Your Relationship With Your Lungs
Having considered Your Relationship With Your Heart we are ready to include the other half of the cardiopulmonary system, the lungs.
Working on cardiovascular health is incomplete until the place of the lungs is considered. The most rudimentary lung-like organ in the animal kingdom occurs as a bag of air in a certain lazy fish which controls his depth in the water without all the effort of swimming toward the top or swimming toward the bottom. By compressing this little bag of air he can sink, and by releasing the compression he can rise in the water — very convenient for dropping in on smaller fish for dinner.
Evolutionists believe that some of these fish developed the ability to breath with this bag and evolved into creatures similar to today’s lung fish, who, as adults, use only air for respiration: the exchange of O2 and CO2. They believe it was these primitive lungfish who evolved into amphibians and who are our ancestors. As an embryo you had structures that resembled gill slits, just like fish embyros. However, they all disappeared except for one, which became your ear canals.
To bring your lungs into your consciousness, it is very important to have an accurate visual image of them. Consult your encyclopedia for the appropriate diagram. We will now take up a discussion to begin to build that image. If you can arrange to see some color photographs of the lungs, or anatomical specimens of lung tissue, all the better. I suggest a library — even better a medical library or the pathology lab of your nearest medical school. Such labs have permanent displays of dissection specimens and usually are open to the public like a museum.
Your lungs are made of several million tiny sacs called "alveoli." The tubes leading from them are called "bronchioles." They lead to the larger bronchi, which lead in turn to the trachea: the pipe in the middle of your throat through which you breathe. Each tiny bronchiole serves 8-10 alveoli.
There is a thin, one-cell-thick layer of tissue holding all the lung structures together called the "pulmonary pleurae." The alveoli present a total surface area of several hundred square meters from which to absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. In the unsmoked, living condition, this tissue is a beautiful pink color. In appearance, the lungs are more alive than any other tissue. To gaze upon the living, healthy, breathing lung is an almost mystical experience — its beauty and vitality unspeakable.
The adult lungs can inhale from 3.3 to 4.9 liters (sometimes more depending on size) of air in one breath. This is called the "vital capacity." A healthy person’s vital capacity is twenty times what is needed for life in the resting state. That is to say you can destroy 95% of your vital capacity and still, conceivably, continue surviving on the remaining five percent. Realistically, however, you could not, in this condition, take a walk. That would call for more vital capacity than you would have.
Many people lead normal lives after the removal of one lung. The lungs are very elastic and the remaining lung simply expands to fill the chest cavity maintaining almost normal vital capacity.
Because the lungs, like the heart, are out of sight, we are tempted to abuse them. The lungs present such a large surface area that whatever you inhale into them has a good chance to enter the body through the pulmonary capillaries.
Smoking tobacco is, of course, the most common insult to the lungs. The reason nicotine can enter the body so easily through the lungs, despite the fact that it is a relatively large molecule, is that there are only two cell layers between the air you breathe and your blood. These are the cells of the alveoli and the cells of the pulmonary capillary next to them. Between these two layers of cells there is a potential space. Ordinarily, this space is not present because there is nothing to go into it; it is like one bag fitting snugly into another, slightly larger, bag.
When you smoke, while the nicotine disappears into the body, the carbon molecules from the cigarette simply are too large to enter the body. Carbon in smoke is arrange into dodecahedrons, also known as Bucky Balls, after Buckminster Fuller who first described the utility of the dodecahedron, a perfectly symmetrical 32-sided geometric shape. These carbon-constructed dodecahedrons have a very large molecular weight. They pass through the alveoli and become stuck between the two cell layers and there they remain for years.
The body tries to remove these little dodecahedrons by sending in macrophages — white blood cells that ordinarily scavenge for dead tissue. However, the carbon (also called "tar") is heavy and difficult to move, and many years are required to cleanse the lungs completely of all the carbon from even one cigarette.
To gaze directly upon a smoker’s lungs is the same experience as seeing a large bag of rotten garbage dumped on the altar of a beautiful cathedral. The accumulated tar gives the appearance of coal transplanted into the lungs. One cannot help but think "If only they knew…" This is the dilemma. The lungs and heart are out of sight and too often out of mind. If smokers had to wear the tar from their cigarettes on their faces for years after smoking, there would be considerably fewer smokers in the world.
