Corner Clinic: Our Experts Answer Your Health Questions

This month we talk about breathing, grilling and treating burns 

Written By: UC San Diego Health System Experts 
  1. Is there a right way and a wrong way to breathe?
  2. Why does grilling meat make it carcinogenic, but not grilling vegetables?
  3. How do you treat burns?

Is there a right way and a wrong way to breathe?

Tahir Bhatti

Tahir Bhatti, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and director of Integrative/Holistic Services at the Center for Wellness & Personal Growth, part of the UC San Diego Executive Mental Health Program

We are all born with the natural ability to take full, deep breaths, but as we age we may forget how to breathe properly. The best way to breathe is through your nose as this pre-warms, moistens and filters air before it reaches your lungs. Breathing through your mouth can speed up your breathing and increase your stress level. Many studies have shown a myriad of physical, mental and emotional benefits of slow, natural belly-breathing, including lowered heart rate and blood pressure, increased blood oxygen levels and metabolism and improved circulation. It also supports detoxification and clearer thinking. 

If you are not sure what belly-breathing feels like, try this exercise: Lie down and put a book over your belly button, slowly breathe in through your nose and try to move the book up. Now, hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling slowly. As you exhale, the book should drop back down. If you can move the book, you are belly-breathing. Another trick to healthy breathing is slowing down your breathing, both in and out. Try inhaling while counting to four, hold your breath while counting to two and then exhale while counting to four. Taking slower, deeper breaths allows your lungs and blood to absorb more oxygen and exchange more carbon dioxide, which needs to be exhaled. Holding your breath for a moment after an inhale allows oxygen to saturate your cells.

Another easy-to-practice healthy breathing technique is called mindful breathing. Sit quietly, close your eyes and put your hands over your belly. Slowly breathe in and out through your nose. Feel your belly moving in and out with your breath. No holding your tummy in! Bring awareness to how you are breathing and what you are feeling. If your mind begins to wander, say to yourself “I am breathing in” while inhaling and “I am breathing out” when exhaling. This helps the mind stay focused. Do this for a few minutes several times a day. It can help to create some cues to remind yourself to practice mindful breathing daily. These could include a ringing phone, doing email or mealtime. You can also put up small “remember-to-breathe-deeply” Post-It notes on your computer, refrigerator or in your car. I recommend practicing mindful breathing as often as you can to support good health.

Why does grilling meat make it carcinogenic but not grilling vegetables?

Gordon Saxe

Gordon Saxe, MD, PhD, medical director, UC San Diego Natural Healing & Cooking Program

With summer upon us, Americans turn to backyard barbeques. Yet, few of us are aware of the potential hazards of grilling meat. According to the National Cancer Institute, when red meat, poultry or seafood is grilled or cooked at intense heat, such as pan-frying at temperatures greater than 300 degrees, amino acids and creatine (a substance found in muscle proteins) react to form potent carcinogenic compounds known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Most of the 20 or so identified HCAs are more harmful than benzopyrene, a carcinogen in cigarette smoke and coal tar. Another class of carcinogenic agents, called polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are formed when fat and juices from the meat drip and burn on the heat source. The PAH-rich smoke that arises can then adhere to the meat. Together, these compounds can deliver a one-two toxic punch, damaging DNA and predisposing susceptible individuals to cancer.

Consumption of grilled meat may be linked to increased risk of cancers of the colon, rectum, prostate, breast, stomach and pancreas. Vegetables, on the other hand, do not form these compounds when grilled and may contain phytochemicals that offset the effects of HCAs and PAHs and may protect against these and other cancers. You can reduce your exposure to these toxic compounds by marinating meat, which reduces HCA formation or by cooking it at lower temperatures, such as through oven-roasting. An even better choice is to reduce your overall intake of these foods. The best choice of all is to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet and enjoy its numerous anti-cancer and other health benefits.

How do you treat burns?

Jeanne Lee

Jeanne Lee, MD, assistant clinical professor, Trauma and Surgical Critical Care

Doctors describe three aspects of a burn injury to assess its treatment: the type of burn, depth of burn and size of the burn. Identifying the type of burn – scald, flash/flame, chemical or contact, for example – can help guide the management of the burn. Burns from hot water, for example, can be different from burns caused by electricity and must be treated accordingly.

The next step in assessing the burn is determining the burn’s depth. Superficial burns, also known as first-degree burns, involve only the skin’s outer layers. This type of burn often occurs from sunburn. First-degree burns require mainly symptom relief and can be treated with over-the-counter pain medication, hydration and lotion. If the burn begins to blister, it is known as a second-degree burn. Many of these will heal over time if you keep them clean, but if the burn is large, you may need to seek medical care. Larger burns often require more aggressive topical treatments or surgical procedures that can only be provided at a hospital. Third-degree burns are also known as full-thickness burns and involve all of the skin’s layers. These can be painless and feel leathery. Even if you feel no pain, if your skin feels leathery, you should see a physician as soon as possible so that the appropriate treatment can be provided.