“Just breathe” is basic advice that’s easy to ignore. But when dealing with increased stress—as we are during these strange pandemic weeks—simple, controlled breathing is one of the best tools available for getting a grip on our emotions and the effects of stress on our bodies. And it happens to be the one tool we don’t have to go anywhere to find — it’s accessible with just a bit of advice and a little time.
First, let’s get right to the point and then get into some of the details:
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth with a simple, controlled breathing exercise like box breathing, bubble breathing or the 4-7-8 method. You can find these and other exercises described many places online and in a variety of relaxation apps. The specific exercise isn’t important – what matters is finding a straightforward way of facilitating controlled breathing.
Why “in through your nose and out through your mouth”?
The answer to that question comes from a top-shelf scientific source: Louis J. Ignarro, PhD, the Nobel-Prize winning researcher who co-discovered (with two other researchers) the molecule at the center of the subject, called nitric oxide.
“Nitric oxide, also termed NO, is a gaseous molecule that is produced by our arteries in all organs to regulate cardiovascular function. NO causes the muscle cells (smooth muscle) enveloping arteries to relax, thereby causing vasodilation or widening of the arteries,” writes Ignarro in a new paper on nitric oxide and COVID-19. “This physiological action results in a decrease in blood pressure within the arteries and increased blood flow to all organs through the dilated arteries.”
Ignarro, who is also professor emeritus of pharmacology at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains that NO plays vital roles throughout our brains and bodies, some of which we’re still learning about.
“Nitric oxide turns out to be a ubiquitous molecule with many different properties. For example, not only does NO relax smooth muscle, but NO also reacts chemically with certain other molecules in cells to alter their function.”
To maximize NO while breathing, Ignarro says he tells everyone to do one simple thing.
“One thing I urge everyone to practice during this coronavirus pandemic is to breathe or inhale through your NOSE and exhale through your mouth. The cells and tissues in the nose, but not the mouth, constantly and continuously produce nitric oxide, which is a gas. The physiological significance of this is that nasally-derived NO improves oxygen delivery into the lungs by causing bronchodilation.”
So by breathing in through the nose, we draw in the NO gas that’s produced in our nasal membranes, pulling it into our lungs where it expands airways and boosts oxygen delivery to our brains and throughout our bodies. This process results in relaxed blood vessels and muscle tissue, both of which are experiencing tension and pressure during periods of stress.
Ignarro says getting more NO into your lungs may also provide protection against viruses and bacteria. “The NO produced by our own cells can interact with molecules in invading cells such as bacteria, parasites and viruses to kill them or inhibit their replication or spread.” Iganarro is working with other researchers to investigate the effects of NO on COVID-19 in the lungs.