If you’re reading this blog post right now, you’re breathing, fact. But have you ever brought your attention to the way you breathe? Besides that moment when you were working out and your breathing got so heavy you knew you were approaching your limit or in a highly stressful situation when your emotions got the better of you and caused your breathing to become erratic. Such heightened moments force us to bring our attention to our breathing because of our innate need for survival, when our breathing feels out of control we act as quickly as possible to restore normality, but what about the rest of the time? Do you ever contemplate the quality of your breath as you sip your morning coffee, cook an evening meal or spend hours vicariously scrolling through social media? Of course not. For most, breathing, like digestion, is an unconscious process. We don’t have to think about it, it just happens.
What if I told you that the way you breathe during rest, sleep and physical exercise can have an enormous effect on your physical and mental health and quality of daily life? What if dysfunctional breathing turned out to be the root cause of ailments most commonly complained about in the western world?
Keep reading, let me explain.
The term hyperventilation usually provokes an image of some poor soul huffing into a paper bag and is almost always associated with moments of high stress or anxiety. And this image is totally accurate. Rapid, shallow breathing is absolutely a normal response to stress and the basis of the primitive ‘fight and flight’ mechanism of the autonomic nervous system. According to the Oxford dictionary, the exact definition is; excessive rate and depth of respiration leading to abnormal loss of carbon dioxide from the blood.
Let’s break this down. In order to put into context what excessive rate and depth of respiration is, we must first understand what is considered a normal respiratory rate and tidal volume, i.e how many breaths you take per minute and the amount of air per respiratory cycle. According to Judith Perera’s article on the hazards of heavy breathing;
‘Twelve regular breaths a minute, each containing around 600 cubic centimetres of air, are all you need to supply your blood oxygen. Anything more, especially if your breathing is shallow and erratic, and you could be in trouble.’ 1
Now let’s look into the second part, leading to abnormal loss of carbon dioxide from the blood. Carbon dioxide is often misconceived as nothing more than a waste gas thats the key culprit when it comes to global warming. But when it comes to our bodies, carbon dioxide is the catalyst for the release of oxygen from the haemoglobin (a protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs).
Switching off? Time for an analogy we can all relate to. FOOD!
Think of carbon dioxide as your Deliveroo driver and your haemoglobin as the motorbike that transports him to your house to bring you your favourite take out. Now, imagine your guy turning up and only delivering you half the take out because he decided to take the long route to your house, got hungry and ate half of it before he could give it to you. I think we can all agree that would go down as a very inefficient delivery. Well, when you breathe in excess of your metabolic requirements, you blow off too much carbon dioxide and the bond between haemoglobin and oxygen increases,due to a right shift of the oxyhemoglobin disassociation curve known as the Bohr effect. Meaning, less oxygen actually gets delivered to the tissues and organs. Just like the Deliveroo driver, your haemoglobin decides to hold on to the oxygen that should have been feeding your tissues and organs and only delivers a portion, another inefficient delivery.
Here’s the thing, hyperventilation is a normal response to extreme stress that in a healthy human being usually lasts no more than 20 – 30 minutes before breathing returns to normal and the body and mind both re-stabilise. But in today’s fast paced, adrenaline fuelled society hyperventilation at low levels has become the ‘new normal’ for an awful lot of people and it can have some disastrous implications on your health. The problem is, it’s not that easy to spot. As Judith Perara goes on to explain;
‘The breathing rate can increase to 20 breaths per minute, and the volume of each breath to 900 cubic centimetres, and breathing will still appear normal, although the intake of air will have doubled.’2
One of the first doctors to recognise this syndrome in the 1970’s was Claude Lum, a chest physician at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge. He nicknamed the syndrome “the great mimic” and estimated that up to 10 per cent of all patients referred to specialist clinics are suffering primarily from hyperventilation.
hypeve.com, a clinic providing therapy for chronic hyperventilation syndrome, list the main giveaways of over breathing, the causes of which are so often misidentified as other ailments;
‘Characterised by overall lethargy, inability to concentrate, poor sleep patterns, dizziness, tingling sensations, chest pain, nausea, cough and difficulties breathing often accompanied by sighing and yawning, upset stomach, unstable blood pressure, bloating, sexual dysfunction, aching muscles and joints, twitching or cramp, tension and associated feelings of panic, anxiety and depression.
Although chronic hyperventilation is nowadays increasingly perceived as a notable cause of poor health, it is still not sufficiently diagnosed. If it remains untreated, those suffering from chronic hyperventilation will always be at risk of its distressing symptoms; this can often lead to a loss in self-confidence and the enjoyment of life. Over-breathers live in constant fear of this peril. ‘3
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Quite literally in fact as the solution to over breathing is well, breathing less! By practising simple breath work on a daily basis to lighten the breath and normalise breathing volume. With practise, your habitual way of breathing at rest, sleep and during physical exercise can become nasal (in and out through the nose), light, gentle, quiet and deep. In other words, working with your body rather than against it.
A great place to start is with the Buteyko breathing method. A method developed by Ukrainian Dr. Konstantin Buteyko in the late 1950s when he noticed that people who are unhealthy generally have noticeable breathing during rest.
‘Over the span of four decades, Dr. Buteyko developed a program designed to normalize breathing volume. Using slow breathing and breath holds following an exhalation, the objective is to take less air into the lungs. With regular practice over a few weeks, breathing is brought towards normal with resultant improvements to a number of common complaints such as asthma, rhinitis, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.’ 4
The oxygen advantage was created by Patrick Mckeown who used the Buteyko method to cure his asthma and has been spreading the power of functional breathing ever since. Through Patricks programme, supported by an enormity of scientific research, breathing has not only shown to reduce and often eliminate sleep problems, anxiety issues and asthma attacks its also been seen to supercharge fitness levels going from couch to well, marathon in some cases!
The power of the breath truly is undeniable and better still the prevention and treatment of over breathing is FREE. So why isn’t everybody doing it? This, I have no answer to but I intend to continue to spread the word to positively impact as many lives as possible. The phrase less is more very much sums up today’s post along with a thought that perhaps it’s time to stop popping the pills and trust our own bodies to do what they were born to do, BREATHE.