kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

Breathing is interesting in that it’s both a voluntary and an involuntary process. When you focus deliberately on breathing, it is a proven tool for healing and wellbeing. Breathing wields incredible power over your health, as it supplies your body with oxygen and removes excess carbon dioxide (CO2) to keep you alive. However, the way you breathe, whether fast or slow, shallow or deep, also sends messages to your body that affect your mood, stress level, blood pressure, immune function and more.

“Conscious breathing can change your physiological state,” explains certified meditation teacher Natalie Bell, with the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. “When we feel stress, our heart rate may increase, our breathing may get shallow, blood pressure can rise, and we might go into fight, flight or freeze mode. We can actively shift that response by using slow deep breaths and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.”

The parasympathetic nervous system slows the heart rate, is active during digestion, and helps bring equilibrium to the body. It is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system.

The most basic of all breathing techniques is to make sure you’re always breathing through your nose. Mouth breathing tends to promote hyperventilation, which actually decreases tissue oxygenation and it diminishes levels of CO2 in your body. This causes a decreased ability to filter toxic pollutants from the air.

Your body needs a balance of oxygen and CO2 for optimal function.

CO2 is not just a waste product but has actual biological roles, one of which is assisting in oxygen utilization. When your CO2 level is too low, changes in your blood pH impair your hemoglobin’s ability to release oxygen to your cells.

Mouth breathing can also elevate your heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes resulting in fatigue and dizziness. The elasticity of your lungs also depends on nasal resistance, which you only get from nasal breathing due to the smaller diameter of your nasal passages. Poor breathing is even associated with poor posture.

Huffing and puffing through your mouth may be tempting during physical exertion, but it is better to avoid this tendency. You should be exercising only to the extent that you can continue breathing through your nose the vast majority of the time.

Back off slightly on intensity. This will only be temporary as your body will begin to adjust to your slightly increased CO2 levels quickly. The rule of thumb is to not push yourself to the point where you are unable to maintain nasal breathing. If you feel the need to open your mouth, then slow down and recover. This helps your body to gradually develop a tolerance for increased CO2.

While “breathe less” might sound like a terrible recommendation, most people chronically over breathe, meaning they breathe more than is needed, which depletes their carbon dioxide reserves. Typical characteristics of over breathing include mouth breathing, upper chest breathing, sighing, noticeable breathing during rest, and taking large breaths prior to talking.

Clinical trials involving asthmatics show they breathe between 10 to 15 liters of air per minute and people with chronic heart disease tend to breathe between 15 to 18 liters of air per minute. On the other hand, normal breathing volume is between 4 and 7 liters of air per minute, which translates into 12 to 14 breaths.

This suggests breathing less is a sign of better health. Conversely, the more you breathe, the more likely you are to experience significant health problems. If you are breathing through your mouth during the day, odds are you’re also doing so at night, which can lead to health problems such as dehydration, snoring and sleep apnea. Mouth breathing is associated with several other health problems, including:

  • Bronchial asthma and exercise-induced asthma – In one study, young asthma patients had virtually no exercise-induced asthma after exercising while breathing through their noses. However, they did experience moderate bronchial constriction after exercising while mouth breathing.
  • Abnormal facial development – Children who breathe through their mouths tend to develop longer faces with altered jaw structures.
  • Poor oral hygiene – Loss of moisture dries out your saliva and contributes to poor oral hygiene; dehydration causes your airways to constrict and makes nose breathing even more difficult, creating a vicious cycle.
  • Reduced oxygen delivery to your heart, brain and other tissues due to constricted arterial blood flow.
  • Crooked teeth, poor concentration, allergies, poor sports performance and ADHD have also been linked with mouth breathing.

The trick to minimize these problems is to breathe more lightly, and this happens automatically when you shift from breathing through your mouth to your nose. Remember, the deeper and more quickly you breathe, the more constricted your blood vessels will be and the less oxygen will be delivered to your tissues.

Breathing through the nose, on the other hand, slows down and regularizes your breathing, thereby improving oxygenation. Nasal breathing also has a calming effect because it activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

In the 4-7-8 exercise developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, for example, your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.

Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which induces the relaxation response. There are many different breathing practices that will accomplish this, but the following is both powerful and easy to perform.

  1. Sit up straight.
  2. Place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process.
  3. Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of four.
  4. Hold your breath to the count of seven.
  5. Exhale through your mouth to the count of eight, making an audible “whoosh” sound.
  6. That completes one full breath. Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of four breaths.

You can do this 4-7-8 exercise as frequently as you want throughout the day, but it’s recommended you don’t do more than four full breaths during the first month or so of practice. Later you may work your way up to eight full breath cycles at a time. The benefits of this simple practice are enormous and work as a natural tranquilizer for your nervous system.

Fennel

Fennel plants are green and white, with feathery leaves and yellow flowers. It has a licorice-like flavor and many health benefits. For centuries, practitioners have used fennel in natural remedies.

Fennel can grow almost anywhere. All parts of the fennel plant, including the bulb, stalk, leaves, and seeds, are edible.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database, one raw fennel bulb weighing contains:

  • 73 calories
  • 0.47 g of fat
  • 2.9 g of protein
  • 17 g of carbohydrate
  • 7.3 g of dietary fiber – Fiber decreases the risk of heart disease as it helps reduce the total amount of cholesterol in the blood.The fiber content in fennel helps to prevent constipation and promotes regularity for a healthy digestive tract.
  • no cholesterol

A cup of fennel also provides:

  • 360 milligrams (mg) of potassium
  • 45 mg of sodium
  • 838 international units (IU) of vitamin A
  • 43 mg of calcium
  • 10.4 mg of vitamin C  – Raw fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C. Vitamin C is essential to collagen, the support system of the skin, and also works as an antioxidant to help prevent damage caused by the sun, pollution, and smoke. Vitamin C also promotes the ability of collagen to smooth wrinkles and improve the overall texture of the skin.
  • 0.64 mg of iron
  • 0.041 mg of vitamin B-6 – Vitamin B-6 and folate prevent the build-up of a compound called homocysteine by converting it into a different compound, methionine. When excessive amounts of homocysteine build up, it can damage blood vessels and lead to heart problems.
  • 15 mg of magnesium

Fennel also contains:

  • phosphorous
  • zinc
  • copper
  • manganese – Both the bulb and seeds contain the mineral manganese, which is important for enzyme activation, metabolism, cellular protection, bone development, blood sugar regulation, and wound healing.
  • selenium – Selenium is a mineral in fennel but not most other fruits and vegetables (as it is primarily found in Brazil nuts and animal proteins). It contributes to liver enzyme function and helps detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body. Selenium can also prevent inflammation and decrease tumor growth rates. The selenium found in fennel appears to stimulate production of killer T-cells. This suggests that it can improve the immune response to infection.
  • niacin
  • pantothenic acid
  • folate – Plays a role in DNA synthesis and repair. This might help prevent cancer cells from forming because of mutations in the DNA.
  • choline – Choline is a very important and versatile nutrient in fennel that helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning, and memory.
  • beta-carotene
  • lutein
  • zeaxanthin
  • vitamin E
  • vitamin K
  • Estrogen – Fennel is a natural source of estrogen. Estrogen plays a central role in regulating the female reproductive cycle, and it can also determine fertility. Menopausal women have lower estrogen levels which are associated with more abdominal weight gain. Some research has suggested that fennel extract may reduce the effects of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
  • Phosphate and calcium are both important in bone structure.
  • Iron and zinc are crucial for the production and maturation of collagen. Pairing high-vitamin-C foods, such as fennel, with iron-rich foods can improve the ability of the body to absorb iron.
  • Bone formation requires the mineral manganese.
  • Low intakes of vitamin K have been associated with a higher risk for bone fracture.
  • The nitrates in fennel can help moderate blood pressure – Nitrates have vasodilatory and vasoprotective properties. Because of this, they help lower blood pressure and protect the heart.

The fiber, potassium, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, and phytonutrient content in fennel, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support heart health.

