In order to understand what goes wrong with our lungs, it’s important to understand, what goes right – so let’s cover the basics first.
The most important function of our lungs is to take oxygen from the environment and transfer it to the blood stream – we do this by taking 6 million breaths per year!
We have two lungs, the left is slightly smaller than the right. When we breathe, our diaphragm, which sits beneath the lungs, does the muscular work. As the diaphragm contracts, it moves down, leaving space for the lungs to expand.
When we breathe, air goes from our nose and mouth, down the trachea (windpipe) where it splits into two branches, (mainstem bronchi), one of which leads to the left lung, one to the right.
Those two bronchi then split further, into multiple smaller and smaller bronchi, like branches on a tree. This ever-decreasing pipework ends with the alveoli which is where the important gas exchange occurs – oxygen goes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide comes out of the blood and is exhaled.
The lungs have functions other than breathing, including:
- pH balance (too much carbon dioxide can drop pH/increase acidity);
- Filtering small blood clots;
- A shock absorber for the heart in collisions;
- Infection prevention via membranes, which secrete immunoglobulin A;
- Clearing particles – mucus lining the lungs has an important function of trapping dust particles and bacteria; tiny hairs called cilia, move these particles upwards within the mucus so we can cough them out;
- A blood reservoir to interact with the heart, helping it function more efficiently;
- Airflow creation so we can talk!
Like many of our organs, we don’t notice our lungs until something goes wrong – more about that in our next blog and more about how we can keep our lungs healthy, to come as well.
In the meantime, enjoy breathing (sounds simple) and if you are struggling on this front, we understand how tough this can be – kia kaha – stay strong, you are not alone.
Darcy Schack and Dr Anna Campbell.