Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

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December 3, 2023 | Max Jenkinson

Hidden Superpower: A Key To Good Health

We are obsessed with superpowers.

They’re in comic books, the biggest movie franchises ever, and in myths about our ancestors. The superpowers we see in movies may not be attainable but we might have some hidden superpower lying dormant in us.

There was a tribe of seafarers that could tell where they were on the sea by dipping their hands into the ocean and feeling the currents. Some people can hold their breath for minutes at a time while hunting fish at the bottom of the sea.

These abilities take years of practice to develop. What if I told you that we all have a superpower that we can start using today?

Our body is controlled by a complex network of nerves that make sure everything is running correctly at the correct time. It’s called the nervous system.

If somebody told me five years ago that we could take some control of our nervous system by speaking to it I’d think that was impossible. Today I know it is true because I do it daily.

I would venture to say that controlling the thing that controls us is a superpower. It is the thing that controls our mood, our energy levels, and our health.

After reading this you will understand what language you need to learn to speak with your nervous system and how to speak with it to get what you want out of it. It’s quite simple. So simple in fact that you won’t need to learn any new skills at all.
The superpower I am going to give you is something so simple yet profound that it can transform the way you think, feel, and live. It’s time to unlock the potential of our breath.


Breathing & Our Nervous System

Breathing is an automatic bodily function meaning it is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This system also plays a large role in mood and focus.

For the ANS to regulate all of the complex functions it needs to know what is going on in the body. It does this by two-way communication with the functions it controls.

Relaxation causes the ANS to lower our heart rate. But, relaxation also causes the ANS to alter a host of other functions as well. As our heart rate lowers it signals that we are safe. This tells the ANS to stimulate relaxation.

It uses this two-way communication to avoid understanding the situation incorrectly. A few things could signal that we are safe but when the majority tells the ANS that we are not safe those signals get disregarded.

Breathing is one of the few aspects controlled by the ANS that occurs both automatically and in our conscious control. This makes our breath unique.

The ANS is complex. So, let’s simplify it a little. It is the branch of the nervous system that regulates involuntary bodily functions to ensure the body maintains internal balance. It does all of this independently of conscious control.

Want me to be more specific? The ANS controls activities such as heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, blood pressure, and glandular secretion.

That’s too specific. I want you to have a conceptual framework for what the ANS does.

The ANS controls the push-pull interaction between opposing physiological mechanisms. Inflammation or anti-inflammation, catabolism or anabolism, action or relaxation.

Most aspects of our physiology work by having two opposing effects working together to create the correct balance between the two. The thing that controls the balance point is the ANS.

All of these more specific counteracting mechanisms are broadly controlled by a balance within the ANS itself. The ANS is split into two branches with opposing effects: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

For now, you can think of the SNS as fight or flight and the PNS as rest and digest.

It is not as if they are activated or work independently of each other. They counteract each other meaning they are in a push-pull relationship to maintain physiological equilibrium. Their relationship is what allows the body to respond appropriately to various situations.

The balance between the two can be thought of as the priority of short-term survival versus long-term survival. In times of threat (stress), we need to be ready to act so we deprioritize digestion, reproduction, and cellular cleaning.

In ancestral times, the balance was maintained to create a healthy body. Today, because we live in an environment where we are not adapted to the ANS makes mistakes. Usually, modern life shifts us toward the sympathetic or the more stressful side of the balance.

When the balance is shifted too much toward the sympathetic for too long we run into some major problems. The body then does not prioritize digestion, regeneration, and recovery.

  • On a psychological level, this means our mood will be worse over time.

  • On a physiological level, this means less energy will be produced and less energy will be allocated toward fixing internal problems.

Over sufficiently long periods this leads to mental and physical health problems.

Why would the modern environment shift us more towards the sympathetic branch?

This will go to show why I love to put health in an evolutionary and energetic framework. If we view things through the lens of how they affect energy and then put them into an evolutionary context we illuminate things that would otherwise be lost to us.

The SNS is activated by stress. If we view stress as anything that impairs our ability to produce energy it makes a lot of sense.

Toxins in the air, microplastics, light pollution, lack of nutrients, unhealthy foods, lack of movement, lack of sleep, too much time online, too little time outside, etc. I could go on and on, but, almost everything in our environment is shifting the balance toward the SNS.

In a day and age where everything is seemingly pushing our biology to be stressed, we need something to help us shift away from stress and toward relaxation. Luckily there is something we have that allows us to directly communicate with the ANS.

Breathing – Our Hidden Superpower

Because breathing occurs automatically it is controlled by the ANS. But, as you know you can control your breath consciously as well.

If the breath is controlled by the ANS can the breath control the ANS?

The communication between the ANS and the bodily functions it controls is a two-way street. Being able to shift the balance toward a more parasympathetic tone is one of the largest levers we have to become healthier.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by learning how breathing affects our ANS and then using specific breathing patterns to shift the balance toward something more productive.

Our ANS is one of the most important aspects of our nervous system when it comes to general health and mood. If we can affect it in a way that makes it function better I would definitely call that a super-power.

So, how do we communicate with our nervous system?


The Language of The Nervous System

Our breath only has a few variables we can play around with. We can alter the duration of both our inhale and exhale, and we can increase or decrease the intensity of both.

