realize you’re not passing out or dying, those panicky feelings will disappear. 
Something that I noticed right away upon adapting this concept into my life was that I needed to really pull back on the intensity of my exercise. I was exercising so hard that it was impossible to breathe through my nose.  And so my exercise wasn’t contributing to my long term health as much as it could be if I were to do it with less intensity.
One of my first adventures with nose breathing during exercise was a valuable lesson in moderation.  I attempted to do my regular (quite intense) exercise but kept my mouth closed. I was breathing hard, but it was all through my nose so I felt like I was doing well.  But the next day I found that it was very difficult for me to breathe and my nasal passages felt blocked.  When I irrigated my nasal passage with salt water, I was shocked to see gobs of dried blood coming out into the sink.  I had obviously damaged the lining of my nose by hyperventilating through it. 
I have since learned that the answer is to use my ability to nose breathe as a gauge for how much intensity I should use when exercising. Once I was able to overcome my ego and slow down, I had a wonderful experience of power without effort. 
We can use our ability to nose breathe as a gauge for the healthiness of other activities.  In a nutshell, when we’re following healthy habits, we can breathe easily, and when we stray from healthy habits, our nose breathing become more and more difficult or impossible.  For example, I am aware that I can breathe through my nose just fine before dinner. But then for dinner I have a greasy hamburger, french fries and a shake.  After dinner, I go back to the awareness of my breathing and I will notice that it is suddenly quite difficult to breathe through my nose. 
This works with emotional states, exercise levels, hydration levels, sleep levels and just about every aspect of healthy living. If you can remain aware of your nose breathing, it will guide you towards the highest degree of health and a long, disease-free life.
So, close your mouth and let it slow you down.  Let it increase your sensitivity.  Give yourself the benefit of carbon dioxide by building up your tolerance to it.  
This subject is sure to bring up a lot of questions, so please feel free to comment on this blog or email me with any questions or concerns. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Re-balancing the Upper Body

It’s been a while since I updated what’s been going on with my workouts. I’m still dealing with the repercussions of that one fateful day of ego.
(Well... I guess I should clarify that. No, I’m not completely ego-free on the other days)
But this one day, in January 2009, it was particularly strong. Apparently it was much stronger than my body, so to make a long story short, I wrecked my shoulder.
If you’d like to catch up or read an interesting story of an injury, ...

So now It has been two years and two months since that day. And, as I have said, I’m still paying the price.  I don’t have pain anymore, which is great. And my range of motion is excellent. In fact, I actually have more flexibility on the right side now than I did before I injured it. This is partially due to the different way I’ve been training and eating in the past couple of years. But also it’s largely because of the loss of muscle tissue in the area. The strength is also coming back gradually. 
So, I’m pretty much recovered as most people would describe it. But there is still a big part of my recovery that I haven’t addressed, yet. And that is regaining the incredible amount of muscle I lost as a result of the injury. 
Atrophy is the wasting away of muscle tissue.  It happens to us all, all the time.  This is why we have to stay active and/or exercise on a regular basis. If we don’t then our bodies will slowly decompose.  But while my shoulder was acutely injured, the atrophy was rapid and dramatic.  It was so quick and specific that, not only did I lose a significantly noticeable amount of muscle size and strength in my right arm, shoulder and chest, but it created a golf ball sized indentation in the center of my right pec.
Immediately after the injury I was completely absorbed by the pain, but once the pain had subsided, this lopsidedness became my biggest concern. I was embarrassed by it; I felt like a freak.  I had always been obsessed with proportion and symmetry in my body. 
So now, since I am getting stronger, I’m able to focus more attention to the task of re-strengthening and redeveloping my right side to catch up to the left side.  If I do push ups, for example, then it’s very difficult to emphasize the weaker side, and what happens is the strong side just does all the work and continues to get stronger.  My main concern now is how to re balance my right and left sides (chest, shoulder and upper arm).

So I have to devise ways to force myself to push more with the right arm and target the muscles of my right upper body.  I’m also trying to get the strength back to do my one-arm push-ups like I could do before the injury.  I can still do them on the left side, of course, but I don’t want to until I can do one on the right side again.  
I’ve put together a video of a few of the exercises I’ve been doing to help re balance.

So I was going along with these types of exercises for a while and then I began to notice another thing happening as a result of working with an unbalanced load like that. I have to brace my torso askew. In other words, in order to position myself, all the muscles of my core have to brace along a diagonal to emphasize or support the weight on only the right side. So I have to be careful that I don’t start to train another imbalance into my body in the torso. And I’ve been noticing how this is effecting the development of my abs.  I have to be careful not to let that get out of hand. 
These are the kinds of things I watch for in my clients as I train them, and it’s the reason I make videos of myself working out. I can observe myself from the outside and learn about my habits and coach myself to develop and improve. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tennis redux

A couple months ago, I wrote about how I was interested in starting to play tennis. Someone saw that post and responded to it. So now today we’re playing tennis for the second time. 
I was raised on tennis.  It was one of a few sports that my parents made sure I got a healthy diet of. Some of the others being soccer, softball and bowling. I played from my formative years all the way until my late teens, when I left the house, and the attached affiliation with the tennis club, to pursue my young, independent life. 
One of the things that I didn’t appreciate about the sport was its strong emphasis on one side of the body. The right side, in my case. Serve, forehand, backhand, forehand, repeat. All on one side. Once I became aware of this, I was concerned about overdevelopment of one side over the other.   This is one of the main reasons I turned my back on all of the racquet sports in favor of others like wrestling and swimming, and why later in life I turned more towards dancing, martial arts, yoga and calisthenics for exercise with more full-body involvement. 
Now, many years later, I return to tennis for the very same reason I left it in the first place.  (Is that irony?)  I need to rebuild my right side so that it can catch up to the left. I need to regain the strength and stability it had two years ago; before the injury. 
Well now I’m back at it, and it’s a blast! So, it’s not exactly like riding a bicycle, but it does seem to be coming back pretty quickly.  When I was in my prime, at the age of 13-17, I played in tournaments all season and played a few times per week in the off season. So I don’t know how much of that is coming back to me, but I certainly do feel comfortable on the court. 

This is the first time I’ve played on clay, which is interesting. I like the feel, compared to the unforgiving asphalt I’m used to. But it’s kind of a mess. 
The country club is a bit expensive.  I’d love to know of a cheaper option because I’m interested in playing more, but at these rates, I’m afraid it’s going to be more of a luxury than a lifestyle.