Meditation Master Class: 4. Breathing and Metabolism

As we have already discussed in the previous sessions that relaxation is an integral aspect of the meditative process. We will dedicate the next few discussions to breath. In yoga, breath is the link between body and mind, relaxing and controlling the breath, both the body and mind can be relaxed and controlled. Besides this breathing in specific patterns and ways is also good for immunity, mental health, physical stiffness, metabolic disorders and other unparalleled and scientifically proven therapeutic benefits.

Why Breathing Matters?

An average person breathes anywhere between 12 to 20 times a minute, which is around 23000 [1] breaths every day viz more than 11000 litres of air. It is interesting to know that one could survive more than 3 weeks without food, maximum 3 days without hydration but 3 minutes of breathlessness would lead one to fatal brain damage. From the above comparison, one could realize how important the breath is yet we seldom consider it a factor for promotion or demotion of health and longevity.

We go to school and we do learn a little bit proper diet, nutrition, and hydration; and about the maths and science and all other useless stuff which an average person is never going to use in his entire lifespan whereas we are breathing in or out virtually every single second and nobody teaches us how to breathe properly, in a health-promoting way.

Improper breathing is the probable cause (and also the possible solution) for a variety of ailments such as chronic stress, fatigue, migraines, back and shoulder pain, anxiety, PTSD, High Blood Pressure, even Obesity etc. I go as far as to suggest that it be a key factor responsible for even various metabolic disorders such as Diabetes, indecorous Blood pH, etc.

I shall attempt later to justify my wild claims and suggestions but at this moment let’s focus on what is that we refer to as breathing or respiration? And why is it so important? We will first go into significant depth and understand breathing itself and we’ll later jump to the physiological and anatomical aspects later.

What is Breathing?

Breathing or Respiration is defined as the movement of air into and out of the lungs to facilitate the movement of oxygen from the ambient air to the cells within the tissues and the transport of Carbon dioxide in the opposite direction.”

So there are two aspects into breathing:

1. Movement of air in and out of the lungs.     

2. Admission of Oxygen (O2) and expulsion of Carbon-dioxide (CO2)

But do you ever wonder for what does the body needs so much of (O2)? and from where does it get so much (CO2) to expel? In other words, what is that process which is necessary for survival and which consumes Oxygen and releases Carbon-dioxide? This process is of our core interest here and absolutely indispensable for our physical survival, it is scientifically termed as biochemical respiration or cellular respiration.

Metabolism and Cellular Breathing

We know that our body burns carbohydrates and fats to generate energy but if we could know how it burns it, can it help us burn more carbs and fats or at least burn them more efficiently? Ever wondered if your tissues burn carbs and fats why don’t you see flames and smoke coming out of your body? How does your body burn fats if the body composed of about 70% water and wood if little moist gets extremely difficult to burn?

Our bodies do not burn the nutrients in the same way we burn wood. But it is called burning because any form of combustion is ultimately a chemical reaction. The burning of wood is actually an exothermic chemical reaction (releases heat as the reaction proceeds) often represented by the simplified equation as follows:

CxHy + O2 → CO2 + H2O + Heat

Wood is primarily cellulose also containing some impurities which don’t burn very well and leave a residue such as char, ash, smoke and other unburnable minerals in the wood such as calcium, potassium etc.

Fun Facts about Mitochondria

Similarly, our body turns the macronutrients into glucose and then consumes it by a process of chemical combustion (or burning) inside Mitocondria of our cells primarily known as Metabolism. So, Metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformation occurring within the cells of an organism.

There are three main purposes of metabolism:

•To convert the food into energy for running various cellular processes.

•To convert food into building blocks for protein, lipids (fats), nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and some carbs.

•To eliminate nitrogenous wastes.

Metabolic processes can be divided into two categories:

Catabolism is the breaking down of organic matter such as breaking up of glucose to form pyruvate by cellular respiration.

Anabolism is the building up of components of cells such as proteins and nucleic acids.

Usually breaking down (Catabolism) releases energy and building up (Anabolism) consumes energy. The metabolic system of an individual determines which substances are nutritious and which are poisonous.

The speed of metabolism also known as metabolism rate governs how much food an organism will require and how efficiently and effectively will it use that available food.

“Cellular respiration is the metabolic process by which an organism gets energy in the form of ATP by oxidizing nutrients and releasing waste products.”

The body doesn’t consume fats and carbs it uses glucose generated from these to form an intermediary fuel source known as ATP.

What is ATP?

ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) is the intermediate source of energy in our cells used for:

– Muscular contraction

– Cellular division

– Transportation or locomotion of molecules across the cell membrane

– Synthesis of proteins (biosynthesis)

– Transmission of neural impulses.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the precursor to RNA and DNA and is made up of one adenosine and three inorganic phosphate groups, which are designated as Pi for short. When the energy is required in the cell at that instant a bond is broken in ATP to form the molecule ADP + Pi i.e. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is transformed to Adenosine diphosphate (ADP) by hydrolysis of a single bond. (Here Di meaning two Pi  is used instead of tri which means three Pi.)

