How our body works, Part 2- the respiratory system
By Penelope A. Domogo, MD
This is the second of a series of discussions on how our body works. As we mentioned last week, we need to know how our body works so that we will know how to take care of it. Right? Right. Unlike gadgets which come with a manual so that we know how to operate it and how to take care of it, a newborn baby does not come with a manual on how parents should take care of her or him and how he or she will take care of herself as s/he grows into old age. Fortunately, humans have been around for many centuries thus we have accumulated enough body of knowledge regarding how creatures survive and function. By “creatures”, I refer to visible ones like humans and invisible ones like the bacteria.
We, humans, need to take care of our body, that’s for sure. When I say “our body”, I mean our whole self- body, mind and spirit. As we have been saying in the past, our physical body is not separate from our mind, emotions and spirit. Our body does not automatically take care of itself. God gives us choices on how to take care or how to treat our body. So as we discuss the different parts of our body, we see how our choices will affect our health. Last week we discussed the digestive system, how it is designed so wonderfully to process and absorb our food and eliminate the roughage. For this digestive system, the major choice that God gives us is in the selection of what we put in our mouth and what we put in our children’s mouths. The decisions we make here will spell the difference between health and disease, not only for the digestive system but for our whole body.
This week, we will discuss the respiratory system which processes the air we breathe and eliminates the gaseous waste. Aside from good food, oxygen is vital to our survival. A few minutes without oxygen and the brain dies. The air around us which we breathe is not pure oxygen. Of course, when you are in the central business district of Baguio City, you know you are breathing polluted air. But even if you are in remotest barrio if people are burning garbage, you are still breathing polluted air. Let’s list what we cannot see in the air – there are poisonous gases like carbon dioxide (from the motor vehicle exhaust and also from burning), carbon monoxide (from vehicle exhaust and burning), dioxin (from burning plastics) and many others released to the air by burning our garbage, by motor vehicles and by industries and decomposing matter. Add to these are dust from soil, cement, papers, clothes and plastics. So be careful with biodegradable plastics- they are still plastic. There are also pollen, bacteria, viruses, and a lot of other particles in the air. Our body surely needs a system which can filter the air and let oxygen in. Can you imagine what kind of a machinery is that? That will only let oxygen in? Ming-boggling.
At the same time, this machinery needs to remove from our bodies the gas named CARBON DIOXIDE and other gaseous metabolic wastes. If these gases are not eliminated, we will be poisoned.
Our Creator made the respiratory system for these two major functions – 1) let OXYGEN in from the external environment into the blood and 2) concomitant removal of CARBON DIOXIDE and other metabolic wastes from the blood out into the environment. What it does is actually a gas exchange. So we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. You cannot just inhale and inhale. You also have to breathe out or exhale. This is the principle of rhythm. Because this is so vital a function, breathing is automatic- even if you want to stop breathing, you can’t. Give it a try.
When you inhale, the air enters through the nose, passes through the nasal passages (where it is humidified and warmed up), pharynx and larynx (these 3 comprise the upper respiratory tract), down the trachea, bronchi and air sacs (these 3 comprise the lower respiratory tract). The exhaled air, which is composed of “waste” air follows the same path in reverse. Gas exchange occurs in the air sacs, also called alveoli.
Unlike the digestive system where the entrance of food (mouth) is different from the exit of wastes (anus), the respiratory system has the same entrance and exit of gases. That’s why for every breathe in (inhalation), there is a breathe out (exhalation). You need to breathe properly and this is a choice.
Mucus membranes line the nose, the sinuses and down to the lungs. Mucus contains enzymes, antibodies, and salts, all of which protect the cells in these parts. They also trap dust, pollutants, pollens, germs or anything it recognizes as foreign. So after a day in Magsaysay Avenue or in Manila, you will get blackened mucus. Mucus prevents our airways from drying up.
Mucus secretion then is a natural defense mechanism. Normally there is thin and clear mucus in your nose and throat and these are swallowed unconsciously. Tears are part of the nasal mucus.
There are also hollow, air-filled cavities in the head near the nose – these are called sinuses and they warm and humidifies the air as it passes by. Try breathing through your mouth. It will dry up because the air is not humidified. If your throat is dry when you wake up then you snored (or slept with your mouth open).
In the trachea or windpipe (where Adam’s apple is), there are cilia. Cilia are tiny motile tail-like projections which sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs. However, if the air you breathe is so polluted like cigarette smoke and Manila air, these natural protective mechanisms of our body will be overwhelmed and disease can set in.
Whatever has passed through the whole stretch of protective and defensive forces of the respiratory system will reach the dead end of the lungs – the AIR SACS- where oxygen is then exchanged for carbon dioxide.
Aside from normal elimination of gaseous wastes from the body, the respiratory system also provides for elimination of excessive mucus production (plemas). What would happen if excessive mucus plugs your nose? Well, at least you can still breathe through your mouth. What if you have a lot of mucus in the large airways like the bronchi? How about when mucus fills the air sacs of your lungs? How will oxygen get in and waste gases get out? The Creator designed the respiratory system to remedy this – by installing the cough reflex. A most important protective reflex – coughing (including sneezing) is an unconscious natural reaction of the body to clear the airways from excess secretions, irritants, foreign particles and microbes. Coughing is a warning that your lungs are in danger. You don’t see the mucus or irritant in your lungs but there are natural sensors all along the airway to tip your body to cough the enemy out. Amazing! It is best, then, not to take medicines to suppress the cough (anti-tussive) or dry the mucus as this will hamper your body’s cleaning action. Get to the root cause and get rid of it.
Mucus in the large airways can be loosened and cleaned out by coughing but once it surrounds the sacs, it becomes more difficult to dislodge it. One theory is that air pollutants like cigarette smoke or vehicle exhaust, smoke from burning plastics, etc. that are inhaled will be trapped in this sticky environment and stay for many years possibly triggering the development of lung cancer. Now, why is there excessive mucus?
The famous Michio Kushi in his book “Natural Healing Through Macrobiotics” says that “lung mucus is caused by foods such as dairy products, sugar, fruits and saturated fats.” Dairy products are milk, chocolates, cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter/margarine. Bread and cookies usually contain dairy, sugar and saturated fat. Read the labels. Carefully observe yourself and your family. Next time you or your child get colds or develops cough, think of what you have been eating or what you have fed your child for the past months, not just days. If you did not eat or drink any of those mentioned above, could there be an irritant in your surroundings like cigarette smoke or burning garbage? Or are you taking medicines like ACE inhibitors (to lower high blood pressure) that make you cough? These are where choices come in.
Disease in any part of the body is not just a matter of germs or pollutants but also of body resistance. It is within our power to strengthen our respiratory system – by our lifestyle- by the food choices we make and by keeping our air clean. Beans, whether fresh or dried, strengthen our lungs. We keep our air clean by not burning garbage and by keeping our vehicles in good condition so they won’t belch poison and by minimizing consumption of anything.
“But who am I and who are my people that we should be able to offer as generously as this? For all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You.” 1Corinthians 29:14