Breathe Like Your Ancestors

In part ONE breathing as we were meant to, the way we were born to breathe was introduced along with the idea that for many people, they breathe too much. 

In part TWO below, let’s look at what happens in more depth when we over-breathe and when and where it is appropriate.

Imagine yourself living in a hunter/gatherer society. Think about the things which would cause you to feel stressed. A predator perhaps, an attack from a neighbouring group of people. Most situations you could think of would be met with physical action. Now imagine the situations that would cause a positive sense of excitement. Spotting some delicious looking prey or a beehive high up in a tree… Again this excitement would be followed by physical action.

It makes sense that in any of these situations your sympathetic nervous system would be switched on to prepare your body for action. A host of changes occur. Blood is diverted away from the digestive organs to the muscles, heart rate increases, the brain switches into high gear- into a state of hypervigilance, blood sugar levels rise to provide a ready source of energy, and breathing increases, both in breaths per minute and in total volume of air per minute. This is referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’ or simply being in a sympathetic state.

All of this is of course highly adaptive in the short term when faced with a situation requiring a high level of exertion. But each of these effects is problematic when maintained long term, and will lead to impairment of our health. As useful as it is, the sympathetic state is not meant to be our default setting.

The way we are meant to spend most of our lives is in the opposite state – lowered heart rate, plentiful supply of blood to the digestive system, relaxed state of mind (though still possibly very alert) lower blood sugar, and slower breathing. This is known as the ‘rest and digest response’ or being in a parasympathetic state. This is the state that our ancestors quickly returned to after escaping the predator or catching the prey.

Now imagine the types of stress you are likely to be exposed to in the modern world. Stuck in traffic, bills, work deadlines, difficult co-workers or customers, an important meeting. None of these require significant physical activity, but your nervous system acts as though they do. Next think of the activities that cause a positive sense of excitement. A gripping movie, a video game, a sporting match on T.V., or an amusement park ride. Again your body is geared up for action which never eventuates.

All of the effects of the sympathetic nervous system – already only healthy as a short term response – become far more damaging when they are no longer linked to the physical activity that is meant to accompany them. The focus of this article, however, is the way that stress combined with inactivity leads to a state of hyperventilation.

In the stressful situations above, the volume of air breathed per minute increases, ready for physical activity –

But as the physical activity never comes, the body is breathing more air than is necessary.

This sounds harmless enough – what could be safer than air?

But there is a problem. Breathing removes carbon dioxide from the blood stream – when breathing is matched to the level of activity, this is a good thing – a waste product is being removed.

But carbon dioxide is only a waste product in the sense that your body produces more of it than it needs. It is not a ‘bad’ substance. In fact, it is essential to the body in a multitude of ways.

When breathing is in excess of what is required for the level of physical activity, carbon dioxide levels fall below a healthy level. A variety of negative effects of this situation will be discussed in part 3, but for now we will focus on the one which can turn over breathing into a chronic habit which is self-sustaining even in the absence of ongoing stress.

Breathing and Blood pH

It is essential to the functioning of your body that your blood is kept within a fairly tight pH range. The mechanisms which act upon the pH of the blood are mostly relatively slow acting, but one mechanism that can allow adjustments second by second is breathing.

CO2 is a weak acid which is always present in the blood, so if the level of acidity becomes too high, CO2 can be removed by faster breathing as a way of bringing acidity back to normal levels. This explains why we breathe so heavily after intense anaerobic exercise. The lactic acid produced in our muscles has increased the acidity of our blood, and removing large amounts of CO2 will normalise pH in the short term until the lactic acid can be dealt with.

If however you breathe heavily when there is no physiological reason to, CO2 will be removed from the blood and the pH will rise too high. If this state is maintained, the body will alter other processes to reduce the pH back to normal.

One way that your body adjusts the pH is by losing bicarbonate ions. Bicarbonate is a vital part of your blood’s buffering system (If chemistry is not your thing, let’s just say that it helps you deal with acid). If you breathe too much at rest and have lost bicarbonate ions, then your lactic acid tolerance, and hence your anaerobic fitness will be seriously compromised.

Once the biochemistry has adjusted, this lower level of C02 will be required to maintain pH in the short term, and your brain’s breathing centre will register this artificially low C02 level as the ‘new normal’.

The default unconscious breathing, controlled by the breathing centre of the brain, will increase in order to maintain this new lower level of C02.

Breathing less than this (in other words a normal amount) will feel uncomfortable because your blood C02 level will be higher than the new artificially inflated set point.

Your breathing rate will tend to remain at this artificially higher level…until the next time that you are stressed while physically inactive when the whole process is repeated and your breathing rate increases still more.  

It is in this way that increases in breathing rate become ‘locked in’, and with the passing of time the effect is gradually increased.  

Fortunately this process can be reversed – the breathing centre can be reset so that your automatic unconscious breathing return to a healthy level. Details of how to do this will be in a later article. But to get you started:

Homework :

  1. Try to breathe through through your nose (in and out) ALL THE TIME. The extra resistance of nose breathing is enough to reduce the rate of breathing.
  2. Any time that you are conscious of your breathing ask yourself this question – ‘What is the least amount of air that I can breathe without feeling uncomfortable or stressed.’

Next episode:

What are the actual mechanisms by which hyperventilation damages your health and normal breathing restores it?

This article is intended as information only, and should not be viewed as medical advice. It is not written by a medical professional, and it takes no account of your own individual circumstances.

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