Breathing and health
In the past and still today, many people would probably define health as the absence of disease and infirmity. However, this definition has a fundamental weakness in that an individual can be free of disease but still not enjoy a full, wholesome, satisfying life. Health involves quality assessments of physical and mental vigour. A change in perspective began to come about when in 1948, the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined health as
“a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Two important aspects of the WHO definition of health distinguish it from previous definitions. These are:
- By emphasising well-being as the criterion for health, the WHO definition abandoned the traditional perspective of defining health in negative terms, namely as the absence of disease.
- By recognising that health status can vary in terms of a number of different dimensions (physical, mental, and social well-being) the definition abandons the exclusive emphasis on physical health which typified previous definitions.
The WHO definition of health is at the heart of health psychologists’ conception of health. Achieving an optimum state of health involves achieving balance among physical, mental, and social well-being. The term “wellness” is often used in referring to this state.
An area of focus in health psychology is health promotion and maintenance. Health promotion is the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health. An important strategy of health promotion is health education. Such health education provides individuals with knowledge concerning the adverse health consequences of certain lifestyles and with skills to enable them to change their behaviour.
Health behaviours can be defined as actions or activities to maintain, attain, or regain good health and prevent illness. Such health behaviours may include reducing or eliminating high-risk behaviours such as smoking or over eating. Unfortunately, a very important health behaviour that is almost always totally neglected is the correction of dysfunctional, unhealthy breathing. The vast majority of people, including psychologists and physicians do not regard breathing as behaviour. This is mainly due to the fact that we breathe every day 24/7 and generally don’t ever have to think about it unless we are having difficulty with it.
Although breathing happens automatically, we are also capable of changing it and in the case of many individuals, for the better. As breathing is the first and last behaviour we engage in, in life, we might as well do it right and afford it the importance and attention it deserves in our pursuit of good health. The vital importance of breathing in our lives is exemplified by the fact that human beings can sometimes live for more than three weeks without food and three to four days without water. However, for the average individual, life without breath can only continue for about three minutes.
Breathing and Health
Professor Andrew Weil is a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, a healing oriented approach to health care that encompasses body, mind and spirit. Professor Weil has sold more than 10 million books about health. He has noted that current medical training does not include information on the healing power of breath. In referring to when he studied medicine himself, he states:
“I heard nothing about breath as the connection between the conscious and unconscious mind or the doorway to the control of the autonomic nervous system or breath as a technique for controlling anxiety and regulating mental states ………………..”
In his book titled ‘Natural Health, Natural Medicine: The Complete Guide to Wellness and Self-Care for Optimum Health’ he makes a number of interesting and important points about breathing. These include the following:
“Would you believe that most people do not know how to breathe? Or at least that that they do not know how to breathe, so as to take full advantage of the nourishing, health giving properties of the act of breathing?”
“Breath is the master key to health and wellness, a function we can learn to regulate and develop in order to improve our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
“A great many teachings from such diverse traditions as yoga, martial arts, Native American religion, natural childbirth, and osteopathic medicine, all point to breath as the most important function of life.”
“Breathing is special in several respects. It is the only function you can perform consciously as well as unconsciously.”
“Breathing can be a completely voluntary act or a completely involuntary act, because it is controlled by two sets of nerves, one belonging to the voluntary nervous system, the other to the involuntary (autonomic) system. Breath is the bridge between these two systems.”
“Much illness comes from unbalanced functioning of the autonomic nervous system. When the tone of this system is not right, it can produce irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, disturbances of blood circulation, stomach and intestinal disorders, urinary and sexual problems, and more, since autonomic nerves regulate all of our vital functions. Our conscious minds have no direct access to this system ………… by working with the breath, you can change your autonomic tone and affect many of the ‘involuntary’ functions.”
“I know people who eat excellent diets and exercise faithfully and are not very healthy, and I know some people who eat bad diets and do not exercise. I do not know any healthy people who do not breathe well.”
Dysfunctional breathing and sleep disordered breathing can have serious adverse health consequences for both adults and children. For more information on this, please visit the ‘Dysfunctional breathing’ and ‘Sleep disordered breathing’ sections of the website.