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Breathing can be measured in two ways: the first is to count the number of breaths per minute; the second is to determine the size of each breath. Normal breathing rate for a grown adult at rest is about twelve breaths per minute, taking in half a litre of air per breath. These average measurements give a volume of six litres of air per minute.

During asthma, hyperventilation, or a panic attack, breathing volume can increase to more than twenty litres per minute – a level that is both detrimental to health and unsustainable for a lengthy period. Less obvious, however, but far more prevalent, is the habit of over-breathing during day-to-day life. Breathing in excess of normal requirements can be the cause of many common ailments as well as leading to the development of more serious illnesses. Habitual over-breathing will cause negative effects to health when sustained over a long period of time.

Over-breathing means regularly breathing a greater amount of air than the body requires, and is characterised by breathing through the mouth, regular sighing, and upper chest breathing. The long-term effects of over-breathing may lead to organ damage, resulting in the development of illness, respiratory problems, heart disease, high blood pressure and other health issues.

The size of the breath is an important factor in recognising over-breathing, since counting the number of breaths alone is not enough to indicate whether a person is breathing too much. When I look at a person’s breathing I observe them from the moment they walk into the room: checking if they breathe through their nose or mouth, observing the size of each breath, noting whether breathing movements are from the upper chest or abdomen, measuring an approximate number of breaths per minute, and seeing if there is a natural pause between breaths. The purpose of determining over-breathing is not necessarily to measure the amount of oxygen a person is breathing in, but how little carbon dioxide is retained by the blood supply as a result of an abnormal breathing volume.

For normal, healthy functioning, the body requires a certain amount of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. When I speak to groups at workshops, it is unanimously recognised that oxygen is a gas essential to life, but students are often surprised to hear that carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas. In terms of breathing, the two must work hand in hand.

Patrick McKeown

Ireland – November 2015