Our respiratory system is responsible for taking in life-sustaining oxygen and distributing it throughout the body. But what you may not know is that this is just one of the many functions of the respiratory system. And although the lungs play a huge role, there are many other structures that make this system work to keep us alive and functioning.
Respiratory system structure
The respiratory system can be separated into the upper-respiratory tract and lower-respiratory tract. The upper-respiratory tract includes the nose, nasal cavity, pharynx, and larynx, while the lower-respiratory tract includes the trachea, bronchi, and lungs. Let’s take a closer look at each of these key structures from top to bottom.
The nose is made up of bone and cartilage that forms the nostrils. Air is inhaled through the nostrils and moves into the nasal cavity. The entrance of this cavity in the nose contains thick hairs called vibrissae, while the upper portion of the nose contains the olfactory bulb. This smell-sensing bulb is connected to the nervous system via olfactory nerves.
Moving past the upper part of the nose, the inner nasal cavity is lined with mucus-secreting glands and blood vessels called venous plexuses. The cavity is roughly the same height as the nose before tapering off into the area above the back of the throat known as the nasopharynx. While air can also pass through your oral cavity, or mouth, it passes more efficiently through the nasal cavity.1
In addition to the nasal cavity, this area of the respiratory system also consists of the paranasal sinuses. These air-filled, mucus-producing cavities open into the nasal cavity below.
The pharynx is a hollow tube in the neck that begins at the back of the nasal cavity and extends down to the larynx. Both air and food pass through this roughly 5-inch long structure before reaching the respiratory tract, or the digestive tract via the esophagus. Consisting of muscle lined with mucus membrane, the pharynx also contains the palatine and pharyngeal tonsils, which are important parts of the lymphatic system.
Below the pharynx in the throat area, the larynx is a roughly 2-inch long tube made up of cartilage and bone. Often referred to as the voice box, this structure contains the vocal cords and ligaments. It also contains a leaf-shaped flap called the epiglottis, which is open during breathing and closes when eating or drinking.
Also known as the windpipe, the trachea is an approximately 4- to 5-inch tube below the larynx. This structure is made up of several rings of cartilage as well as muscle and connective tissue. On the inside, the trachea contains mucous glands and respiratory epithelium. The trachea widens slightly when we breathe in and returns to its resting size when we breathe out.2
Below the trachea, the airway descends into the primary bronchi, which feed into each of the lungs. The structure of the primary bronchi is similar to that of the trachea. In contrast to the left bronchus, the right bronchus is larger and descends into the lung at a more vertical angle.3
Inside the lungs, the primary bronchi branch into secondary and tertiary bronchi, and then finally into bronchioles. After branching out into smaller and smaller tubes, the bronchioles reach the alveoli. These tiny air sacs are where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.
The right lung is larger than the left by volume and is divided into 3 lobes, each one being supplied by the secondary bronchi. The left lung has two lobes and an indentation called the cardiac notch. Each lung is surrounded by a double-layered membrane called the pleura. Below the lung, the diaphragm is a muscle that allows the lungs to move air in and out.
Respiratory system function
A primary function of the respiratory system is inhalation and exhalation, or breathing. Air is inhaled through the structures of the respiratory system as outlined above, and is then exhaled through the same structures in reverse. The normal breathing rate of an adult at rest is 12-20 breaths (inhalations and exhalations) per minute.4 In addition to contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm and thorax, air pressure within the lungs and atmospheric pressure outside the body make breathing possible.5
Another core function related to breathing is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the body. Oxygen is inhaled through the air we breathe and is an essential fuel for our cells. When it reaches the lungs, it passes from the air into the blood stream via the alveoli and pulmonary capillaries. The oxygenated blood is distributed throughout the body. On the flip side, carbon dioxide—a waste product of cellular respiration—passes from the blood to alveoli and is then exhaled.
Our amazing respiratory system not only keeps us alive, but also allows us to produce sound. Sounds can be formed using our vocal cords, ligaments, and muscles as air passes through the larynx. And along with preventing food and water from going down our windpipe when we eat, the epiglottis of the larynx also helps to control sound.6
Our respiratory system also gives us the ability to smell. While not utilized as much today for tracking food and water sources, smell is still important for alerting us to dangers such as rotten food or a gas leak. Additionally, smell may actually play a significant role our communication and relationships. Studies, for example, show evidence that body odors can send certain social signals and influence sexual attraction.7 Furthermore, smell is also tied to our taste buds, so much so that people who lose their sense of smell are unable to taste and enjoy certain foods.
