Respiration as the cornerstone of good health

24 January 2018

Take a nice deep breath in, then breathe out again slowly. You may not realise it, but you’ve just done your body a big favour, as breathing is essential to your bodily functions.

Many diseases and health conditions affect our lungs and our breathing. These health conditions can be simple, like a blocked nose during the flu; serious, like bronchitis or lung infections; or lifelong conditions, like cystic fibrosis or COPD.

Breathing is a vital bodily function. We breathe in oxygen, which is used in cellular respiration, allowing the mitochondria in our cells to produce chemical energy to keep our cells – and our bodies – functioning. We breathe about 19,000 times a day, taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide with each breath. When you hold your breath, the carbon dioxide that you usually breathe out accumulates in your body, which is why you get a painful feeling in your chest. As the carbon dioxide builds up, it causes a burning sensation in your lungs.

Holding your breath, as long as you don’t push yourself past the limit, doesn’t have any lasting negative effects on your body, but it does show how being unable to breathe has immediate effects. Millions of people, however, suffer from conditions that restrict their ability to breathe, or even prevent them from breathing independently.

It might be difficult to imagine not being able to breathe, because most of us do it without even thinking. We are able to do this thanks to the autonomic nervous system, which a system in the brain that controls vital bodily functions. The autonomic nervous system constantly sends messages to the muscles around the lungs and between the ribs, forcing them to inflate and deflate the lungs every few seconds, allowing you to breathe.

One of the most common respiratory conditions is asthma. People with asthma have oversensitive airways and often have reactions to triggers such as dust mites, animal fur and smoking. The airways in the lungs can swell up in response to these triggers, causing them to become narrower and filled with thick mucus. This causes people with asthma to wheeze, cough and have trouble breathing.


Find out more about the respiratory system over at the ABPI.

To understand the limits of the respiratory system; explore the topic of asthma; and have some fun hunting down dust mites – check out the asthma and allergies resource.


  • What part of the cell is responsible for energy production?
  • Why does it hurt to hold your breath?
  • What are some diseases you know of that affect the respiratory system?


More articles like this are coming soon, so you can create quick, real-world links to your teaching.