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"What are the 4 major things you need to survive outdoors?" I asked my survival students.

I was thinking of the classic pillars of survival - fire, water, shelter, food, however one young lad piped up “oxygen", causing some hilarity! It was kind of a joke, after all everyone knows we need oxygen to live and getting it is normally an automatic process, right?

However, over the years I have come to think of this as a more interesting answer. Perhaps it's even more topical right now as the current COVID-19 pandemic has such serious effects on the respiratory system. Also relevant to the challenges of the day is the effect of breathing on our immune system and stress levels.

I first became interested in breathing techniques about 3 years ago when I heard about the Wim Hof Method (WHM). Hof, an eccentric Dutchman with a string of physical World Records to his name, devised a method that combines breathing exercises, yoga, and cold exposure. The aim of his method is to help regulate stress levels, increase strength, and bolster health and well being. Researching this online, I decided to try some of the exercises which included rounds of deep breathing followed by breath holds (after exhaling). Although it seemed a little hard work at first I was surprised at the almost immediate benefits to my energy and stress levels. On my return home to Scotland I devised my own exercise regime based on the WHM. I would do the yoga stretches and breathing exercises, run for about 1 km down to the sea loch for a swim then run back for a hot shower. It has been so beneficial that I am still doing it 3 years on, whatever the weather or time of year! I enjoy the exercises but most important is how it makes me feel for hours afterwards! I've also noticed some health benefits too. For example, I have had only 2 full blown colds in the last 3 years, rarely get headaches and hardly ever use pain killers these days (as the breathing methods take their place). Interestingly it seems there is some scientific support for the WHM - with positive studies into the benefits to the metabolism, immune system, pain and inflammation.

The breathing exercises are great for energising the body and achieving greater oxygen uptake by the cells. They also help with managing stress and pain - you only have to think of breathing exercises practiced during child birth to get the idea!

Spurred on by these benefits I did some reading on how breathing methods affect the body and mind. Turns out there are significant advantages to breathing through the nose rather than the mouth. Nasal breathing: 1) warms and humidifies incoming air; 2) filters more pathogens from the air; 3) provides the lungs with nitric oxide which has many health benefits (see below) and 4) activates abdominal breathing which is more efficient than chest breathing.

In 1904 a Danish physiologist called Christian Bohr found that a certain level of carbon dioxide in the blood is necessary for efficient release of oxygen to the tissues (it is called the 'Bohr Effect'). Habitual over-breathing, particularly through the mouth, is very common in modern society. According to the Bohr Effect this can actually reduce oxygen delivery to the muscles creating light-headedness, breathlessness and contribute to asthma. It can lead to a vicious circle where over-breathing leads to a greater desire for oxygen which leaves us gasping for more air!

During the Cold War the Ukranian physician, Konstantin Buteyko, carried out research to define optimal breathing for Russian cosmonauts. His technique is based around breathing lightly through the nose and like Wim Hof Method involves breath holds. This technique is described in Patrick McKeown's interesting book - "The Oxygen Advantage". In it he also relates his own training programme to help people who chronically over-breathe, especially through the mouth. He also helps athletes to improve their performance (increasing their VO2 Max) in a similar way to high altitude training. Personally, I have found that nasal breathing has improved my fitness, providing more satisfying breaths and is definitely more relaxing than mouth breathing.

Breath holds can be very beneficial too, but you should never overdo it - just hold for as long as you are reasonably comfortable. During a breath hold (after exhaling) you are increasing your tolerance to CO2 as it accumulates in the bloodstream. You also build up natural amounts of the gas nitric oxide in the nasal cavity. This is drawn into the lungs when you inhale. Nitric oxide has multiple health benefits which are well supported scientifically. It dilates the air passages in the lungs and also the blood vessels creating easier breathing and a deep satisfying delivery of oxygen to the cells. This process is also assisted by the Bohr Effect due to the enhanced levels of CO2 in the blood after a breath hold.

For healthy people, both the Wim Hof Method and the Oxygen Advantage training eventually transition to breath holds whilst exercising. This conditions the body to tolerate higher levels of CO2 in the blood and enhances the oxygen delivery to the body. When the body performs under oxygen shortage the spleen can actually release more red blood cells into circulation. This is part of what happens when mountaineers acclimatise to low oxygen levels.

There are some differences between the WHM and oxygen advantage breathing techniques. in that WHT practices brief periods of hyperventilation whereas Oxygen Advantage tries to attain light breathing. This may appear contradictory at first but actually I find that the short practice of hyperventilation can lead to light breathing afterwards and both methods seem to have benefits. As someone who practices this regularly I can verify that it makes you feel relaxed and energised. It also reduces or eliminates any aches or pains.

So yes, it is easy to overlook the way we breathe, however breathing can have very powerful influences on the process of oxygen delivery. The benefits in getting this right are huge; especially in the current climate where they may help with breathing difficulties, stress, cardiovascular health and the immune system. Obviously none of these techniques can stop you catching a virus but they would be likely to improve the body's response.

I am putting some links below if you are interested in finding out more. Please remember to read all the associated safety guidelines. In particular don't practice breathing techniques in any situation where if you were to pass out, you would endanger yourself or others (best done sitting or lying down). Keep safe and well.

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