You know how sometimes you just feel like sighing? Nothing is really wrong. But you find yourself worrying that something may be wrong. You’re not facing any “emotional trauma” that you know of. It just happens; perhaps several times in a row, maybe really big sighs. Well, according to an article on the Science Alert website, a team of researchers believe they have found that the sigh is “actually a crucial reflex that keeps our lungs healthy,” and the reflex appears to be controlled by neurons that manufacture and release one of two neuropeptides.
Researchers, Mark Krasnow, from Stanford University School of Medicine and Jack Feldman from the University of California, Los Angeles, and their team found “two tiny clusters of neurons in the brain stem that automatically turn normal breaths into sighs when our lungs need some extra help – and they do this roughly every 5 minutes (or 12 times an hour), regardless of whether or not you’re thinking about something depressing.”
It’s as though we have different buttons to turn on different types of breath. For example, one may control regular breaths and one may control another, like a sigh, a yawn, or a cough, etc.
“A sigh is a deep breath, but not a voluntary deep breath. It starts out as a normal breath, but before you exhale, you take a second breath on top of it,” Feldman explained. “When alveoli collapse, they compromise the ability of the lung to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. The only way to pop them open again is to sigh, which brings in twice the volume of a normal breath. If you don’t sigh every 5 minutes of so, the alveoli will slowly collapse, causing lung failure.”
The research team studied the process in lab mice and, of course, more research will be required to see if the same “pathway” occurs in humans, but they feel “the similarities in the mouse and human systems” are leading them in the right direction. For people who suffer conditions that stop them from breathing deeply or for those who sigh so often that it becomes debilitating, the scientists feel it may be possible to to offer relief once they work out how the process is regulated.
As for emotional sighing, there is still the question of whether it works in the same way.
“There is certainly a component of sighing that relates to an emotional state. When you are stressed, for example, you sigh more,” Feldman said. “It may be that neurons in the brain areas that process emotion are triggering the release of the sigh neuropeptides — but we don’t know that.”
So, don’t fear the sigh – Sigh on! It’s good for you!
Jan is a singer, a songwriter, a licensed body worker specializing in CranioSacral Therapy, and a teacher. She is an advocate for the ethical treatment of ALL animals and a volunteer with several animal advocacy organizations. She is also a staunch believer in the need to promote environmental responsibility.
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