In Part 1 of this short series we briefly detailed the importance of breathing in maintaining homeostasis, and if you breathe too quickly you actually struggle to use the oxygen that you are taking in. This 2nd part will look at why people end up breathing too quickly in the first place and the “fall out” that can occur from this.
It appears as though this hyperventilation (over breathing) is actually triggered not only by the levels of carbon dioxide but also as the amygdala (an area of our brain) is very sensitive to increased acidity levels (that is when we have too much carbon dioxide). The amygdala is involved in processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses, and it also is an important chemosensor that detects carbon dioxide and pH levels and initiates behavioural responses – such as breathing faster, or slower. It is thought that rising carbon dioxide levels trigger a fear response and that this can be used to some degree to explain anxiety and panic disorders. So just as hyperventilation can cause too little carbon dioxide in the blood, hypoventilation can lead to too little, and either of those instances can trigger apprehension, anxiety and fear in an individual. This fear response of having too much carbon dioxide in the system leads to hyperventilation in an attempt to normalise the body and return to equilibrium, however hyperventilation often becomes habitual. A common reason for this is a lot of people breathe through their mouths rather than their noses.
When you breathe through your nose not only does this filter out any debris and warm the air that you are breathing in but it also promotes the release of nitric oxide which is produced in the sinuses. This nitric oxide acts as a vasodilator and helps open up and relax the lungs allowing us to breathe more deeply, allowing air to reach the deeper part of our lungs where gas exchange is more efficient. When you breathe through your mouth you bypass this relaxant making it more difficult to breathe deeply, and it also happens that when you breathe through the mouth you also tend to chest breathe which are also shallower breaths than when you breathe nasally. This shallower breathing means you get less oxygen in and so you increase your breathing frequency to account for it which means you end up getting more carbon dioxide out which is a problem.
There are also links between emotional states and types of breathing. When we are shocked we take a big inhale – we do this because this is excitatory, it actually primes our system and switches us on and is the fight / flight response. Conversely when we are relieved we sigh and this is the rest / relax response and allows our system to chill out. A lot of people get stuck in a fight / flight state due to constant stimulation of technology and light and are unable to get into a rest / relax state effectively and this also leads / causes over breathing.
If an individual gets stuck in this hypervigilant state for a long period of time (this is termed General Adaptation Syndrome) whilst over breathing leading to hypoxia then they can start to experience lots of negative side effects, and long term it can be very detrimental. This state leads to an internal battle for your system to keep itself in balance with different hormonal responses (long term production of adrenaline and cortisol) which further exacerbate the problem. It is a really slippery slope. (You can see all the responses in the diagram above).
Being in this state can / will lead to: lack of quality of sleep; disrupted digestion; development of food intolerances / allergies; poor mood; impaired concentration & cognition; brain fog; fatigue; unexplained physical pains; poor mental health; impaired immune system so increased likelihood of getting ill and so on.
So in these cases while it makes sense to clean up what you eat and be mindful of not eating junk food that is full of rubbish or harder to process the diet is not the problem. Instead you need to identify what is the cause of the problem and address that, not the more superficial things.
Signs that you are an “over breather” (it can be hard to spot in yourself because as soon as you pay attention to how you breathe you change how you breathe) include: air “hunger” (never feeling you can get enough oxygen in); high breathing rate; excessive swallowing; excessive sighing; disrupted breathing rhythm (for instance taking a number of shallow breaths and then a big one); chest breathing; mouth breathing; dizziness; not feeling refreshed from sleep; fatigue; feeling cold all the time and more.
As you can see there are a whole host of problems associated with breathing that most people never realise. If someone is an “over breather” (and most people are) and they have any of the listed symptoms then the scope for systemic improvement by improving their breathing is huge. Not only can you improve many aspects of physical well being but this will impact on mental / emotional health, and also allow easier and more complete resolution of any physical injuries / pains that you may be experiencing.
In Part 3 I shall be introducing two of the best ways to start improving your health with the breath and going through the basics of how to start implementing these in daily life to get on top of persistent problems.