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Dr. Wittfoth, you are a neuroscientist and psychologist and have been working on the subject of breathing for many years. Why should breathing receive more attention from your point of view, since we all breathe automatically from birth?
First of all, it's very exciting what you can do with altered breathing. When you try out certain breathing techniques and experience them on yourself, you realise that it can bring you into other states of consciousness and that it also triggers physical processes, some of which are very strong physiological processes.
Naturally, at least, you can change the way you breathe.
Naturally, all humans breathe from birth and need this basic life support process, but there are already certain breathing patterns that we then train ourselves to use throughout life. This often happens as a reaction to traumatic experiences, but dietary habits and environmental influences also play a role here. Overall, it cannot be generalised that most people breathe "incorrectly". However, many people often experience an improvement after breathing training, which leads to a subjective feeling of improved health, and physically it can then also be objectively determined that some somatic factors are improved.
What are the effects of improper breathing on our health?
I am reluctant to talk about incorrect breathing here, because from the body's point of view, adaptive mechanisms are happening to try to cope with given circumstances.
Therefore, we should rather speak of dysfunctional breathing. Breathing tries to react to environmental stimuli, such as increased stress, and also has to cope with physical developments that have occurred, such as a posture that is more adapted to desk work and hardly allows deep breathing. Blocked noses are also common and only allow mouth breathing. All this can lead to negative health effects relatively quickly. The consequences are sleep disturbances due to snoring or sleep apnoea, as well as chronic stress, which, as in a vicious circle, promotes too much breathing too quickly, which in turn cannot allow the stress to subside.
There is currently increasing discussion that malocclusion of the teeth, especially in childhood tooth development, could be a consequence of excessive mouth breathing.
Why has breathing received so little attention in therapy and training so far?
There has been a big push in recent years to bring breathing back into focus. However, the development is still far from where it should be. The ignorance of breathing as a therapeutic and performance-enhancing tool has many causes. Given that a large number of people in the world have been using breathing culturally for thousands of years, this is of course very strange.
Possible reasons for this lie in a patchy scientific understanding of breathing, in the phenomenon that has tended to locate medical successes of breathing modification elsewhere (placebo) and in the development of supposed pharmacological "breakthroughs" that have rendered the closer examination and study of breathing techniques obsolete. Likewise, the proximity of certain breathing schools to esoteric and psychedelic circles seems to have prevented serious engagement.
How can one train breathing and are there helpful tools to get started?
There are currently numerous breathing directions that propagate different approaches. The important thing is that you are drawn to one of these approaches and feel motivated to give it a try. In doing so, good guidance is actually always an advantage.
In my experience, entry-level breathing techniques are great, offering an immediate new experience, although there are also recommended breathing techniques that bring about slow but very effective change through daily practice. Fortunately, you can find many good instructions on the web and get inspired. Wim Hof, in particular, is to be credited with the achievement of presenting breathing to the world in an appealing and motivating way.
However, there is a need for progress.
But to support the progress that can be made with these breathing techniques, there are some direct aids. Basically, deep diaphragmatic breathing is important in all breathing schools. A breathing belt is very effective to train this breathing and reinforces the way you breathe through the body limitation and the counterpressure that the belt triggers. Furthermore, one can optimise the relaxation and functionality of the diaphragm. There are tools for this that you hold between your lips. By putting resistance only to the exhale, as for example with the Relaxator, or by making the inhale and exhale more difficult, as with the breathing trainer, the euro-muscular coupling of many respiratory muscles is strengthened.
Your "insider tip" for a promising start?
Be sure to seek an instructor or therapist if you get stuck or have problems! Often you have misunderstood certain aspects of the breathing technique or have individual peculiarities that need to be taken into account.
Breathing communities are sometimes helpful when you meet like-minded people who have already had their experiences, but at times you get unhelpful answers. Fortunately, in the members' area of my podcast, the Breath Code Club, you can find both, a competent community and me as an expert, who gives many supportive tips.
You are a certified Wim Hof Instructor. What fascinates you about this breathing technique?
First of all, I was very attracted by the fact that I already had great experiences during my first self-experiences, which led me to use this technique every day for months. Basically it costs no money and you always have breathing available. Then, of course, I was fascinated by the scientific publications on the Wim Hof method that had already been produced, which were able to show that the human immune system can not only be influenced by breathing, but positively balanced. Something I was able to experience myself very often when a cold was coming on and I was able to bring myself back to health through breathing.
However, I was only able to grasp the full potential of the method when I gave workshops myself. The amazing effects with so many people cannot be explained away. Take a room of 100 people, lead them through Wim Hof Breathwork and 90 of them have happy-making experiences and are completely inspired, forgotten experiences come to mind and suppressed emotions are given their space. It is fantastic to know such a breathing tool and to enrich many people with it.
Correspond to the Wim Hof Breathings. In the Corona pandemic, we have encountered the topic of breathing mainly in connection with intensive care units and artificial respiration. However, we see little in the way of prevention or rehabilitation programmes so far. From your point of view, can targeted respiratory training be helpful in general respiratory diseases, and in post-covid patients in particular?
Some studies have already been done to shed light on this very point: Are breathing techniques a valuable complementary tool to improve Long-COVID? I am not aware of any studies specifically on COVID and breathing techniques.
Generally, it seems to be emerging that even in mild or asymptomatic courses, late effects can remain. This syndrome is now known as POST-COVID or LONG-COVID. People in the 25-50 age group are affected, women more often. Our research minister estimates that 350,000 people are affected. What seems to be most prevalent is both general exhaustion with persistent fatigue and listlessness, as well as respiratory problems. What all this means for the health system in Germany in terms of follow-up costs is not yet even foreseeable. Some are already talking about an impending health and social crisis.
While in England, for example, a number of new medical centres have been set up with a lot of money, the health insurance companies in Germany are waving them off, although German doctors' associations are demanding something comparable.
The cause of LONG-COVID is probably changes in various blood cells: the erythrocytes, which can now absorb less oxygen, and the neutrophil granulocytes. The use of breathing techniques is a promising approach. Regular exercise can restore diaphragmatic function and normal lung capacity. Equally important is the improvement of anxiety and depression symptoms, which are relatively common.
I am currently working on setting up an online "Breathing for LONG COVID" programme that combines breathing techniques from different directions in a beneficial way to enable people who are affected to use their own effective tool against LONG COVID in their home environment and to pick out the best, because most helpful, tools for themselves.
Dr. rer. nat. Dipl.-Psych. Matthias Wittfoth holds a doctorate in neuroscience and is a certified Wim Hof Method Instructor. He studied psychology in Bremen and Heidelberg and completed his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. He has published numerous international papers as a brain researcher on the topics of cognition, emotion, music and language.
After almost two decades of research activity (Bremen, Hanover, Boston) by means of functional imaging of the brain, he has been giving workshops on the topic of breathing and cold training throughout Europe for several years and has been disseminating very informative new, highly relevant knowledge in his podcast The Breathing Code.