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The causes of chronic hyperventilation, which in simple terms means over-breathing or breathing a volume or air greater than bodily requirements, vary from individual to individual but are usually due to environmental factors or lifestyle habits. Often, chronic hyperventilation is simply the result of a lifelong habit of breathing through the mouth. The following six factors are more common in countries of increasing modernisation and affluence:

  1. Diet: Over-eating increases breathing volume due to the additional work that is required by the body to process and digest the extra food. Eating processed foods puts further pressure on the digestive system since these foods are generally acidic, thereby altering the pH of the blood. As the body strives to correct this imbalance, breathing increases in order to remove excess carbon dioxide (CO2).
  2. Talking: When we speak, we need to take in large breaths of air between each sentence. When we speak at length, over-breathing occurs. People who work in retail, telesales and teaching will know all too well how tired and constricted they can feel following a day’s work.
  3. Stress: When we are under stress, the ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. We react the same way to modern day stresses as we did when coming face to face with a predator thousands of years ago. The difference is, when confronted by a physical danger we had the option of fighting it or running away as fast as possible. In modern stressful situations, our breathing increases to prepare us for physical activity, but rarely do we perform the required physical exercise to burn off the adrenaline.
  4. Sedentary lifestyle: When we move our muscles we generate the gas carbon dioxide, which helps to maintain body oxygenation. (explained in more detail later) A lack of exercise results in lower production of CO2 and a larger breathing volume. Fifty years ago we performed an estimated four hours of physical exercise each day. Today, many people are lucky if they have half an hour of exercise daily.
  5. Big breathing: The widely-spread belief that it is beneficial to take big breaths is a major cause of over-breathing in the Western world. Stress counsellors, gym instructors, sports coaches, and media personnel who are misinformed about correct breathing volume often encourage the practice of taking deep breaths to bring more oxygen into the body. However, very often a deep breath is confused with a ‘big’ breath. A deep breath is what a baby takes naturally – a gentle, quiet inhalation using the diaphragm, as demonstrated by relaxed movements of the tummy. In contrast, a big breath is often taken in loudly through the mouth and generally involves upper chest movement, encouraging over-breathing.
  6. Higher temperatures: Modern homes and workplaces are often well-insulated but not always well ventilated. Stuffy central-heated rooms make it difficult for our bodies to regulate body temperature through the skin, therefore encouraging us to revert to the primitive method of heavier breathing.

 

When I talk about breathing volume, I am not just referring to the amount of air that we breathe while under stress, during an asthma attack, panic attack or physical exercise. There is no doubt that our breathing increases during these events, but they are usually temporary, only occupying a small amount of time in any day or week. What I mean by breathing volume is the amount of air we take in during everyday breathing, every minute, every hour of every day. Our everyday breathing habits are of far greater consideration than the amount of air we breathe during the short term, and it is this everyday breathing that is gradually affected by our environment and lifestyle.

Incorrect breathing has a significant effect on the oxygenation of the body, causing constriction of the blood vessels and airways, and reducing oxygen delivery to the cells. Depending on genetic predisposition, breathing more air than the body requires contributes to the following conditions:

 

  • High blood pressure
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep-disordered breathing (including snoring and sleep apnoea)
  • Asthma
  • Fatigue

If you suffer from any of these symptoms or generally feel lacking in energy, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the way you breathe. To make positive physiological changes to your health, it’s important to re-train your breathing habits – and I’m not talking about the ‘big breaths’ often espoused in Western yoga, Pilates, physiotherapy and other common relaxation techniques – in fact, I am talking about doing the opposite.

Mouth-breathing, movements from the upper chest and audible breaths are all clear signs that an individual is breathing in excess of their body’s needs. For example, these over-breathing habits are consistently seen in heart attack patients, closely linking excessive breathing volume with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. A research study of an intensive coronary unit in a Minneapolis hospital found that of 153 heart attack victims, 100% breathed predominantly using their upper chest, 75% were chronic mouth-breathers, and 70% demonstrated open mouthed breathing during sleep. Habitual over-breathing inevitably increases breathing volume, which can lead to a huge variety of symptoms and health problems.

 

Patrick McKeown

Ireland – November 2015