Last but not least, one other important function of the respiratory system is immune defense. The mucus layers in the respiratory tract trap pathogens and other particles, preventing them from going into the lungs. Hair-like projections called cilia that line the respiratory tract also act as a defense mechanism. Additionally, alveolar macrophages seek out and destroy particles that find their way into the alveoli.8
Common respiratory system disorders & diseases
There are a variety of illnesses and diseases that can develop in the respiratory system. Two respiratory system issues we have all dealt with are the common cold and the flu, both of which are typically caused by a virus. And of course, COVID-19 is a serious viral infection that is capable of completely shutting down the respiratory system.
Along with these illnesses that only last a few days or weeks, several chronic diseases can develop in the respiratory system. Some of the most common of these diseases are:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) – A respiratory disease that is commonly caused by excessive cigarette smoke or other inhaled pollutants. The two most common COPDs are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing, tightness in the chest, lack of energy, and excess mucus or phlegm.
- Asthma – Soreness and swelling of the airway walls that is typically triggered by inhaling foreign particles such as pollen or dust mites. Like COPD, chronic coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest are common symptoms of asthma.
- Pneumonia – A disease that results from a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection of the air sacs in the lungs. Common symptoms include fever, cough, chills, and shortness of breath.
- Sinusitis – Caused by allergens or viral or bacterial infections that inflame the mucous membranes of the nasal cavities. Chronic sinusitis can last more than 12 weeks with symptoms including fever, nasal blockage, facial discomfort, and pus in the nasal cavity.9
- Lung cancer – A common type of cancer that develops in the lungs which can be difficult to detect. Symptoms include chronic coughing, coughing up blood, chest pain, and fatigue. The most significant risk factor for lung cancer is smoking.
How lifestyle affects the respiratory system
The best thing you can do for the health of your respiratory system by far is to avoid smoking or vaping, as these habits commonly lead to lung cancer and COPD.10
Although typically not as damaging to the respiratory system as smoking, exposure to pollutants in the air can also lead to chronic respiratory conditions. Sources of air pollution include:
- Chemical-based cleaners
- Vehicle exhaust
- Industrial factories and facilities
- Wind-blown dust
Tips to reduce air pollution include using fuel-efficient vehicles and/or public transportation, buying local food, moving to solar power, and supporting clean-air initiatives. Your exposure to pollutants can also be reduced by getting a high-quality air purifier and staying inside when the air quality index is red or orange.
Exercise is another significant lifestyle factor for respiratory health as well. Research shows that regular physical activity reduces the decline of lung function in those with COPD, and also reduces risk of developing COPD among smokers.11 There is also evidence that moderate-intensity exercise improves immune response to respiratory viral infections and also reduces inflammation.12 Exercising outdoors has the added benefit of providing fresh air to the airways to improve the cleansing of our lungs. Similarly, deep-breathing exercises are great for cleansing the lungs as well as managing stress.
A few other lifestyle habits that have become even more important recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic are washing your hands thoroughly and frequently, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding other people who are sick to prevent infection.
Diet and the respiratory system
Our diet also has a significant impact on the health of our respiratory system. Fried foods, processed meats, refined grains, dairy products, sugar, salt, and acidic foods and drinks can be especially problematic for respiratory health. To improve respiratory function, consider reducing or eliminating these foods from your diet and eating more of the following foods and beverages:
- Fruits – especially berries, pears, kiwis, & bananas
- Vegetables – especially dark leafy greens, broccoli, & avocados
- Nuts & Seeds – especially flax seeds & walnuts
- Fatty fish – especially salmon & sardines
- Green tea – especially matcha
- Pure water – filtered, electrolyzed, or well water
If you are looking for a specific type of diet to follow, recent research suggests that the ketogenic, or keto, diet may be the best for respiratory health.13
Supplements & herbs for respiratory health
Certain supplements can be particularly beneficial for respiratory health. Vitamins D and C both fit into this category, as evidence suggests that they can both prevent respiratory infections.14 15 Other supplements that are believed to support respiratory health include vitamin E, n-acetylcysteine (NAC), ginseng, and fish oil.
