Does the breath you take have a favorite season? Mine seems to, and that season is usually fall.
The air has turned. I felt its slight shift when I walked outside this morning. It’s cooler—not cold maybe, not even brisk—but a much welcome change from the oppressive heat of summer in Los Angeles, which almost always climaxes in a volcano of extreme temperature and humidity during the month of September. But it’s now October, and fall is finally here. The days are getting shorter, but the sun shines warm, vivid and clear, not glaring, bright without blinding.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, in which people become more depressed during months when there is less light has been well documented. But just as your moods are affected by seasons, so are your lungs.
Sitting at coffee, my friend tells me he also likes the change of season. “I’m breathing in fall,” he says. “I feel like I’m in the mountains, like I’m skiing!” We both inhale consciously and deeply, with so much pleasure and surprisingly with ease. In Los Angeles, a city ranked once more this year as the nation’s smoggiest, fall brings respite as the mysterious and warm Santa Ana winds blow in from the east. These winds push away the low clouds and inversion layers that hold in pollution, leaving the sky clean and bright blue.
Early in the fall, air conditioners allay and the heaters of winter sit idle. At home, I open a window and let fall whisper and exhale her clean, cool breath into my living room. But while I may favor the 3,000 gallons of air that I breathe in every day of the fall, more than that same number in other seasons, others find it less agreeable.
The inhalations and respiratory systems of asthma and allergy sufferers meet dry fall winds filled with pollen, which can exacerbate hay fever, and molds from falling and decaying leaves, which can cause sneezing, coughing, and wheezing.
As fall moves into winter, unfortunately what comes next ‘tis the season for cold and dry air. Even when you bundle yourself head to toe, the large surface area of your lungs remains exposed directly to the cold winter air you breathe in.
I don’t have asthma, but when I exercise in the cold, it’s harder for me to breathe. Whether I’m jogging or cycling, when I inhale rapid and deep respirations of cold air, I get a strong burning sensation in my lungs. My body responds by producing more mucus, which then makes me cough. I can pull up the front of my jacket over my mouth in order to hold in some of the air’s moisture and to warm it.
Breathing cold air during exercise can even be dangerous. Because very cold air can cause uneven oxygen distribution throughout your heart, the heart has to work harder. This may be part of the reason research shows a higher incidence of cardiac events in the winter than in any other season.
When you breathe normally, air is inhaled through your windpipe, which then becomes two large tubes called bronchi extending into each of your lungs. The bronchi divide into many smaller branches of the lung (bronchioles) and finally extend to up to 500 million tiny grape-like sacs called alveoli in each lung where the oxygen is absorbed from your breath and carbon dioxide is released. If breathing cold air has a drying effect and makes breathing harder for many of us, it especially does so in people with asthma. Asthma causes the lining of the airways to become inflamed and sensitive, which then causes them to narrow resulting in wheezing or shortness of breath. Asthmatics exposed to cold air commonly have bronchospasms, making it more difficult to get air both in or out of their lungs. And just to make respiratory matters worse, winter usually means cold and flu season as well.
When spring finally has sprung, the flowers bloom and the grass grows, but many of us are left breathless. Springtime is a very challenging season for those who suffer seasonal allergies from a wide range of grasses and weeds and pollens, all of which are carried by the wind and can be easily breathed into the respiratory system. The relentless symptoms include itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, and lots and lots of sneezing. All of these can make breathing more difficult and create the feeling of not getting enough air into the lungs.
Additionally, spring showers bring changes in barometric pressure that also affect breathing. When a storm front passes, the pressure drops, which leaves less oxygen available in the air, similar to the effect of decreased oxygen levels at altitude. Even small changes in pressure can leave you feeling short of breath. Studies have also shown a correlation between spring storms and increased problems with asthma, related possibly to downdrafts of cold air and strong winds that bring up more allergens.
It is often only the summer season that brings relief to sufferers of spring allergies, but as some pollen levels decrease others rise, and new allergens emerge.. Poor air quality and smog can also trigger asthma symptoms and make breathing generally more difficult.
The extreme heat of summer can stress the entire body, including the breath. In an effort to maintain a constant body temperature, you will expend additional energy and oxygen to cool your body, which can create the sensation of shortness of breath. Summer also brings high humidity. As the amount of moisture in the air or humidity increases, the density of the air also increases. This dense air creates more resistance as it moves through the airway, making it more difficult to breathe. Air conditioning is a good way of filtering the air, and circulating fans help with humidity, but both can also make the air too dry and further contribute to breathing difficulties.
In the end, the nose knows what’s best for your breath. In any season, inhaling less through your nostrils is preferable. While you experience a nasal inhalation as a direct one-way suck of air up your nose and into your lungs, the air actually circulates. The arcs and ridges inside your nose are shaped to move the air around in circles and not a straight line. This way the air you breathe is humidified if it’s hot and dry or warmed if it’s cold. The hair in your nose serves as a first line of defense to trap dirt and bacteria, and farther back in your nasal cavity are the Cilia-microscopic hairs, which constantly wave back and forth to move harmful particles toward the back of the throat, where they collect in a glob of mucus that we swallow, sneeze, or blow out. A bit gross, but the breath’s best filter is on your face, not your lungs.
Ultimately, we can all breathe easy knowing the seasons are just that—temporary and always changing. Breathing trouble will come and go as the environment shifts and our triggers emerge and recede. Regardless of how easy or difficult, we should never take for granted the act of breathing and the vital spirit of oxygen that carries us across time, space and all seasons of life.
was introduced to breathing when she volunteered to support to women giving birth at the County Hospital in Oakland. Her second significant encounter with the breath was nearly a fatal one, when more than 20 years ago on a sunny beach in Southern California she got caught in a riptide and almost drowned. Her public health experience planning for pandemic flu and her many years practicing yoga continued to make the breath central in both her professional and personal life. She is currently writing a book about a book about it. Aizita lives and breathes in South Pasadena, California.