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About the author:
Alberto Nacif is a certified Systema instructor based in the United States. He is a medical doctor practicing in Brighton, Michigan and a National Speaker on Brain Neurology.

My first Systema experience was at Vladimir Vasiliev's class at his headquarters in Toronto at the beginning of a one week intensive seminar for instructors; it was a small group of instructors, most of them advanced and then me with no previous Systema experience. Sitting on the mat and waiting for class to start seemed like forever, and created some anxiety for me, as I did not know how intense Systema training would be. I watched many highly skilled people warming up and excitedly chatting around me. Then Vladimir stepped on the mat and all the chattering stopped, we stood and faced him. His first words of instruction to the class (and thus my very first words of instruction in Systema) were:

"Inhale through your nose... "

The breath, nasal inhalation and NO

So why do breath masters in not only Systema, but some Asian martial arts tell us to inhale through the nose? The benefits are numerous. Inhaling through the nose forces air into the sinuses which do a more efficient job of filtering and moisturizing air than the mouth. In addition, the sinuses have recently been discovered to make a gas called Nitric Oxide from the lining of the blood vessels that so richly line our sinuses. Nitric Oxide, or NO for short (which should not be confused with Nitric Acid or Nitrogen dioxide) is a gas that is produced by the endothelium, or lining, of these very small blood vessels in the mucous membranes of the sinuses and is also called Endothelium-Derived Relaxing Factor. NO is a short lived gas that has an elimination life of 4-6 seconds, thus is present for the duration of a typical breath, then breaks down only to be reformed by a variety of enzymes and substrates including the amino acid arginine in the endothelial lining. NO is toxic to living things, so thankfully it is made in minute quantities, and lasts a very short time in the body, but in those brief seconds, it helps to kill bacteria and viruses very quickly to keep the sinuses from getting infected.

The most striking part about NO is that it is a very important signaling, or messenger molecule that effects smooth muscles around blood vessels, bronchioles (remember the tubules that take air to the alveoli) and neurotransmission (transmission of signals through the nervous system). Messenger molecules are molecules made in one part of the body and then act to turn on, turn off or modulate some function of the body.

So let us individually discuss the separate roles of NO on smooth muscle of blood vessels, smooth muscle of bronchioles and on nervous system activity. Blood vessels are tubular structures with 3 concentric layers of distinct tissues, each layer having a separate but complimentary role. The middle layer of these blood vessels is wrapped in smooth muscles that by relaxing and contracting control the diameter of the blood vessel, thus controlling blood pressure. NO relaxes smooth muscles in blood vessels thus LOWERING blood pressure. Likewise, bronchioles are relaxed with exposure to NO, thereby IMPROVING airflow, thus oxygen exchange into the bloodstream. NO also helps to mediate synaptic transmission, or communication between neurons (brain cells), possibly enhancing communications in key areas of the brain and brainstem. This may enhance reaction times, and decision-making during a stressful situation.


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