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How High Temps Challenge Our Breathing (and things we can do to help)

How High Temps Challenge Our Breathing (and things we can do to help)

Nick Heath, PhD Nick Heath, PhD
5 minute read

The dog days of summer are among us, and for several regions of the country, the heat makes being outside unenjoyable. Extreme temperatures can affect the body in several ways, from dehydration and electrolyte imbalance to heat exhaustion and trouble breathing. The high temperatures are associated with greater levels of pollution which can cause or exacerbate breathing problems.

It's essential to understand these factors to take steps to breathe better. So, let's explore ways to keep our breathing safe in the heat.

The Basic Impact of Heat on Our Body and Breathing

Heat is an external stressor that can create problems for the body. In the moments when you're getting overheated, the body increases the heart rate to enhance blood flow to the skin as a way to stay cool.

The body activates the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) branch of the autonomic nervous system to increase heart rate, but it also affects the breathing rate. That's why the body's response to heat can feel similar to cardiovascular exercise and explains why your breathing may feel more labored, even if you are not actually working out.

The effect on your body doesn't stop there; heat can also have negative emotional impacts. Research now shows that breathing and emotions are a two-way street. If you feel stressed, your breathing will get faster; however, if your breathing gets faster, this can also make you feel stressed.

This means the increased breathing rate that accompanies the heat will also make you feel emotionally drained: Heat stress causes fast breathing, which causes emotional distress, which further exacerbates breathing difficulties. It's no wonder hot weather can make us feel so depleted sometimes.

Heat, Dehydration, and Breathing Difficulties

In hot environments, our bodies sweat more to cool off. Although this natural response is extremely beneficial, we also lose vital electrolytes like sodium and potassium when we sweat. This response can lead to mineral imbalances if it persists for too long or is not accompanied by proper rehydration.

What does this have to do with breathing?

As mentioned in the previous section, we also tend to breathe faster in the heat. This pattern offloads excess carbon dioxide, which increases blood pH, and can cause electrolytes to act differently in our bodies. Specifically, when we over breathe and increase pH, electrolytes migrate into cells rather than stay in the fluid outside them.

Altogether, we see that the heat causes us to sweat and over breathe. Not only do these effects reduce electrolyte concentrations, but they can reduce the availability of electrolytes to perform their primary function. And the net result can be frequent muscle spasms, nerve functioning issues, and fatigue.

High Temperatures Are Associated with Worse Air Quality

Pollution is generally worse in the spring and summer, from higher levels of pollen to particulate matter and ozone. These pollutants can cause or exacerbate breathing problems by irritating the airways and lungs.

Moreover, extremely high temperatures are generally associated with stagnant conditions (low wind speeds). Aside from the brutal heat, air pollutants can accumulate, further increasing the likelihood of breathing problems.

Things We Can Do to Help Our Breathing in the Heat

There are things you can do to protect yourself from these adverse effects. The obvious ones are to stay inside when you can, stay hydrated, and ensure you are taking any medications your doctor recommends.

But here are a few you may not have considered that might be helpful:

Breathe Through Your Nose

Breathing through your nose will help you reduce your breathing volume naturally, thus reducing the risk of over-breathing in the heat. Moreover, by exhaling through your nose, you retain more than 40% more moisture than exhaling through the mouth, which will help with hydration.

Breathing Breaks While Inside

When you get into a cool place, take a few minutes for a breathing reset. Breathe in for a count of 4 and breathe out for a count of 6. A few minutes of this slow, mindful breathing will activate the relaxation response. This will help you combat the stress from the heat and help you return to baseline quicker once inside.

Check Local Air Quality

Use a local weather agency, or a website such as Breezometer, to stay up-to-date on your local air quality conditions. This information can help you decide whether to go outside and help you determine how much time you spend there.

Consider Taking a Probiotic

Your gut bacteria play a role in the health of other organs, including your lungs. The lungs and gut are connected through the gut-lung axis, and adding a probiotic supplement to the mix that can specifically target the gut-lung axis could provide several health benefits. resB Lung Support is a great holistic option. You can learn more at www.resbiotic.com.

With this information and these tools, we hope you can breathe a little easier this summer.


About the Author

Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.

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