27 Apr Breathing for Healthy Bones
In his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor made this intriguing statement about the relationship between breath and osteoporosis:
“It’s possible to overbreathe yourself into osteoporosis and increased risk of bone fractures.”
This piqued my curiosity since breath is so integral to our yoga practice!
The chemistry behind this statement can be somewhat complicated – but I did a little research.
Let me try to simplify it.
It has to do with how breath plays a part in the balance of pH in our blood.
First, when it comes to pH levels in the body, I know many of us hear a lot of talk about focusing on eating an alkaline diet and avoiding an acidic state in the body for the sake of the health of our bones.
These kinds of statements make it seem like an alkaline state is preferred and is more beneficial than acidic.
But when it comes to our health, and the health of our bones in particular, it’s more a matter of moderation and modulation between these two states – acidic and alkaline either metabolically or within the blood pH.
Take a look at this image of the pH scale and note that bleach is on the extreme alkaline side of the scale.
This just goes to show that more and more alkaline is not the healthy state we are seeking! 🙂
The body is always trying to keep the blood pH at 7.4, just slightly more alkaline than the neutral 7.
It’s a very tightly controlled system in our body.
So, when James Nestor writes that slow, deep breathing lowers pH and makes a more acidic state in the blood by increasing CO2, just know that the body will compensate within minutes by increasing our ventilation rate to expel more carbon dioxide.
If we’re conditioned to fear an acidic state, we might think that slow breathing that brings on this acidic state is something to avoid until we hear the cascading effects of the reverse.
Fast, shallow, “overbreathing” as he calls it, causes a rise in blood pH and tips the scales too far into the alkaline state.
When this happens, to keep blood pH at 7.4 the kidneys are triggered to buffer by releasing a compound called bicarbonate into the blood.
Of course, it’s not unusual for us to find ourselves breathing fast or shallow for any number of activities in our life, so the infinite wisdom of our body is designed to compensate for that to maintain a blood pH of 7.4 via buffering.
Buffering is meant to be a temporary fix, though.
If this overbreathing state (maybe from anxiety or stress or just breathing inefficiently) is sustained for weeks, months, and years, the buffering depletes the body of essential minerals; and, as this persists the bones help the body regain a state of homeostasis by compensating for the loss of minerals through the urine by releasing minerals themselves – including calcium – into the bloodstream to circulate through the body for all the body’s metabolic needs. (Our bones are endlessly giving to the body!) You can see how this could eventually tip the scale into the osteoporosis side.
This is not to say that breathing is the cause of osteoporosis for everyone but it could be a mitigating circumstance given how shallow and fast we all tend to breathe (as Nestor relates in his book.)
This news provides just one more reason why yoga is so uniquely beneficial to the health of our bones.
From a blood pH perspective, engaging in breathing practices – i.e., practicing breathing, especially slow, deep breathing (through the nose), balances out the effects of our more common overbreathing state (typically through the mouth) and helps to keep the mineral-depleting buffering to a minimum, as a temporary fix.
What I’ve learned from my yoga practice is that the body has infinite wisdom in keeping a state of homeostasis.
From a yoga perspective, while we are indeed strengthening the body during the more common yoga practices, we are moreso working with the mind – and most importantly the breath.
And maybe that’s what makes all the difference as, according to science, breathing has such a distinct effect on our blood pH.
Hurray for Yoga for Vital Bones! Join us if you haven’t already.
Here’s a little video lesson I gave at the start of a recent class based on this blog:
Resources: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ap/chapter/acid-base-balance/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5118493/ https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajprenal.00115.2003