respiratory system The respiratory system is situated in the thorax, and is responsible for gaseous exchange between the circulatory system and the outside world. Air is taken in via the upper airways (the nasal cavity, pharynx and larynx) through the lower airways (trachea, primary bronchi and bronchial tree) and into the small bronchioles and alveoli within the lung tissue.

Only in the alveoli does actual gas exchange takes place. There are some 300 million alveoli in two adult lungs. These provide a surface area of some 160 m2 (almost equal to the singles area of a tennis court and 80 times the area of our skin!). Oxygen is taken into the body through the airways, absorbed into the lungs, then transported through the body in the blood. The lungs also give out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The lungs are divided into lobes; The left lung is composed of the upper lobe, the lower lobe and the lingula (a small remnant next to the apex of the heart), the right lung is composed of the upper, the middle and the lower lobes.

Breathing happens automatically, we do not have to even think about it. In mammals, the diaphragm divides the body cavity into the

  • abdominal cavity, which contains the viscera (e.g., stomach and intestines) and the
  • thoracic cavity, which contains the heart and lungs.

The inner surface of the thoracic cavity and the outer surface of the lungs are lined with pleural membranes which adhere to each other. If air is introduced between them, the adhesion is broken and the natural elasticity of the lung causes it to collapse. This can occur from trauma. And it is sometimes induced deliberately to allow the lung to rest. In either case, reinflation occurs as the air is gradually absorbed by the tissues.

Because of this adhesion, any action that increases the volume of the thoracic cavity causes the lungs to expand, drawing air into them.

  • During inspiration (inhaling),
    • The external intercostal muscles contract, lifting the ribs up and out.
    • The diaphragm contracts, drawing it down .
  • During expiration (exhaling), these processes are reversed and the natural elasticity of the lungs returns them to their normal volume. At rest, we breath 15-18 times a minute exchanging about 500 ml of air.
  • In more vigorous expiration,
    • The internal intercostal muscles draw the ribs down and inward
    • The wall of the abdomen contracts pushing the stomach and liver upward.
    Under these conditions, an average adult male can flush his lungs with about 4 liters of air at each breath. This is called the vital capacity. Even with maximum expiration, about 1200 ml of residual air remain.

Expiration is mainly due to the natural elasticity of the lungs, which tend to collapse if they are not held against the thoracic wall. This is the mechanism behind lung collapse if there is air in the pleural space (pneumothorax).

electron micrograph of two alveoliThe ease with which oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass between air and blood is clear from this electron micrograph of two alveoli (Air) and an adjacent capillary from the lung of a laboratory mouse. Note the thinness of the epithelial cells (EP) that line the alveoli and capillary (except where the nucleus is located). At the closest point, the surface of the red blood cell is only 0.7 Ám away from the air in the alveolus.

The rate of cellular respiration (and hence oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production) varies with level of activity. Vigorous exercise can increase by 20-25 times the demand of the tissues for oxygen. This is met by increasing the rate and depth of breathing.

It is a rising concentration of carbon dioxide — not a declining concentration of oxygen — that plays the major role in regulating the ventilation of the lungs. The concentration of CO2 is monitored by cells in the medulla oblongata. If the level rises, the medulla responds by increasing the activity of the motor nerves that control the intercostal muscles and diaphragm.

Essential oils evaporate on contact with the air, so when breathed in they are carried with the inhaled air through the nose and into the lungs, passing through the pharynx, larynx, trachea and bronchi. The importance of this process in understanding aromatherapy, is that particles of essential oils that have been breathed in can pass through these thin-walled structures, and that is how they enter the bloodstream for circulation to other parts of the body.

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