In honor and recognition of the 365 days that have passed since I needed to take my high-powered anxiety attack meds (with many “huzzah!”s and much rejoicing), I thought I would elaborate to you the simple and yet highly complex function of breathing.

It is one of my traits that I require a context for everything, and so it was rational – for me, at least – to pooh-pooh the general suggestion of friends (and doctors) to “breathe” when I felt anxious, because they never gave me a reason.

What,” asked I, “could breathing possibly do to help solve this problem?”

Alas, I tell myself now, how foolish are the follies of the uneducated!

An Education for Breathing Organisms

Keeping it all in balance

Our bodies are designed to be in a state of homeostasis, that is, of balance. All particular systems are designed to operate within certain parameters; exceed those parameters, and the system cannot function properly.

Scientists have divulged a list of particular individual homeostases within the human body, from temperature to iron to “extracellular fluid”, whatever that is. Of particular interest to us is the complex regulations regarding blood composition, specifically acid-base homeostasis.

Like all substances, our blood can be measured by its acidity, or pH. The body can operate only within certain levels of acidity, and I shall not bore you with numbers, but let us just say they are rather specific.

The kidneys, those wonderful organs, in addition to all their other tasks maintain the acid-base homeostasis by regulating the pH of the blood. They do this by measuring the carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

Trees breathe it in, we breathe it out

Yes, in addition to being the famous greenhouse gas (second only to water vapor!), carbon dioxide is a byproduct of our cells’ fuel furnaces. Can you believe that even our cells pollute the bloodstream? In order to filter out these pollutants, we blow them out of our bodies through giant fans. (Ahem. Wikipedia informs me that our bodies perform a complex process that results in us exhaling the CO2 through the lungs. Which is what I said.)

Now, our kidneys test the levels of the CO2 to determine whether our cells are getting enough oxygen to burn fuel. They’re rather logical, actually. They figure that if the CO2 and O2 levels are normally balanced (according to the acid-base homeostasis), then a high CO2 level means a low O2 level. And, wouldn’t you know it, if the CO2 levels are low, the O2 levels must be high. Awesome!

If the levels are imbalanced, the kidneys then send signals to the nervous system, because it sets the giant lung-fan controls. The depth and frequency of breaths are set by this fabulous system (it’s centered in the brain stem, in case you were curious). Thus, imbalances are always being adjusted for.