Breathing is the most important thing you’ll do in the sauna…and everywhere else. We breathe 25,000 times a day, and every breath has an impact on our anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate.
While ancient cultures and eastern medicine have a deep understanding of the breath and practice breathing exercises, western medicine is oblivious to the breath. It has become apparent to me in sports, training, and sauna use, that people do not know how to breathe properly. Breathing was going to be a note in my How-To Sauna post, but I needed to flesh this out a bit
Excessive Mouth Breathing is Terrible For You
Most people are mouth breathers, and mouth breathing is terrible for you. You were born to breathe through your nose. The mouth is for eating.
Excessive mouth breathing literally alters your face and has shrunk the human skull over generations. Narrow jaws, crooked teeth, sunken cheekbones, and smaller nasal cavities are all a result of mouth breathing.
It’s the number one predictor of teeth cavities. Breathing through your mouth has a greater impact on the likelihood of teeth cavities than sugar and not brushing your teeth.
Humans are the only mammal species to routinely suffer from misaligned jaws. The damage mouth breathing causes leads to sleep apnea, snoring, shortness of breath, and chronic over-breathing.
You actually want more carbon dioxide
The average American takes 18 breaths per minute. Too many breaths per minute reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. CO2 helps oxygen separate from blood cells and helps blood vessels dilate to transport more blood.
The reduced concentration of carbon dioxide leads to narrowed blood vessels and less oxygen to the brain. So when we breathe heavily, we release more carbon dioxide, which reduces blood flow. This is why hyperventilating and exercise can cause you to feel light-headed. This type of breathing in the sauna can also leave you feeling light-headed.
Your heart speeds up when inhaling and slows down on the exhale. Exhaling is a parasympathetic response that is essential for conserving energy. Parasympathetic responses slow down the body’s automatic response systems.
As you inhale, your diaphragm lowers and pulls blood into the thoracic cavity. As you exhale, the blood flows back through the body and calms your mental state.
Shallow breathing and short breaths are our bread and butter. We tend to breathe quickly when we are anxious or stressed. This type of breathing is not efficient. When we breathe quickly, our lungs are only absorbing approximately one-quarter of the oxygen from our breaths. Then, the rest of the oxygen (and carbon dioxide) is exhaled.
Shallow breathing will limit the range of our diaphragms and lung capacity, lead to poor posture, and respiratory problems. Plus, it can overwork your heart and keep you in a constant state of low-grade stress and anxiety. Anxiety can cause shallow breathing and shallow breathing can cause anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle.
How to breathe in the sauna
Too many people breathe heavily in the sauna, through their mouths like a dog panting in the heat.
Nasal breathing results in abdominal breathing. Mouth breathing activates the upper chest, involves larger breaths, and reduces oxygen uptake.
The easiest way to build up carbon dioxide levels in your body is to breathe lighter and less frequently. You maintain more carbon dioxide when you take in fewer breaths per minute. With higher levels of carbon dioxide, you absorb more oxygen.
Breathe slowly in and exhaling through your nose. Aim for 5.5 seconds in and 5.5 seconds out.
Breathing in slowly also helps increase the amount of nitric oxide. The gas nitric oxide reduces cholesterol and prevents blood clotting. It is the blood’s natural defense to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.
The benefits of nasal breathing are associated with how this breathing purifies, heats, moistens, and pressurizes the air. These changes to the air increase oxygen absorption by approximately 10-15%. Additionally, nasal breathing increases nitric oxide levels by six times. Nitric oxide helps with blood circulation, and blood circulation is associated with having more energy.
Breathing through your nose puts you in a parasympathetic state. As therapeutic as the sauna can be, it is still stressful on the body. Slow nasal breathing in the sauna can lower your stress, when you really start to feel, instead of big inhales or frequent shallow breaths.
Don’t worry that breathing slowly and less will leave you without enough oxygen. Our lungs don’t need to be filled to capacity for each breath. We can breathe two to three times more air than needed without realizing it.
Always breathe through your nose in the sauna.