Some of the best herbs for the lungs and respiratory health in general include turmeric, mullein, wild black cherry, thyme, and eucalyptus. Essential oils can also be helpful, particularly peppermint, oregano, thyme, frankincense, and eucalyptus.
Respiratory system stressor Virtual Item
A digital signature representing the respiratory system is automatically scanned in the Balance Biosurvey, and is available to scan in the Select and Elite software as well. Virtual Items within this category are also scanned, including the following structural, emotional, and environmental items that impact the respiratory system:
- Hazardous Air Pollutants
- Probiotic bacteria
The body’s responses to items in this category that are out-of-range, or out of balance, will appear in the Today’s Basic Immunity Report.
With the Select and Elite, you can also scan additional items related to the respiratory system, including Respiration, Lung Weakness, Lung Meridian Issues, and Shortness of Breath.
Respiratory system balancer Virtual Items
If the Respiratory System shows up as out of range, you can see which balancer Virtual Item brought it back into range in the Biomarker Progress chart, which is included in many of the ZYTO reports. The balancer that brought the Respiratory System back into range may be a supplement, oil, or other balancing item depending on what was scanned.
Likewise, you can also see which balancers brought the items within the Respiratory System back into range. And in the Balance Basic Immunity Report, you can see a list of the top 5 balancing items that support the Respiratory System. Responses to the Services scanned will also appear in various reports. Some of these Services, such as Breathing Exercises and Oxygen Therapy, can directly benefit the respiratory system.
Like other body systems, emotions can have a profound impact on the health of the immune system as well. In addition to scanning emotions that are related to the respiratory system such as fear, sadness, and grief, these emotions can also be addressed using EVOX perception reframing technology.
The EVOX maps the tones of your voice as you speak about a certain topic, and then helps you to expand your limited perceptions related to that topic for improved health. Any imbalances in the voice for emotions related to the respiratory system will show up in the Sadness vs. Inner Peace or Fearful and Overwhelmed vs. Accountability perception index zones.
About Dr. Vaughn Cook
Dr. Vaughn R Cook is the Founder & CEO of ZYTO. An Oriental Medical Doctor (OMD) and licensed acupuncturist, he has worked in the complementary and alternative medical field for more than 30 years, specializing in applications that integrate Western and Eastern medicine.
1. “Respiratory System.” Canadian Lung Association. Lung.ca.
2. Hoffman, Matthew. “Picture of the Trachea.” WebMD LLC. Webmd.com.
3. Beers, Michael F. “Human respiratory system.” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Brittanica.com.
4. “Vital Signs.” Cleveland Clinic. Clevelandclinic.org.
5. “The Process of Breathing.” Anatomy and Physiology. Rice University. Opentextbc.ca.
6. Smith, Courtney. “Anatomy and Physiology: Phonation and the Larynx.” Visible Body. Visiblebody.com.
7. Furlow, Bryant F. “The Smell of Love.” Sussex Publishers, LLC. Psychologytoday.com.
8. Dezube, Rebecca. “Defense Mechanisms of the Respiratory System.” Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. Merckmanuals.com.
9. “What Is Sinusitis?” WebMD LLC. Webmd.com.
10. “10 of the Worst Diseases Smoking Causes.” American Lung Association. Lung.org.
11. Ambrosino, N., & E. Bertella. “Lifestyle interventions in prevention and comprehensive management of COPD.” Breathe 14, no. 3 (2018): 186-194.
12. Martin, S.A., B.D. Pence, & J.A. Woods. “Exercise and Respiratory Tract Viral Infections.” Exercise Sports Science Review 37, no. 4 (2009): 157-164.
13. Alessandro, R., G. Bosco, et al. “Effects of Twenty Days of the Ketogenic Diet on Metabolic and Respiratory Parameters in Healthy Subjects.” Lung 193, no. 6 (2015).
14. Carr, A.C., & S Maggini. “Vitamin C and Immune Function.” Nutrients 9, no. 11 (2017): 1211.
15. Martineau, A.R., D.A. Jolliffe, et al. “Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data.” BMJ (2017).