The difference in duration between our inhale and exhale seems to be the most important communication device we can use. A longer exhale relative to inhale stimulates our PNS (relaxation), while a shorter exhale relative to inhale stimulates the SNS (stress/alertness).

This is the only thing you need to know for now. This knowledge alone can be used in a myriad of ways to improve our lives, both in the short term and in the long term.

Here are some ways you can use the language you just learned:

The Productivity Hack

Focus lies somewhere on the spectrum between alertness and relaxation. If we are too alert we become stressed and anxious. If we are too relaxed we become drowsy, tired, and unmotivated. We want to find the sweet spot for the activity at hand.

Most of us have been taught that how we feel is what we feel and that it is dependent on external factors alone. If we are anxious because of a situation we need to remove ourselves from it or wait it out.

Anxiousness is controlled by our nervous system. We are shifted too far toward the sympathetic. In the context of focus, this means we are too alert.

In a state where alertness is too high, we become jittery, unfocused, and anxious. We need to pull back. We do this by increasing the duration of our exhales.

On the other hand, if we feel unmotivated, drowsy, and tired we can increase our alertness by shortening our exhales relative to inhales. Almost hyperventilating. This will shift us toward stress which in this context is a good thing. It will increase focus.

If you are working, studying, or doing anything cognitively demanding you can use your breath to find the sweet spot of alertness and relaxation.

The Focus Hack

In a world consumed by distraction, the skill of focus is becoming more and more scarce. This is why Cal Newport tells us that it is becoming more valuable and easier to attain.

We have a focus muscle that can be trained. It is trained when we focus on something, become distracted, and then refocus. This cycle can be seen as a repetition. Each rep trains neural circuits involved in mental focus and concentration.

One of the simplest techniques to train our focus muscles is by using focused meditation. This is when we meditate by focusing on our breath. As soon as thoughts come in and distract us from our focus, we bring the attention back to the breath.

Imagine what you could do, who you could become, and what you could accomplish if you could maintain focus on one thing for hours a day.

“If you spend an hour a day on something you’d be a world expert within 5 years.”

If You Will Spend One Extra Hour Each Day Studying Your Chosen Field, You’ll Be a National Expert in That Field in Five Years or Less.

Jim Cathcart

More Carbon Dioxide = More Energy

Back to energy production (learn to love it). Clearly, oxygen is important for energy production, everyone knows this. But, what most people don’t know is that carbon dioxide is as important or even more important.

The ability of oxygen to get into the cell and be used to burn fuel is largely dependent on carbon dioxide. When we breathe fast and shallow (mouth breathing), we exhale more carbon dioxide than we should.

Again, this is a push-pull relationship. The balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide is vital to energy production and thus health. Instead of being controlled by the ANS this balance is almost entirely controlled by our breathing patterns.

Because we are more stressed than we should we take shallower and faster breaths. Thus the balance is shifted toward oxygen. This may sound good as we want oxygen, but oxygen cannot be used correctly without sufficient amounts of carbon dioxide.

Paradoxically this means that we want more carbon dioxide and less oxygen so that more oxygen is used in the cell. This might not make sense to you but it’s true. Biology is complex, remember?

What we then want to do is shift the balance toward carbon dioxide. Here are some ways we can do that:

1) Start With the Nose & Do it Deep

Practice breathing through your nose, especially during rest and light activities. This might be obvious but it shifts us toward relaxation which slows down our breathing.

Breathing deep just means you focus on longer breaths and learning to breathe with your diaphragm. Consciously doing this will teach your body how to breathe better when you’re not thinking about it.

2) The Butyeko Technique – Regular Breath Holds

The urge to breathe is not a lack of oxygen but a build-up of carbon dioxide. If we have a low tolerance for carbon dioxide we will breathe faster and harder to offload more carbon dioxide. As we have spoken about, this is not something you want.

By practicing regular breath hold after a normal exhale we increase our CO2 tolerance which in turn helps balance CO2 to O2 in the body.

The implementation breathing expert Patrick McKeown recommends doing breath holds while walking. You walk and then after a normal exhale you hold your breath for as many steps as you can. Over time, try to increase the amounts of steps.


Breathe Consciously Everyday

The ANS has a large impact on your mood, energy levels, motivation, alertness, and health in general. By breathing consciously you can shift the ANS toward something more productive to what you are trying to achieve.

The main idea over the long haul is to breathe less and increase your carbon dioxide tolerance. Both will improve the utility of oxygen, which you now know will improve energy production and thus health.

Doing this will also shift the ANS more to the relaxed side (the PNS) which will help mitigate the effect of the chronic stress we are all exposed to today.

In the short term, you can use your breath to control where you are in the spectrum between total relaxation and complete alertness. This will help you maintain the correct alertness level for the activity at hand. It will also help you to control your anxiety level.

Breathing is a superpower. Learn how to use it and when. Your life will transform and it will transform fast.

Implement some of the things I’ve written about today. If you want to go deeper there are some great authors out there, my favorites are Patrick McKeown, Anders Olsson, and James Nestor.

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Shatter Your Entire View Of Health

Join others getting their entire idea of what health is shattered every Sunday while reading Health Decoded.