Weird, wacky and wonderful: sighing

Ana Beretsos investigates the sigh-ence (get it?!) of the respiratory system and how it actually benefits our lungs

9th March 2016

Has anyone ever told you off for being rude when a small sigh is let out? Or did someone think you were really upset? Maybe we now have the information to allow yourself to keep your title of ‘having an answer for everything’.

It turns out that sighing is actually a crucial reflex to keep our lungs healthy.

UCLA’s Jack Feldman explains that “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.” It is thought to re-inflate collapsed alveoli, that compromise gaseous exchange in the lungs. Alveoli are tiny sacs in the lung that interact with the blood stream to allow oxygen in to the blood and remove carbon dioxide from it. The sigh, pops the alveoli open to keep us breathing right.

According to Feldman, we sigh roughly every five minutes (or 12 times an hour). This can even be seen by yourself at home, if you lie in a quiet room and pay attention to your breathing. After five minutes or so, you should recognise an inhalation that is shortly followed by another before the chance to exhale the first.

“the Journal of Biological Psychology... have termed a sigh as “the general re-setter of the respiratory system”

The basic neuroscience is still trying to be understood, however, UCLA and Stanford are collaborating and have found a cluster of neurones in the brain stem that are thought to turn normal breaths to sighs by controlling the breathing muscles.

Elke Vlemincx from the Journal of Biological Psychology found that respiratory dynamics are different before and after a sigh, and so have termed a sigh as “the general re-setter of the respiratory system”.

We may have the physiological answers for you on why we sigh, however, the reasons behind emotional sighing is still a mystery. It could have a different mechanism all together. Feldman also found that when someone is stressed, they sigh more. So they are asking the question to whether the brain neurones trigger a similar activation of neuropeptides, when feeling depressed or sad.

A breakthrough for sigh-ence right?!

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