If you have been following this series you may have started to think that I am making some rather wild claims about the degree that over breathing may be harming you, and the extent to which normalising your breathing could improve your health. I have described light breathing as the ideal based on evidence that it is what we were born doing (part 1) and that it is how our ancestors breathed (part 2) But some readers are going to want to know the details – what is actually going on in your body when you change the volume of your breathing? (If that is you then thanks for making it this far) Here are eight ways that optimising your breathing volume can affect your body:
- CO2, oxygen and the Bohr Effect.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room –‘won’t you get less oxygen if you breathe less?’ Believe it or not, increasing your breathing above the optimum amount barely changes the amount of oxygen in your blood.
If you were to measure the oxygen saturation in your blood it might be 99%. Deliberately hyperventilate and it will rise to 100%. Reduce your breathing as much as you can bare and it might fall to 97% (I am assuming you are not an expert free diver or escapologist who has trained yourself to ignore all of your body’s signals to breath – these people can hold their breath until their oxygen saturation falls below 50%. Even in this extreme case, it might take three minutes of breath holding before oxygen saturation falls below 90%).
You might think that maybe this extra couple of percent of oxygen that can be gained might still make over breathing worthwhile, but there is another factor at play.
C02 concentrations are far more sensitive to breathing volume than oxygen concentrations are, and higher C02 levels encourage the release of oxygen from your haemoglobin. So breathing less means that your blood picks up virtually the same amount of oxygen in your lungs, and then releases a much greater proportion of this oxygen into the cells of your body.
Breathing less actually means that oxygen is delivered to your cells more effectively.
This phenomenon is known as the Bohr Effect. It seems strange… until you consider how it enables your body to function during exercise. We are all familiar with how exercise leads to an increased requirement for oxygen leading to an increase in breathing and heart rate. But what happens when the activity is localised. For example if you are kayaking or bench pressing how does your body know to deliver large amounts of extra oxygen to the muscles being used but not to the leg muscles?
The answer is the Bohr effect – the working muscles produce C02 which then facilitates the release of extra oxygen in that exact area. Resting muscles have low levels of C02, so most of the oxygen that passes through them remains stuck to the haemoglobin. This allows the oxygen to be delivered to the muscles that actually need it. Every muscle in the body will receive an oxygen supply tailored to how hard it is working, as ‘measured’ by the amount of C02 that it is producing.
This mechanism is also the reason that breathing too much, and reducing C02 to a sub-normal level, will actually impair the delivery of oxygen to your cells – and if you have been breathing too much, reducing your breathing to a biologically normal level will improve oxygen delivery.
- Effects of C02 on smooth muscles.
C02 has a powerful relaxing effect on smooth muscles. Conversely, low levels of C02 lead to the tightening of these muscles. Many health conditions are either caused or exacerbated by the constriction of smooth muscles. In asthma the muscles of the airway constrict. A blocked nose is largely caused by the constriction of the nasal passages. Tightening of blood vessels will produce high blood pressure as well as poor peripheral circulation which manifests as cold hands and feet. Over-excitability of the muscles of the digestive system can lead to irritable bowel. Simply reducing breathing rate can have a significant effect on any of these conditions.
- Effects of CO2 on skeletal muscles
Skeletal muscles are also sensitive to the relaxing effect of C02. Over breathing reduces the level of this natural muscle relaxant, contributing to the stiff, tight muscles, prone to knots, cramps and spasms, that so many of us have come to accept as inevitable.
Poor reflexive stability is of course a huge contributor to the muscular conditions listed above – muscles lock up in order to keep an otherwise unstable area safe. Sometimes, however, even after regaining reflexive stability, some muscles will remain overactive. In other cases the stubborn refusal of some muscles to relax is the reason that regaining reflexive stability is difficult to achieve. In either of these cases it makes sense to try reduced breathing in order to utilize the muscle relaxant effects of C02.
Often when we hit a dead end working within the OS system, we return to breathing as the foundational reset. This approach has been regularly found to help. I would argue that part of the reason it is so helpful is because many people inadvertently reduce their breathing. This increases their C02 levels resulting in the relaxation of muscles that would otherwise remain tight. If this effect was pursued deliberately the effects would be substantially more pronounced.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
Over-breathing and the associated low levels of C02 makes diaphragmatic breathing far more difficult than it would otherwise be. This happens in two distinct ways:
- The tightening effect of low C02 on the muscle of the diaphragm makes it physically more difficult to use the diaphragm to breathe.
