How does breathing actually work?

Written By
Theresa Schachner

We all know how to breathe, right? It’s simple, we just breathe in and breathe out.

But wait – how does it really work? Why do we feel we can consciously influence it during breathing exercises or fitness training, but still keep on breathing while sleeping at night or not thinking about it at all when we focus on e.g., that presentation we have to prepare?

The centerpiece for both types of breathing is the lungs. Here is what is called respiration, which is the technical term for the movement of gases in and out of our lungs, the process behind breathing. This gas exchange is essential to living beings on earth. It consists of inhaling and exhaling.

When we inhale, air together with the gas oxygen enters through the airways and travels down to the lungs and their smaller parts, the alveoli or air sacs. We have around 150 million alveoli in each lung, each being around 0.2 millimeters in size. If they would be stretched out, one human’s alveoli could cover the size of half a tennis court! The alveoli are surrounded by blood vessels, which is the key to gas exchange –blood flows around the alveoli, and catches the oxygen that has just entered the body while disposing of carbon dioxide (CO2). The blood flow now distributes the newly arrived oxygen throughout the body, fulfilling its primary function of providing our body with energy. The result of this process of turning oxygen into energy is carbon dioxide, which leaves our body when we exhale.

And not enough! The magic behind breathing is that it is both voluntary (i.e., you can influence it) as well as automatic (also called metabolic breathing - you don’t need to think about it, it just happens). The brainstem (one of the oldest parts of our brain and critically important for our survival) is in charge of automatically controlling breathing rate and depth of breathing, without us having to calculate how much oxygen we need for a certain task or how high the carbon dioxide saturation in our blood is. And when we consciously decide to change our breathing pattern as we do with e.g. breathwork exercises, a second part of the brain, the cortex (also known for its grand role in higher such as memory, thinking, learning, and problem-solving), becomes active. It allows us to directly interact and actively control deep processes in our body as breathing influences e.g., our cortisol levels (and hereby our perceived stress), our heart rate variability, our blood pressure, and many more crucially important aspects of our system. Being able to consciously intervene in an otherwise automatic process is highly unique in our body – there is no other process like this, really highlighting how important and also powerful breathing is!

For finding out how you can actively guide your breathing and get more information of the effects of breathing, visit our other blog “What is Breathwork and why should I do it?”. For personalized guided breathing exercises, try out the Chojuu app.

Live better - breath by breath.