The leading cause of death in Western countries is lung cancer. This is true for men and for women. The cause/effect relationship between smoking and lung cancer is no longer debated. It is. It exists. Even breathing the smoke from other people’s cigarettes (secondary smoke) is known to be carcinogenic: eight hours of second-hand smoke is equivalent to smoking twenty cigarettes. The relationship of smoking to the development of emphysema also is unquestionable.
Emphysema is the breakdown of the walls between individual alveoli, forming sacs of bubble-like tissue, which, at best, is useless for respiration and, at worst, will burst and cause air to enter directly into the chest cavity (pneumothorax) and threaten life.
Smokers who exercise, thinking they are protecting their lungs from smoke, delude themselves. There is no evidence that aerobic exercise benefits the lung tissue itself. The lung is a passive organ designed to serve the rest of the body on an as-needed basis. It does not become stronger with use. There are no muscle fibers in the lung to become stronger. The diaphragm, the muscle which drives the lungs, does become stronger with use; but more about that later.
Care of the lungs before they become diseased is primarily a matter of do nots rather than of dos. Do not smoke. Anything. Ever. If you smoke, stop, now. Avoid smoke from other people’s cigarettes. When you drive, drive with your windows up and without ventilation to the outside traffic. If you live close to a factory which belches smoke, move, now. Arrange to live in, or close to, the country or in a smaller town away from industrial areas, close to the ocean is ideal.
The importance of the aerobic habit cannot be over-stated. It is the one instance of over- consumption which is absolutely good for you. The more oxygen you move through your body, the greater will be your awareness of life and, ultimately, your consciousness of who you are.
Your relationship with your heart is your relationship with life. If you are fully committed to life, you are fully committed to your heart. There is no difference between these commitments; one is an important part of the other. The aerobic habit is created by doing aerobics. Each aerobic session you do further strengthens the aerobic habit.
Thinking about it does not get the job done. Like anything else which is a priority, it must be written into your schedule and then done when scheduled. Beginning is the most difficult step. After a certain number of aerobic sessions it will become as natural as eating, something you will hunger for if you do not do it. Believe it or not, it becomes fantastic fun.
What the body actually needs is rather simple: a twenty minute aerobic workout every other day. This amount every day, or much more, is no problem for the body, but the actual need, based on my experience, is twenty minutes every other day. I have such fun doing my workouts, I have a hard time holding it down to only that much.
The benefits of having a strong aerobic habit? Here are a few: the ability to think clearly and creatively, a strong sex life, courage under stress or in emergency situations, the experience of well-being, a body that tends to find its ideal weight without effort, rejuvenating sleep, and healthy appetite for food and for life itself. There are many more. I invite you to discover all of them by developing a strong aerobic habit. You don’t have enough time not to develop such a habit.
The form of the exercise is up to you and should be what you enjoy most. Swimming, bicycling and walking are possibilities. I recommend against regular running because of the cumulative damage done to the delicate tissues of the spine, particularly the lower back.
Before you begin an aerobic program, you should get a cardiovascular physical exam from a good doctor specializing in this area. When you have your doc’s okay, you are ready to begin. Do not overdo it. You should be able to hold a conversation while exercising and, if you cannot, you are going at it too hard. You can achieve just as much at a more sensible pace.
While conventional wisdom is not to exercise to the max, the benefits of exercise go up exponentially with degree of exertion, particularly the release of growth hormone from the pituitary, in response to anaerobic exercise, and the creation of new insulin receptor sites which accompanies increased lean muscle mass. Growth hormone and insulin receptor sites work long-lasting beneficial changes in the body.
On the other hand, you must stay in a safe zone, particularly if you have some degree of cardiovascular disease. Your doctor should be able to give you an answer to this question. The best choice would then be to work with an exercise physiologist to design the best possible workout for you, given your limitations if you have any.
You should be shooting to maintain a sustained heart rate in a certain range for twenty minutes every other day. You can determine this range with the following formula: 220 minus your age in years multiplied times 0.6 and 0.8. This first figure represents the rate you want to achieve or exceed. The second figure represents the rate you want not to exceed. For example, if you are forty years old, 220 minus 40 is 180. 180 x 0.6 = 108. 180 x 0.8 = 144. Therefore, if you are forty years old, you want to equal or exceed 108 heartbeats per minute during exercise but not exceed 144 heartbeats per minute.
For information about the heart, follow this hyperlink: Your Relationship With Your Heart.