How Healthy is Your Breathing?
How we breathe is commonly considered to be innate; that we breathe according to nature. This is only partly true as breathing changes in response to many environmental conditions including stress, lack of exercise, processed foods, overeating, false beliefs about what constitutes good breathing, chemicals, pollution, overheating in houses and other factors. The reality is that we do not live according to nature. In simple terms good breathing can be measured by whether we adhere to three basic principles.
The first is that breathing during rest should be unnoticeable and silent, the second that all breathing should be through the nose and third that we use the diaphragm. Healthy infants and wild animals will adhere to these principals. The same however does not apply to many children over three years of age or adults. Chronic hyperventilation is the term used to describe breathing a volume of air greater than bodily requirements. It is a habit whereby the respiratory centre within the brain becomes programmed to maintain a larger breathing volume than normal. An adult can habitually breathe two to three times more air per minute than required without it being overtly noticeable.
It is chronic rather than acute with the main characteristics being seemingly innocuous periodic mouth breathing, regular sighs or sniffing, audible breathing, yawning with big breaths and upper chest breathing. Normally when people think about breathing, oxygen is considered as a good gas and carbon dioxide as waste. However, this is not the complete picture. For normal bodily functioning, it is essential that the body has a certain level of both gases.
Carbon dioxide or CO2 is a gas created from our metabolic process as an end product. If we breathe too heavily, CO2 is exhaled or washed from our lungs. A loss of CO2 from the lungs results in a reduction of CO2 in the blood, tissues and cells.
What are the functions of carbon dioxide?
a) The release of oxygen from red blood cells depends on the partial pressure or quantity of carbon dioxide in your lungs/arterial blood. When one is overbreathing, carbon dioxide is removed from the body, causing the oxygen to “stick” to haemoglobin within the red blood cells. This prevents its release into tissues and organs. This bond, discovered in 1904, is known as the Bohr Effect. Ironically, the heavier you breathe the less oxygen is released to tissues and organs.
b) Carbon dioxide relaxes the smooth muscles that surround the airways, arteries and capillaries. With a normal breathing volume of five litres of air per minute, the partial pressure of carbon dioxide amounts to 40mmHg. Each 1mmHg drop of arterial CO2 reduces blood flow to the brain by 2% . In other words; oxygenation of your brain significantly decreases when you breathe heavily. It is no coincidence that persons who noticeably breathe during sleep and rest often have poor concentration, fatigue, vertigo and a racing mind.
c) Professor Buteyko points to the loss of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as the cause of airway obstruction in asthma. Similarly, in a paper entitled The Mechanism of Bronchoconstriction Due To Hypocapnia in Man , Sterling writes, “hypocapnia (loss of Carbon Dioxide) due to voluntary hyperventilation in man causes increased resistance to airflow”. Furthermore, when subjects inhaled an air mixture containing 5% carbon dioxide “bronchoconstriction was prevented, indicating that it had been due to hypocapnia, not to mechanical factors associated with hyperventilation”
Now we examine the role of chronic overbreathing in common conditions such as rhinitis/hay fever, asthma, snoring, anxiety and crooked teeth.
Allergic rhinitis or hay fever describes inflammation of the upper airways manifesting as symptoms such as a blocked, runny nose, sneezing or loss of smell. The standard Sino Nasal Outcome Test (SNOT) for evaluating rhinitis/sinusitis patients lists additional symptoms such as cough, dizziness, facial pain pressure, waking up at night, lack of a good night’s sleep, waking up tired, fatigue, reduced productivity, reduced concentration, irritable, sad and embarrassed. There is no doubt that rhinitis is not only uncomfortable, but also lowers quality of life.
Buteyko explained that rhinitis is due to chronic overbreathing which causes pooling of venous blood in the nose. In addition to swollen blood vessels, there is an increased secretion of mucus which narrows nasal passages and creates a feeling of suffocation during nasal breathing. A partially blocked nose results in mouth breathing thus increasing breathing volume and completing the circle. Dr Buteyko developed an exercise to unblock the nose which works by simply holding the breath to accumulate carbon dioxide. (click here for free video)
The Buteyko Method has received more attention in the western world as a treatment for asthma than for any other condition. In 1998 it was the subject of a compelling QED documentary  by the BBC, a House of Commons debate  during 2002 and recognition by the British Thoracic Society during 2008 . The first clinical trials were conducted at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane , Australia. After three months follow up, the Buteyko group had 90% less need for reliever medication, 50% reduced need for steroid medication and a significant improvement to quality of life. Further trials held at Gisborne Hospital, New Zealand  showed an 86% reduced need for reliever medication and a 50% reduced need for steroid medication.
The most recent Buteyko trial was conducted at Calgary hospital, Canada . Results at six months follow up found asthma control improving from 40% to 79% with a reduced need for steroid medication. (click here
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