Breathing is essential to life, but the way one breathes has a profound effect on the quality of his or her life. Let’s look deeper into how breathing impacts how you feel and then we’ll discuss popular techniques used to improve breathing.
When you breathe in, you take in oxygen; when you breathe out, you breathe out carbon dioxide. You also exhale some unused oxygen (which is one reason why CPR involves exhaling into the victim).
Respiratory rate is the number of breaths a person takes per minute. The normal rate for an adult at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. A respiration rate under 12 or over 25 breaths per minute while resting is considered abnormal.
High respiratory rate (besides from exercise/physical exertion) can be caused by a psychological state of panic and anxiety. When especially high, it is considered hyperventilating. Pathological causes include:
- congestive heart failure
- drug use
- lung disease such as asthma and emphysema
Low respiratory rate (called hypopnea) can be a problem as well. Some causes include:
- anatomical defects (narrowing, obstruction) in the sinuses
- acute tonsillitis and/or adenoiditis
- obesity or being overweight
- neuromuscular disease or any condition that involves weakened respiratory muscles
- hypoventilation syndromes involving compromised or failed respiratory drive
- use of sedatives (sleeping pills, etc.)
- alcohol abuse
If your breathing falls out of the normal range, consult your doctor and get a full work up including blood tests to rule out pathology. Hopefully it is a case that can be corrected using any one of the several breathing techniques that are available, as well as healthy lifestyle modification including weight loss, stress reduction, exercise, getting eight hours of sleep a night and eating a nutrient dense diet low in added sugar and refined carbohydrates.
How Sub-Optimal Breathing Affects Your Health and Quality of Life
Oxygen (O2) is a highly reactive element that the body uses to metabolize food, repair and regenerate tissues, kill germs and carry out many other critical biological functions.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the by product of oxygen metabolism. As cells aspirate, they deposit CO2 molecules into the bloodstream which are sent to the lungs for removal via exhalation.
Both of these gases are dissolved in your blood and can be measured via an arterial blood gas test, which is part of a standard blood test. These are the normal ranges:
- Partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2): 75 – 100 mmHg
- Partial pressure of carbon dioxide (PaCO2): 38 – 42 mmHg
- Arterial blood pH: 7.38 – 7.42
- Oxygen saturation (SaO2): 94 – 100%
- Bicarbonate – (HCO3): 22 – 28 mEq/L
If blood gas levels are out of range, you run into health problems — some obvious, and some not so obvious.
Excess CO2 in your blood (CO2 retention, medically called hypercapnia) causes the blood pH to drop and become acidic. This can come about by lung diseases and the factors previously mentioned that cause low respiratory rate where CO2 is not being removed fast enough.
Symptoms of excess CO2 in the blood include:
- becoming tired easily
- shortness of breath
Severe cases can result in tachycardia (rapid heart rate) seizures, coma, respiratory arrest, and death.
Low CO2 levels in your blood can lead to varying levels of alkalosis, the opposite of acidosis, where the blood pH rises abnormally high. Hyperventilating is a common cause of low CO2 levels (besides lung, liver and other diseases). In fact, the drop in CO2 from hyperventilating perpetuates hyperventilation by causing capillaries and bronchial tissue to constrict, creating an urge to breathe faster.
Symptoms of low CO2 may include:
- prolonged muscle spasms
- muscle twitching
- hand tremors
Chronic, advanced cases of excess CO2 can lead to confusion, stupor, breathing difficulty and even coma.
Although low carbon dioxide levels in the blood is not considered as common nor as bad of a problem as high CO2 levels, it might be more common and significant than it appears. Stress, panic attacks and anxiety affect many people, and hyperventilation and subconscious over breathing (the high end of normal and a few breaths beyond) is often associated with it.
Hyperventilation and over breathing can cause subtle problems that while clinically not significant (not requiring medical care) can significantly impact quality of life by promoting fatigue, headaches, muscle pain and difficulty concentrating among other things.
So, aside from pathological states that affect respiratory rate it is important to be aware of the manner in which one breathes, which is not easy because in most cases the individual is oblivious to the way he or she breathes.
If you experience any of the symptoms associated with hyperventilation and hypopnia, then you can at least suspect that your breathing may be an issue. Sometimes you can catch yourself when you’re doing it, especially in the case of hyperventilating; other times you might need the help of someone who can discreetly observe you daily, particularly while you sleep. This can be a spouse, co-worker or anyone who is in proximity to you who can observe your breathing patterns without you knowing.
If you enlist the help of someone to monitor your breathing, here the the things to look for:
- respiratory rate (should be between 12-20/min; preferably in the low to middle range)
- how often you breathe through your mouth (preferably rarely to none)
- any long pauses between breaths (breaths should be equal distance apart, ideally)
- degree to which your chest/ ribs expand during breathing (preferably shallow; no major movement)
- signs of difficulty/ labored breathing
- signs of wheezing
If you have any abnormalities, you likely have sub-optimal breathing that can stand some improvement. It may be disturbing blood O2/CO2 balance and sapping your energy, strength, mood and mental acuity.
The good news is that there are breathing techniques you can try to correct, or compensate for this problem. They are as follows:
1. Buteyko Breathing Technique: This technique was developed in the 1950s to reverse health problems associated with improper breathing; specifically over breathing and mouth breathing. Conditions targeted by this technique include sleep apnea, poor sleep, asthma, diabetes and others.
Its inventor, Ukrainian physician Konstantin Buteyko theorized that too heavy or frequent breathing results in excessive CO2 loss and causes blood vessels and bronchial passages to constrict, reducing oxygenation of tissues and leading to sickness. It involves concentrating on taking normal breaths (not too shallow, not deep), then holding your breath until you feel the first “urge” to breathe (twitching in diaphragm, throat or other contraction in the respiratory structures), and then returning to breathing without taking deep breaths but rather maintaining normal breathing as though you did not hold your breath.
Below is a video of the technique. The Buteyko method can train mouth breathers to return to nasal breathing, which is preferred because it warms and filters the air prior to entering the lungs (and oxygenates small capillaries close to the brain cavity); can decongest nasal passageways, and reduce hyperventilation.
2. The Relaxing Breath Exercise (4-7-8 Exercise): This technique is designed to reduce stress or calm you when you are emotionally disturbed. First, force all the air out of your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Then, close your mouth and breathe in slowly through your nose for four seconds. Stop, then hold your breath for seven seconds. Next, exhale your air over eight seconds through your mouth; repeat three more times for a total of four breaths/cycles. Do several times throughout the day.
3. The Stimulating Breath (Bellows Breath): Popularized by Andrew Weill, MD, this breathing technique is designed to invigorate and energize you, similar to the feeling you have right after a good run. You breathe rapidly and short, inhaling and exhaling through your nose. It requires some effort: do three cycles (inhalations and exhalations) per second. This produces a quick movement of your diaphragm, like using a bellows to fan a fire. Do for 15 seconds the first time, then breathe normally for a few minutes. Add five seconds each successive session until you can do it for one full minute. If you get too dizzy, stop.
Bottom Line: if you suspect you may be over breathing, under breathing, mouth breathing or hyperventilating and/or experience inexplicable fatigue, chronic sinus congestion, problems sleeping, chronic muscle pain, headaches or similar symptoms, try any of these focused breathing techniques for at least a week and take note of any noticeable changes in these symptoms. If you notice improvement, then it is likely that you have been breathing abnormally for quite some time and not getting optimal tissue oxygenation. If the problem is hyperventilation, over breathing or mouth breathing, the Buteyko exercises may even correct this problem over time.