I wanted to share a few thoughts I had about breathing through COVID. Everybody is going to experience it differently and this is in no way meant as definitive. It’s just a collection of observations I made when I had the illness.
1/ Try to breathe through your nose.
The first symptom I had was a really dry cough sitting at the top of my lungs. Then I felt really tired. And then I got snotty. I don’t think everyone gets this but this observation would apply to a cold or flu equally. The temptation was to start breathing through my mouth. It would have been much easier than blowing my nose every five minutes.
But having studied with Patrick McKeown last year I knew the importance of keeping my carbon dioxide levels up. Once you start breathing through the mouth, the breath is less controlled. The airway through your mouth is also much wider and consequently you will dump much more carbon dioxide. Mouth breathing also leads to less efficient breathing and faster breathing.
As well as facilitating greater oxygenation of the body (Bohr effect), carbon dioxide is also a vaso-dilator – it keeps your airways open. Since COVID is primarily a virus that affects the lungs, I was pretty obsessed with maintaining my carbon dioxide levels and keeping my airways open. I even taped my mouth shut at night to force my nose to stay open and avoid dumping CO2 through snoring.
2/ Buy a pulse oxymeter
Again, thank you Patrick McKeown – I bought a couple of pulse oxymeters last year for the Oxygen Advantage training. So I was able to keep track of Alex’s and my oxygen saturation levels. Being a yoga dork, I meditated with one on to try to maintain oxygen levels at 99%. You can pick them up from Amazon for under £20 and for peace of mind, they’re a great investment.
3/ Get really quiet
My energy levels throughout were up and down. Some days I was exhausted, other days I had normal levels of energy. But I chose to get really quiet. Mostly I sat and read. I did a lot of Yin Yoga to keep my lungs, ribs and fascia stretched out. And I meditated and worked with my breath as much as possible. Again, this was a strategy to preserve carbon dioxide levels. Rigorous exercise and even talking a lot can result in depleted CO2. For the first few days after I tested positive, I even work a mask for much of the time as we weren’t sure if Alex had it. And for all the objections to masks, they keep CO2 levels up (if you breathe through the nose) and force you to breathe softly.
4/ Breathe deep
Avoid the temptation to breathe into the upper chest. Keep breathing into the lower lungs – place your hands on your lower ribs and make sure they flare out to the sides as you breathe in. As well as maintaining a more efficient breath, this will also stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce inflammation and stabilise the immune system response.
5/ Change position
Breathe in a range of positions. I used Yin postures to help with this. I found breathing in childs pose, sphinx, and folded butterfly to be really helpful. I also lay over a bolster (under the mid back and sides) to open up the ribs. I also found it really useful to hold my arms overhead – it forced me to breathe really deeply.
6/ Don’t underestimate breath in your recovery.
My BOLT score (very roughly, the amount of time you can hold the breath OUT of the body) dropped to 10 seconds. It’s usually 28+. And that’s with all the work I did when I was unwell. This is an indication of how much my carbon dioxide tolerance had dropped. When our body can’t handle normal levels of CO2, oxygen going into the body is not as efficiently taken up. And if our body receives less oxygen then not only can we feel breathless, but our energy levels drop and we can find it difficult to concentrate.
Low BOLT scores are really common in people suffering with long COVID. As part of your recovery, as well as rest and good nutrition, focus on getting your breathing right. Start with little breath holds (breathe out, hold the breath out and pinch your nose. Count to 5 and then breathe normally for two breaths. Repeat for 3 to 5 minutes). And gradually build up to longer breath holds (after the exhale). Restore the quality of your breath to light, slow and deep.