We do this every moment of the day; it can help us relax, and it speeds up when we exert ourselves—all without so much as a thought. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe! This important gas exchange, which keeps us alive, can only happen thanks to the miraculous work of the lungs.
Primary functions of the lungs are to extract oxygen from the environment, deliver this O2 to the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide from the body—resulting in more than 6 million breaths per year (Newman 2018).
Though the lungs are the main stars of the respiratory system, they work in conjunction with several other anatomical players and depend on surrounding muscles to pump air in and out. During respiration, the body engages the diaphragm as well as muscles between the ribs (the intercostals), in the abdomen and even in the neck—all in support of these spongy organs (Newman 2018).
Here are additional lung facts that may take your breath away:
- When the body is at rest, lungs are only at 50% of their capacity, breathing about 15 times per minute. During exercise, breathing increases to 40–60 times per minute to provide more oxygen to the body (Rush University Medical Center n.d.; European Respiratory Society 2016).
- Regular exercise strengthens muscles, making them more efficient over time. As a result, they require less oxygen for movement and produce less carbon dioxide (European Respiratory Society 2016). Exercise also helps cleanse the lungs of toxins from environmental pollutants, allergens, dust and cigarette smoke (Rush University Medical Center n.d.).
- The left and right lungs differ from each other in size and shape to give up some breathing space—literally—for other organs. The left lung is narrower and smaller to accommodate the heart in an area called the cardiac notch, while the right lung is shorter to make room for the liver beneath it (Newman 2018).
- Oxygen travels through a series of passageways to reach the bloodstream: First, oxygen enters the nose or mouth and travels through the trachea (or windpipe). The trachea divides into two bronchi, one connecting to the left lung and the other to the right lung. The bronchi branch out further into several smaller bronchioles within each lung, which all lead to small air-sac endings called alveoli.These pass oxygen to the bloodstream. In total, the lungs contain around 700 million individual alveoli (Newman 2018).
- Every day, 5,000 gallons of oxygen travel to the lungs through this large network of airways, which can reach a combined length of 14,900 miles (Dalley 2019).