How Does the Respiratory System Work?

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Breathe in
Breathe out
Breathe in
Breathe out

I hope your mind’s ears heard that in a soothing voice, and I hope you took the chance to take a couple of deep, relaxing breaths (if not, go ahead and do that now) because this week we’re talking about the respiratory system.

Most of the time, we breathe without thinking about it—in and out—at a resting average of between 700 and 1000 times per hour for healthy adults.

Respiratory issues, however, are really common, especially in the very young and the elderly. That’s because our lungs, although forgiving, are very sensitive to both the internal and external worlds.

How Your Respiratory System Should Work

The basic function of the respiratory system is to bring in air, oxygenate the bloodstream, and then expel carbon dioxide.

Your respiratory system is also one of the body’s main detoxification organs. They help catch and remove harmful pollutants.

How Your Body Breathes

Like in the digestive system article, I’ll ask you, where does breathing start? Hint: it’s basically the same answer.

You breathe through your mouth and nose. This means that the respiratory system is directly in contact with the outside environment. We use this system to utilize oxygen in the body, but oxygen is only roughly 20% of our atmosphere on average so 80% of what we’re breathing into our bodies needs to be removed right away—and that doesn’t count for any extra particles that may be suspended in the air.

We clean the air we breathe with mucous membranes and tiny hairs that cover the inside of our entire airway system. They catch and help to expel dangerous particles that come in with the air.

Your air travels through your airways and into your trachea, a tube that starts at your throat and runs alongside your esophagus—if you’ve ever gotten food or water “down the wrong pipe” it’s the trachea you have to thank for the embarrassing coughing and sputtering.

From there, the trachea splits into two smaller channels called bronchi—one goes to each lung. Note here that each lung has the same job but is a separate organ, interesting evolution there, yes?

I think of the trachea as a tree trunk, with the bronchi as the main roots because the bronchi split into even smaller branches called bronchioles that look quite a lot like the root structure of a great tree. The bronchiales spread out throughout the entire lung, filling it up with tiny individual airways that each have a distinct ending.

At the end of each bronchiole is an air sac, or alveoli. It’s in the alveoli that the magic really happens.

In the Alveoli

We have roughly 240 million alveoli per lung (depending on a myriad of factors including the size of your lungs and your sex) . Yes, the alveoli are tiny but they have one of the most important functions in the body—gas exchange.

Using the capillary network, these teeny-tiny air sacs allow oxygen from the air into the bloodstream and at the same time expel carbon dioxide, a toxic byproduct of oxygenation, back into the respiratory system to remove it from the body.

Out breath starts in the alveoli, moves through the lungs, and is expelled out the mouth and nose.

Even though there are mucous membranes and other filtering agents in place, the respiratory system is in direct contact with the bloodstream, making it both an excellent focus of detoxification and an incredibly vulnerable place for opportunistic dis-ease—this is why many cold start with a sore throat.

The Diaphragm

The respiratory system is rhythmic with alternating in-breaths and out-breaths. It is consistently moving and doesn’t quite seem to have a resting point (although it should be comfortable at the top and bottom of each breath).

The muscle that controls that is called the diaphragm and it contracts and expands to pull or push air from the lungs. The diaphragm sits underneath the lungs and above the abdominals. When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls the air into the lungs and when it expands, it pushes air out of the lungs. When you use your diaphragm to breathe, you’ll notice that as you breath in, your belly rises and when you push your breath all the way out, your abdominals are activated. This is an efficient way to breathe because it allows more air (and thus more oxygen) into your respiratory system.

Respiratory Exercise for Stress

For 5 minutes a day when you’re laying down before bed or when you wake up in the morning, try this exercise to increase oxygen in your body and reduce the effects of stress. This is also wonderful for calming down in the moment or refocusing your mind.

Start by noticing your breath—how are you breathing now? Is your belly rising and falling with your chest? Are you taking fast or shallow breaths? We’re going to focus on deep, cleansing breaths.

Place your hands on your belly, close your eyes, and focus on the rise and fall with each breath.

Breathe in through your nose, slowly and deeply, feeling your belly rise. Count to four on your in breath, take a one second rest at the top.

Breathe then out through your mouth, slowly and count four seconds on your out breath, taking a one second rest at the bottom.

Try to focus only on your breathing in these five minutes (some people set a timer), but if your mind bubbles up with thoughts or ideas in this time notice them and then put them aside for later. Don’t try to problem solve or get anything done, you’re just breathing deeply, oxygenating your lungs, and giving your blood a little extra energy.

Do you have a favorite breathing exercise? Share in the comments below!


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