The ATP needs to constantly renew in order to have virtually an endless stock of it whenever needed and this is done by cellular respiration. Mitochondria in the cell generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP) using chemical energy (Glucose).

Types of Cellular Respiration

Cellular respiration can be of two types:

   – Aerobic Respiration

   – Anaerobic Respiration

Aerobic Respiration (reaction):

• Aerobic respiration requires oxygen to create ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) by consuming carbohydrates, proteins and fats, the end products of this process are Carbon Di-Oxide (CO2) and Water (H2O).

• The energy generated (transferred) is used to break bonds in ADP as the third phosphate group is added to form ATP.

• The energy stored in ATP can be used for various processes as described previously. when the energy is consumed in the metabolic processes ATP is converted back to ADP (Adenosine diphosphate) or AMP (Adenosine monophosphate).

• The simplified equation for this process can be given as:

C6 H12 O6 + 6O2 + ADP + Pi → 6CO2 + 6 H2O + ATP

Aerobic respiration is 15 times more efficient than Aerobic respiration and it yields 29 to 30 molecules[3] of ATP per molecule of glucose compared to 2 in case of Anaerobic respiration.

Anaerobic Respiration (reaction):

•When oxygen (O2) is unavailable or available insufficiently (because of improper or insufficient breathing) such as while doing the rigorous exercise the body switches to anaerobic respiration.  

• Anaerobic means in the absence of oxygen. When the labour is done without getting a sufficient amount of oxygen our muscle cells in order to produce ATP start using an anaerobic reaction.

• Here also the energy generated is used to break bonds in ADP as the third phosphate group is added to form ATP but lactic acid (C3 H6 O3) is formed as the end product.

• As discussed before anaerobic respiration is not just less efficient but it can not be sustained for longer duration hence the body experiences fatigue and can no longer work. So when your body is suffering from muscle fatigue this indicates you have an oxygen debt.

• But as soon as you stop the activity and rest, the lungs keep breathing heavily and the heart keeps on pounding heavily, this restores the oxygen requirement.

• In some time the body will get rid of the lactic acid build-up; deep breaths and sufficient oxygen are taken to change the lactic acid back to pyruvic acid. So that the aerobic respiration is resumed.

ATP and Brain

All of this sounds great but this is all about physical activity but what about me I have a desk job I spend most of my day sitting?

ATP is the primary source of cellular energy in the brain. The proper functioning of the brain depends mainly on two sources, they are oxygen and ATP [4]; both of which are directly or indirectly dependent on how you breathe.

As we have already established for the body, ATP likewise enhances the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the brain and stimulates the removal of waste products.

According to research done by the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, the ATP levels are linked to improvements in brain functioning. They noticed consistently high ATP levels were needed for the efficient firing of neurons in the brain (as ATP is the primary fuel for the brain cells and 2/3rd of total energy consumed by the brain is used in the firing of neurons) and also aids (in a way almost indispensable) for brain’s little understood maintenance activities.

“Without adequate levels of ATP, your brain has an energy drain and its function decreases … Below the critical level of ATP production, brain cells may begin to die,” says Dr Barry Sears M.D.

As per Dr Sarah Myhill M.D. “The brain creates a million new connections every second. This means there is a huge potential for healing and repair; it is simply a case of moving things in the right direction. But the brain has to have optimum energy supply to allow this process to happen! And ATP is the energy source it depends upon.”

The brain uses about 20% of the body’s total energy which is more than any other organ in the body including the heart. This means it also requires a large amount of ATP. 

Whenever attention is paid on performance of mental activity the brain starts consuming ATP and converting it to ADP and sometimes sleep becomes an unavoidable medium for its retrieval.

This explains how the drivers fall asleep while driving for long durations on a long straight road or students while reading for a longer time. Whether one is aware of these complexities or not our body automatically takes care of these jobs and we stay healthy and fresh.

However, in the last century, especially in the last couple of decades many of our habits and lifestyle scenarios have changed and some of these changes have been so rapid that our bodies are unable to cope up with them. Improper breathing can be associated[5] with many of the physical as well as mental disorders we are suffering from today but as nature offers symmetry, breathing could also be a potential treatment to many such ailments. We shall discuss all this in the next unit.


[1] Of course this is an average.

[2] For this reason, Sanskrit uses the same word ‘prana’ to indicate breath and life both. Something alive has to breathe and something that is breathing must be alive. we tend to ignore this but plants and microorganisms also breathe.

[3] This is a theoretical value. Actual aerobic respiration might not be 15 times as effective as Anaerobic but it is pretty effective.

[4] This is a little oversimplification for the purposes of keeping the emphasis on the topic.

[5] Chronic stress, migraines, back and shoulder pain, anxiety, PTSD, High Blood Pressure, Diabetes, Cholesterol, etc.

[6] Dr Barry Sears PhD is an American biochemist and best-selling author best-known for creating and promoting the Zone diet. Dr Sarah  Myhill M.D. has co-authored 3 medical papers on CFS and mitochondrial dysfunction, she’s also authored several books on Diabetes, Chronic Fatigue etc.

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