If you stopped breathing for ~4 minutes you would die.
That makes breathing the single most important thing you do each day.
But how much do you actually know about breathing?
What if I told you that over 90% of people breathe dysfunctionally?
What if I told you that over 150 different health conditions have been shown to be rooted in dysfunctional breathing?
Dysfunctional breathing starves your body’s cells of oxygen. This is bad. Really bad.
The truth is that functional breathing (think healthy, normal breathing) is the foundation of health. Functional breathing ensures the proper oxygenation of your body’s cells. Oxygen is the key. For this reason it is so important to understand the effects of hyperventilation.
If you haven’t experienced a hyperventilation attack yourself, you have likely at least seen one (maybe even in a tv show or movie). Generally, it involves large breaths through the mouth, with the chest and shoulders moving up and down.
Hyperventilation can lead to tingling and numbness in the extremities, lightheadedness, and if prolonged, even to a loss of consciousness. Not good.
But what is going on? You may even be thinking, “Hyperventilation is just breathing more air, doesn’t that just increase oxygen levels in the body?” Nope. It doesn’t.
In fact, it does quite the opposite. Check out this brain scan that shows oxygen levels in the brain before and after hyperventilating:
Hyperventilation & Brain Oxygenation
On the left you see the brain of a person who is breathing normally. The oxygen levels are high..up above 90% in many areas. This same person was then asked to hyperventilate for one minute, resulting in the brain scan on the right. As you can see (I know the scale is a bit hard to read), the oxygen levels in the brain dropped by as much as 50% in some areas!
So just by breathing more air, the brain received less oxygen. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but I’ll explain why it makes perfect sense. To help you understand what is going on, it is important to know the medical definition of hyperventilation. This is according to the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary:
Excessive rate and depth of respiration leading to abnormal loss of carbon dioxide from the blood.
Notice how there is no mention of oxygen. In fact, you won’t see a single definition of hyperventilation that even mentions oxygen. But, they all mention the ‘loss of carbon dioxide from the blood’.
Carbon Dioxide Is Your Friend
No, we’re not going to get into a discussion about global warming.
We’re going to focus on carbon dioxide inside the body. As children (and in too many yoga classes), we are taught that we inhale oxygen and we exhale the toxic waste gas: carbon dioxide.
That’s only partly true…and quite misleading.
The truth is that (at rest) we only exhale about 12% of the carbon dioxide that is produced in the body. This is because carbon dioxide has many roles inside the body, with the primary role being: to assist in the release of oxygen from the hemoglobin. Carbon dioxide actually plays a major role in helping to deliver oxygen to your cells. Hyperventilation decreases carbon dioxide levels in the blood, and reduces total body oxygenation through two well-known physiological effects:
When carbon dioxide levels drop in your blood (due to hyperventilation), it causes the smooth muscle lining of the blood vessels to spasm and can reduce the area the blood has to flow through by up to 75%! This phenomenon is called vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction increases the burden on the heart as it has to work harder to pump blood throughout the body.
2. The Bohr Effect
The Bohr Effect was discovered in 1904 and teaches us that carbon dioxide signals to the hemoglobin when and where to release oxygen. The hemoglobin (molecules inside the red blood cells that bond to oxygen and carry it throughout the body), holds on to oxygen until signaled to release it. When carbon dioxide levels drop (due to hyperventilation) the hemoglobin holds on to more oxygen, making less available to your organs, tissues, and cells.
These two physiological effects compound each other’s effects and starve your cells of oxygen. So not only are you getting less blood flow to the brain (and other major organs), but the blood that is arriving is holding on to more of the oxygen…making less available to the cells. And if you’re thinking that sounds bad, you’re absolutely right. In fact, in The Medical Textbook of Physiology, Dr. Arthur C. Guyton states:
All chronic pain, suffering, and diseases are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cell level.
Chronic Hyperventilation (a.k.a. Overbreathing)
You may be wondering how all of this talk of hyperventilation applies to you.
Personally, I have never had an acute hyperventilation attack or panic attack. But back in 2011, at the height of my stress and anxiety, I was chronically hyperventilating. The truth is that there’s a 90% chance that you are as well. That’s because over 90% of people now chronically hyperventilate.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, back before 1950, the majority of people were breathing a healthy (“normal”) volume of air. This is easy to see in the chart below. Minute Ventilation is a medical measurement of the volume of air a person breathes in one minute’s time. The normal range for minute ventilation is 4-6 liters per minute.
Minute Ventilation (liters/min)
The gray bar in the above chart represents the normal range for minute ventilation. Back pre-1950, people generally breathed in this range. But, starting in the 1950s, something started to change, and the minute ventilation began to increase to where the average “healthy” person today breathes 12 liters of air per minute. That’s 2-3 times the normal range! And for people with chronic disease? It’s even higher!
Unlike acute hyperventilation that may only last a few minutes, chronic hyperventilation means a person is breathing too much air ALL of the time. Just like you can overeat, you can also overbreathe.
Chronic hyperventilation leads to chronically low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Studies have shown that even a small decrease in carbon dioxide affects cerebral blood flow. For each 1mmHg drop in carbon dioxide pressure, blood flow to the brain decreases by 2-3%1.
Symptoms of Chronic Hyperventilation
I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to breathing retraining when I was, because the brain isn’t the only organ that doesn’t like being under-oxygenated. Chronic hyperventilation starves all the major organs of oxygen. This is why the symptoms of hyperventilation are so diverse. They tend to manifest in the weakest link–whether due to genetics or prior injury.
Can you imagine the long-term effects of under-oxygenating your heart, liver, or kidneys?
This is why dysfunctional breathing is so detrimental. Dr. Claude Lum says:
“Symptoms [of chronic hyperventilation] may show up anywhere, in any organ, in any system; for we are dealing with a profound biochemical disturbance, which is as real as hypoglycemia, and more far reaching in its effects.”
Understanding the far-reaching effects of chronic hyperventilation (and other forms of dysfunctional breathing) is the first step in overcoming many health conditions long-term.
1Anxiety, Respiration and Cerebral Blood Flow: Implications for Functional Brain Imaging