Our respiratory system’s primary function is to breathe in air, absorb the oxygen out of the breathed air into the bloodstream, and breathe out carbon dioxide again. That air we breathe comes in to the body through the nose (or if you are a mouth breather like me, the mouth), down the pharynx, and then enters the airways. The airways are specialized tubes that carry the air into our lungs. The largest of them all is called the trachea, starting at the back of our throats; then two bronchi – a left one and a right one that serves a lung each. These tubes are like an upside-down tree; the deeper it goes into the lungs, the smaller the tubes become branching out into yet deeper parts. (The smallest tubes are called bronchioles). Eventually, the tiniest branches connected to small air sacs – called alveoli – which is where the fresh oxygen from the air is exchanged for carbon dioxide that got carried there from the body to the lungs by our blood. At that moment, the blood is a very dark red. The oxygen is then transported by the same blood, now a bright red, to the rest of the body where it’s used to produce energy.
Here are a few interesting facts about this amazing system. When we exhale, we not only breathe out carbon dioxide, but also a lot of water, up to about two cups of water a day. Although the average person can hold our breath for about sixty seconds, people who practice the sport of diving underwater without using equipment like scuba gear, can hold it for much longer. The current world record holder has held his breath underwater for twenty-two minutes! Because of all our alveoli, of which we have about 300 million, our lungs are the only organs that can float on water. Our right lung is slightly larger than our left; and the surface area of the lungs if flattened out is about the size of a tennis court! A physician living in Arabia in the thirteenth century was the first person to describe the circulation system that exists, separately from our main circulatory system, between the heart and the lungs. This was a full 300 years before European scholars discovered the same thing.
What is the best way to keep our respiratory system healthy?
1. Don’t smoke.
Smoking is the major cause of lung cancer and of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Remember, if we are smoking, it’s never too late to stop to still have benefits from not smoking.
2. Ask people who smoke, not to smoke in our company.
Second hand smoking plays a role in heart and lung disease, as well as getting a stroke. There’s nothing wrong with insisting that loved ones and friends treat where we live as a smoke-free zone.
3. Prevent infections.
Washing our hands often with soap and water is a great way to prevent respiratory infections. Please, no matter what we read on Dr Google, flu vaccinations help to prevent flu and the complications of flu. Also, avoid crowds, if we can, during the cold and flu season. Finally, remember that good oral hygiene helps us not to get infections from the germs in our mouth.
Aerobic exercise helps improve our lung capacity, while specific breathing exercises, such as pursed lip breathing, and belly breathing – also known as diaphragmatic breathing – can help improve our lung functioning. These exercises, incidentally, are also great for improving our mood and helping us relax.