A (Very) Short Guide to Respiration


We do something 17,000 to 30,000 times every day without ever really thinking about it.

No, it’s not checking our phones, it’s respiration or breathing.

This basic biological process is a complex interplay of systems within our bodies, but we rarely give it a second thought unless we are ill, in an accident, or exercising. So, what exactly is respiration?

What Do You Know About Pressure?

Respiration, or breathing, is a function of positive and negative pressure. Muscle contraction creates open space around the lungs that allow for positive pressure to form. Air rushes into the lungs due to this positive pressure and oxygen is distributed to the bloodstream. Then, muscles surrounding the lungs relax creating a negative pressure inside the lungs, pushing air out through the airway. This process repeats over and over, between 12 and 20 times per minute, from the minute we are born until the day we die.

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Respiration Involves More Than Just Your Lungs.

Most people think about breathing as being a function of the lungs. While these organs play a major role in the process, breathing begins in the brain, not the lungs. Different sections of your brain govern different parts of the human experience. Every thought, feeling, biological process, or action originates in a specific part of the brain. Breathing is actually a coordinated effort between the cerebellum, brain stem, pons, and medulla. These sections determine how rapidly you need to breathe when you are exercising, how often you need to breathe to maintain consciousness and the rhythm of your breath that will maximize the levels of oxygen in your bloodstream.

When respiration becomes difficult, often times a ventilator is needed.

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Then there are the parts of the body that control the mechanical side of breathing. The diaphragm, a strong, flat muscle at the base of your chest cavity is essential for creating positive and negative pressure in the lungs. As the diaphragm contracts, the chest cavity expands, creating that rush of air the body needs to survive. As it relaxes, the chest cavity shrinks and carbon dioxide leaves the lungs. The intercostal muscles, the muscles between the ribs, are also responsible for expanding the chest cavity, which is why trauma to the ribs makes breathing painful.

Lungs are Important too.

Once air enters the lungs, how does oxygen transfer to the bloodstream and carbon dioxide transfer to the lungs?

In a seamless process, oxygen transfers to the bloodstream through tiny sacs inside the lungs called alveoli. Here, oxygen is diffused into the bloodstream where it returns to the heart. From there this oxygen-rich blood is pumped into every artery and blood vessel into the body. There, it moves via diffusion into the body’s cells to promote healing, regeneration and cell function. These cells also create carbon dioxide as a waste product which moves back into the blood vessels, then the arteries, then the heart, and back into the alveoli in the lungs. This carbon dioxide is then released when we exhale.

Miraculously, thousands of times a day, we experience one of the most complex functions of the human body without giving it a second thought. Fortunately, our brain and body know what to do without us.