Humans are not machines. We are complex adaptable systems. When challenged or perturbed (think physical training), we have the ability to recover, restore, and repair ourselves. This capacity to rebuild our own structure and even increase our complexity (increase adaptability) or specificity (idealize physiology for a specific environment) via hyperplasia of organelles (increase mitochondria), hypertrophy (increase muscle mass or organ size), or alter motor (movement) or cognitive (learning) potential is referred to as self-organization.
A naturally occurring by-product of self-organization is the development of subsystems within the system structured in hierarchies. Hierarchies provide the system with stability (resistance to perturbation) and resilience (recovery from perturbation). Each self-organizing subsystem is specialized to fulfill specific needs of the system in coordination with the total system properties and goal (task completion or coping with an environment).
Consider a number of the subsystems that we tend to identify in the human body:
Integumentary System (skin)
Each of these subsystems is a system in its own right and can be broken down further into their components and further to the cellular level (also a system). This perspective is the converse of how the hierarchy evolves – from the lowest level upward. Cells make up tissues, tissues make up organs, and organs make up components of the human system.
The hierarchical structure of our subsystems provides an element of simplification of our incredibly complex human system. Systems farther up the hierarchy serve the lower subsystems. For instance, every cell benefits from the oxygen provided by the respiratory system as delivered by the circulatory system. As long as these systems remain self-organizing, then the degree of required centralized control (think CNS) is minimized and focus is maintained on the primary goal of the system depending on the environment and task performed. If the CNS were responsible for controlling the function of every organ system and every cell all at once, the entire system would eventually fail because of the extreme demands.
However, any system dominance may lead to failure in the hierarchy resulting in suboptimization of the system and inability to cope with or adapt to the environment.
This brings us to breathing.
If I had to establish any one system at the top of hierarchy, respiration would consistently be there. Your individualization, the environment, and the required task will certainly influence the idiosyncratic nature of how your personal system hierarchy is organized (it’s changeable based on demands and learning), but breathing will always be priority.
Think about it. Bad things tend to happen if you can’t breathe.
You may say that the nervous system (the brain) rules and for good reason. It processes all of our sensory inputs and gives meaning to our interpretation of the world, but keep in mind that you have the capacity to influence how it does so simply by taking a few deep breaths. Breathing wins.
Breathing influences your internal environment. Hyperventilation results in blowing off too much carbon dioxide. Raises your blood pH. Reduces oxygen delivery to your tissues, your brain, and their cells. The kidneys will compensate for elevated pH by excreting more bicarbonate. Now when you do move more to try to move more and get healthy or just feel better, you’ve lost your buffering capacity when acidity increases due to the very exercise that is supposed to make you feel better.
Your adaptive capacity is lowered. Your pain threshold is lowered. Perception and tolerance to stress is reduced. Anxiety increases.
From a mechanical standpoint, reduced air delivery to your tissues results in hypoxia. This will trigger an increase in anti-gravity muscle tone (extensor tone). Your movement repertoire is now limited because you can no longer manage airflow if you bend or lean or shift into certain positions, postures, or movement. Your brain won’t let you go where you can’t breathe. Your ability to vary and reduce load on structure is compromised (think why does my back hurt?).
It’s an interesting dichotomy in that certain types of performance are enhanced under these conditions. If you need to lift heavy things, run faster, or jump higher, this enhancement of muscle tone is beneficial to meeting the goal. If you’re trying to manage health and can’t shut it off when it’s time to do so, there are negative consequences. Breathing wins.
Reductionist approaches that point to structure as the cause for limitations in movement, pain, or reduced performance appear to be myopic unless breathing is first addressed. You can keep trying to wiggle that joint, foam roll, or stretch that muscle and even temporarily feel better, but if it’s “tight” to make sure your brain gets its air, it will remain “tight.” Your brain is air hungry. While it weighs just a few pounds, it consumes a quarter of your oxygen. Breathing wins.
Not all patients, clients, and athletes are limited by their breathing patterns, but breathing remains our most powerful pathway to access regulation of the system. It is the top of the hierarchy. Breathing wins.
“If breathing is not normalized – no other movement pattern can be.”
-Dr. Karel Lewit
Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2008.
Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders: A multidisciplinary approach. 2nd Edition. Elsevier. 2014.