- Using the diaphragm to breathe requires a certain amount of relaxation. Low levels of C02 cause a state of mental excitability. It is possible to breathe diaphragmatically in this state if you are practiced at it, and are doing so consciously. However you are unlikely to breathe diaphragmatically automatically in this state of high arousal, and learning to breath diaphragmatically in this state will be particularly difficult.
If you or someone that you are working with is struggling to use the diaphragm, then the relaxation provided by reduced breathing could be the missing ingredient.
- Parasympathetic Superhighway
The parasympathetic state is sometimes known as the ‘rest and digest’ state and is the opposite of the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response. It is the state that our bodies are meant to be in for the majority of the time. As described in part two, problems arise when we move into fight or flight mode, but then fail to do any actual fighting or fleeing (or any other form of physical activity) This is when our body tends to get stuck in this mode.
One of the best known ways of moving your body back into parasympathetic land where it belongs is through slowing the breathing. Slowing the breathing rate helps to bring the body back towards a sympathetic state – but you may have noticed mixed results when people ‘take some deep breaths’. Some relax very effectively while others show no change or even become more stressed.
It depends again on the total amount of air being breathed each minute. Higher C02 levels (from lower breathing levels) push the body into parasympathetic mode. Lower levels (from more breathing) stimulate the fight or flight response.
Imagine three stressed people who decided to calm down by means of some deep breathing.
- The first breathes more deeply and slows the breathing a great deal. As a result this person is now breathing less air each minute. They will relax primarily due to the increase in C02 which results, but also partly due to the calming effect of the reduced number of breaths per minute. This is the person who quickly decides that this whole deep breathing thing is great and sticks with it.
- The second slows the breathing enough to keep the air breathed per minute the same as before. This person experiences no benefit from reduced breathing, but will still become slightly more relaxed as a result of the reduced number of breaths per minute. This is the person who can see that maybe there is something to this whole breathing thing but then quickly loses interest because ‘it’s not helping that much’
- The third deepens their breathing but barely reduces the rate of breathing at all. The total amount of air breathed per minute increases. There is no benefit from reducing the breaths per minute, and worse, the increased air breathed per minute will reduce C02 levels and drive the person further into a sympathetic state. This is the occasional person who (understandably) does not get how this could be helpful at all. Of course this person may still be getting the benefits of abdominal breathing and nose breathing (providing they are doing those two things). They just won’t have success at using their breathing to move into a parasympathetic state.
Reduced breathing is one of the fastest ways into a parasympathetic state, and many people who have had success with breathing exercises have actually experienced this by accident.
- Less air = Less allergens, pollutants and pathogens
This effect is so obvious that it is easily missed. If you are breathing twice as much air as you need (Which is very common) you are taking in twice as many pollutants allergens and pathogens as you would otherwise be. Reducing your breathing to a normal level would halve the amount of unhealthy materials that you are taking in.
- Nose breathing
If you have studied the benefits of nose breathing you will know that the impacts on your health are huge. (If you have not, I recommend you go and do some research).
Reduced breathing makes it far easier to maintain nose breathing around the clock. There are two main reasons for this:
- Excessive breathing leads to congestion of the nasal passages, this will make nose breathing difficult at best and impossible at worst. Reducing breathing to a normal level will relieve this congestion and clear the nose.
- A person who is accustomed to a larger than normal intake of air may breathe easily through their nose at rest, but they will find it difficult to engage in physical activity without resorting to mouth breathing. Practicing reduced breathing makes it not only possible, but comfortable to maintain nose breathing during all but the most intense activity
There is also a great positive feedback loop that you can put into action here. Just as reduced breathing makes it easier to maintain nasal breathing, the reverse is also true. Breathing through your nose helps prevent over breathing. The increased resistance when breathing through your nose means that while it is still possible to breathe too much, you are probably going to notice.
- Snoring and sleep apnoea
Snoring and sleep apnoea are caused by the collapse of the airways while sleeping. This effect is more likely when air is moving through the airways at higher speed. If the automatic breathing rate is reduced it will continue to be lower during sleep. The air will move through the airways more slowly, meaning that collapse will be far less likely. This can reduce or reverse sleep apnoea and snoring.
Next episode: I will discuss techniques for reducing the total amount of air breathed, not just consciously ‘in the moment’ but the amount that occurs automatically when you are not aware of 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.