Perhaps the most impressive benefits of fennel and fennel seeds come from the antioxidants and potent plant compounds they contain. Essential oil of the plant has been shown to contain more than 87 volatile compounds, including the polyphenol antioxidants rosmarinic acid, chlorogenic acid, quercetin, and apigenin.

There are over 28 compounds have been identified in fennel seeds, including anethole, fenchone, methyl chavicol, and limonene.

Animal and test-tube studies note that the organic compound anethole has anticancer, antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. The plant compound limonene helps combat free radicals and has been shown to protect rat cells from damage caused by certain chronic diseases.

Fennel seeds may curb appetite.

A study in 9 healthy women demonstrated that those who drank 8.5 ounces of tea made with 2 grams of fennel seeds before eating lunch felt significantly less hungry and consumed fewer calories during the meal than those who drank a placebo tea. Anethole, a major component of fennel essential oil, may be behind the appetite-suppressing qualities of the plant.

Fennel has been shown to have galactogenic properties, meaning it helps increase milk secretion. Research suggests that specific substances found in anethole, such as dianethole and photoanethole, are responsible for the galactogenic effects of the plant.

Fennel may increase milk secretion and blood levels of prolactin, a hormone that signals the body to produce breast milk.

Though fennel and its seeds are likely safe when eaten in moderation, there are some safety concerns over more concentrated sources of fennel, such as extracts and supplements. Due to its estrogen-like activity, there is concern over the plant’s potential teratogenicity, the potential to disturb fetal growth and development. A study that evaluated the teratogenicity of fennel essential oil showed that high doses may have toxic effects on fetal cells.

Although eating fennel and its seeds is likely safe, pregnant women should avoid taking supplements or ingesting the essential oil of this plant.

Fennel may also interact with certain medications, including estrogen pills and certain cancer medications, so always consult your healthcare provider before using high doses in supplement, essential oil, or extract form.

How to Buy

When buying fennel, avoid spotted or bruised bulbs and look for firmness and a white or pale green color. Stalks should be green, and leaves should be straight and bundled together. A fennel plant with flowering buds is overripe.

How to Store

Fennel will stay fresh in the refrigerator for about 4 days. Eat fennel right after purchase. It will lose its flavor over time.

Dried fennel seeds can last for about 6 months in an airtight container or a cool, dry area.

How to Cook

To prepare fennel, cut the stalks off the bulb at the base where they sprout and slice the bulb vertically. Prepare the fennel leaves, stalks, and bulb in a variety of ways, including:

  • using the stalks as a soup base or stock
  • sautéing the leaves and stalks with onions for a quick and easy side
  • mixing sliced fennel with a variety of your favorite fresh vegetables for a light, crisp salad
  • serving roasted fennel bulbs as an entrée

Pasta with Fennel Pesto

Vaishali recipe and photo credit

4 Servings

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound gluten-free pasta (I like Tinkyada brown rice pasta. You can use any small-shaped pasta here.) Cook according to package directions and drain.

For the roasted vegetables:

  • 1 fennel bulb, cut off the leaves and set aside for the pesto
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 sweet onion
  • Dice all the vegetables into 1- inch chunks and place in a baking dish.

Add:

  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • Roast the vegetables in a 400-degree oven, stirring a couple of times during cooking, until they are fork-tender and coated with a balsamic glaze. This will take 35 minutes.

For the pesto:

  • Leaves reserved from the fennel bulb, chopped into smaller pieces
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (optional, but great both nutritionally and for that cheesy flavor
  • 1/4 cup lightly toasted pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Salt to taste

Instructions

  • Cook the pasta as instructed on the package
  • Place all the ingredients for the pesto in a food processor (except the olive oil) and process until coarsely powdered. With the motor running, pour in the olive oil until you have an even paste.
  • Place the pasta, roasted veggies and the pesto in a bowl.

    • Mix well and serve immediately.
    • For an even more fennel-y flavor, add 1 tsp lightly toasted fennel seeds to the pesto
Optional:
  • 1/4 cup chopped, toasted walnuts

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