Can breathing techniques help in the fight against coronavirus?

Have you ever been taught how to breathe? It sounds odd, I know. You’ve been doing it automatically since you came out of the womb, and since you’re still alive today, it seems like your way of doing it is just fine. But some claim that spending a few moments each day focusing on how we get air in and out of the body can dramatically improve your health, and might even help in the fight against coronavirus. 

JK Rowling has tweeted her support for one particular method that’s been popularised by a video circulating online made by a doctor at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, east London. Rowling says the method helped her get through a suspected case of Covid-19, tweeting that she followed the advice of her doctor husband. “I’m fully recovered & technique helped a lot”, she wrote.

The technique involves taking a deep breath and then holding in the air for five seconds. Do this five times, then after your sixth inhale cough the air out. Repeat this whole process once, and after you’ve done that, lie down on your front. The doctor explains that all this is in aid of getting as much air as possible, and that lying on your front helps take pressure off your lungs.

Whether or not this is the best technique for sufferers of Covid-19 is up for debate. Dr James Dodd, a senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at the University of Bristol, says that the video may be displaying a method that works best for other conditions. “To me that looks like an airway clearance manoeuvre which will be useful for people with bacterial pneumonia”, he says. He explains that in conditions such as that, the body produces a lot of phlegm and cycles of deep breathing and coughing can help to clear it out, which aids breathing.

But Covid-19 is characterised by a dry cough that doesn’t produce phlegm, according to the World Health Organization, which means that this technique may have little effect. “He’s describing a solution to a problem that isn’t a feature of coronavirus”, says Dr Dodd.

If you are very breathless, treating yourself with a YouTube video won’t be enough, either. “If you’re in bed and breathless we advise you get assessed and see if you need to go into hospital for treatment”, says Dr Dodd. “Don’t watch this video and think it will keep you safe.” 

The NHS advises anyone with “severe” difficulty breathing, such as if you are choking, gasping or unable to speak, to call 999. If you have a cough and your breathing is so laboured that you are panting and unable to do normal daily activities, then you should ring 111. 

If you do want to try deep breathing to help with your symptoms, perhaps don’t copy the technique in the video, where the doctor breathes in and out rapidly through his mouth. “The chap says he feels light-headed: he was hyperventilating”, says Dr Dodd. “You ask what’s the harm, and there probably isn’t much, but hyperventilation can make you feel really weird and you can sometimes pass out with it.”

There are some things you can do to help your breathing. If you are ill with Covid-19 but well enough to get out of bed, then try doing some light exercise if you can. This will help to prevent atelectasis, a partial or complete collapse of part of the lung which can be caused by immobility in hospital.

The breathing exercise demonstrated in the video may also help to prevent this, but won’t be necessary if you are able to get out of bed and do normal activities. If you are well, taking your daily run, walk or cycle will also help to improve your lung function by maintaining cardiovascular fitness.

But there is some research which suggests that specific breathing exercises can boost your immune system. Advocates of the Wim Hof Method claim that you can influence your immune system with breathing exercises, meditation and ice bathing. Wim Hof says that super-charging his immune system is how he manages incredible feats of cold endurance, like climbing Mount Everest in shorts and running a half-marathon barefoot through ice and snow. 

There is some evidence to show that this might be the case: a Dutch study of 24 people found that those who had trained in the Wim Hof Method had fewer symptoms of flu when exposed to a toxin than the control group. The study concludes that the innate immune system can be influenced voluntarily through these techniques, something not before thought possible. 

But perhaps the most important use of breathing techniques is to stay mentally fit and well. Slow breathing through the nose can help to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, leading to a sense of calm. “When we breathe slowly we shift our nervous system from the sympathetic response, known as fight-or-flight, to the parasympathetic response, or rest-and-digest”, says Richie Bostock, a breathing coach otherwise known as The Breath Guy.

Being in the fight-or-flight response for long periods can be detrimental to health, he says.  “If you’re in a stressful environment like a hospital any extra stress can impair the healing process.”

His approach is that there are three principles to focus on, which he calls “low, slow and through the nose”. He says the first part is to slow to “whatever is comfortable” until your breathing feels “soft and gentle”.

Once you have done that, when you inhale try expanding through the belly and not the chest, he says. “The vagus nerve runs through the diaphragm [and stimulating it] helps to shift into parasympathetic response.”

Breathing through the nose is crucial too, he says. This is for various reasons. Firstly, “it naturally gives you resistance which makes it easier to breathe slowly, and slow breath is much calmer”. Also, hairs and mucus in the nose help to filter the air before it reaches the lungs, which means we breathe in less pollution.  

Thirdly, nose breathing helps the body to produce nitrous oxide, which dilates blood vessels, thereby helping to lower blood pressure and increase the amount of oxygen in your blood. 

One method that could stimulate this even more is to hum while you nose breathe. A small Swedish study found that nitrous oxide concentration in the nasal cavity can increase 15-fold when participants made a “buzzing” noise. This is because it created vibrations, which helped to mix air in the sinuses with air being inhaled. But be warned, constant humming in lockdown might take its toll on your relationships. 

Overall, the best advice is to do what feels best. If you are suffering with Covid-19 and are struggling to hold your breath as suggested in the video from Queen’s hospital, then don’t. If you can’t breathe deeply without coughing, then don’t. Most important of all? Relax and breathe easy. 

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