We would all agree that eating too much or drinking too much isn’t good for our health. Neither is breathing too much, but many of us do it without realising it.
Overbreathing is a result of many factors of modern life: stress, anxiety, over-eating, processed foods, sedentary lifestyle, tension, the need to be busy all the time, chronic pain and illness, and more.
For most people the signs of overbreathing are subtle. These can include:
- regular sighs, sniffs, or coughs
- unconscious breath holding when concentrating
- taking large breaths before talking or between sentences (often through the mouth)
- audible breathing at rest
- heavy breathing at night
- visible body movement when breathing, especially in the chest and shoulders
Implications of overbreathing
Overbreathing causes an imbalance in oxygen and carbon dioxide, with a marked reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. When too much CO2 is exhaled, the levels of CO2 in the blood, tissues and cells also reduces.
The decrease in carbon dioxide with overbreathing decreases blood flow to the brain and tissues. CO2 must be present for our red blood cells to release oxygen into the tissues – without it, oxygen molecules ‘stick’ to haemoglobin (known as the Bohr Effect), so even though you’re taking in more oxygen, it’s not getting to where it’s needed in the body. This can lead to brain fog, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, low exercise stamina, and more.
Heavy breathing causes airways to collapse. If you imagine breathing through a paper straw, if you breathe in hard and fast, the paper straw will collapse. If you breathe gently and smoothly through the straw, it will stay open. Overbreathing at night leads to snoring and sleep apnoea (holding of breath during sleep), and in some cases insomnia. It is impossible to snore when breathing is calm, and when the airways stay open in the night sleep apnoea does not occur.
Carbon dioxide is the ‘relax’ gas. CO2 relaxes the smooth muscle in our airways and blood vessels, allowing for easier flow. CO2 is also associated with stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system – or the ‘rest and digest’ mode. Low levels of CO2 can contribute to anxiety and panic attacks (which is why people breathe into a paper bag – to bring up their levels of CO2), and it can constrict the blood flow to the brain via the carotid artery.
Correct your breathing
Breathing should be smooth, silent, and slow. It should be done only through the nose, not the mouth, and into the lower part of the lungs (diaphragmatic breathing), not shallowly into the chest. Observe your breathing throughout the day, and if you catch yourself overbreathing, correct yourself. The more you are aware of dysfunctional breathing and correct it, the more functional your breathing becomes by habit.
If you are feeling anxious, stressed, or light headed, take a few minutes to slow down your breathing, taking in a little less oxygen and extending your exhales slightly longer than your inhales. Count to yourself as you inhale quietly and slowly for a count of 4, and exhale smoothly for a count of 6. Breathe in through your nose, deep into the belly, nice and slowly.
Retrain your breathing habits
We are born knowing how to breathe correctly. Something happens along the way which contributes to unhealthy breathing habits which can be difficult to break. Functional breath retraining can help undo these habits and create new, healthier ones which have long term systemic health benefits.
Get in touch today for help with retraining your breathing: