Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why Do I Overbreathe?

Last time I talked about chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome and its symptoms. Why do people become chronic over-breathers? It's a good question. The answer is, no one really knows for sure, but there are some good theories.

Firstly, like anything, there is probably some nature as well as some nurture involved. Our genes dictate, to some extent, whether or not we will develop certain health problems. For example, there is a large study underway by the COPD Research Registry called the COPD Gene study. It aims to determine why some smokers (about 10-20%) develop chronic lung disease and others do not. The theory is that the answer lies in nature and the genes we are encoded with.

For chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome, it is likely that some people, given certain triggers or life events, will have a tendency to over-breathe (perhaps others will get skin rashes, or stomach ulcers, or maybe they are all linked in some way - we do not really know).

With Hyperventilation Syndrome there seems to be a tendency to breathe with the upper chest rather than the diaphragm. Many people find diaphragmatic breathing difficult, even though it is the most energy-efficient means of quiet breathing. So, we have a genetic predisposition to overbreathe, and a tendency to not engage the diaphragm effectively.

Then there is usually some sort of stressor, or trigger, that sets off the symptoms. Hyperventilation Syndrome tends not to turn up overnight, like an unwelcome visitor, and stay forever. Usually the "visitor" sends warning signs to indicate they might be planning a visit, then they show up for a few days, until eventually they've moved in permanently and you don't know how it happened! In other words the symptoms start by being intermittent and only vaguely annoying and gradually get worse until they become quite frequent.

It is thought that stress, or an unresolved or ongoing distressing situation, may be a trigger in many people. We have always had stress in our lives, but with our modern existence becoming increasingly sedentary, this stress has a different impact.

We used to worry about finding enough food to eat and fending off predators or other groups competing for the same resources. This was certainly stressful, but it also involved physical activity. So with the stress came the 'fight or flight' response and an increase in breathing. But then we went off to fight the good fight and metabolically we needed the extra breathing in order to perform the tasks ahead of us.

Today, unfortunately, a lot of our stress comes from being in traffic, or while we're at work on the computer, or otherwise sitting around worrying about all the things we have to worry about. We have so many labor-saving devices, the increase in breathing that comes naturally with stress and worry is not matched with an increase in output. It's a little like getting all dressed up for the date that doesn't show.

Now, imagine months or even years of this. One thing after another. Eventually, the brain thinks "Now hang on, this body that I'm in charge of keeps breathing at this crazy level and blowing off all this carbon dioxide. I'm going to re-set the carbon dioxide 'thermostat' to a new lowered level. Let's make this the new 'normal' and keep instructing the lungs to breathe at this rate in order to maintain this new level. This body seems to like it, after all, or it wouldn't be doing it so much!". Bingo, we have symptoms that are with us a lot and we don't feel so good. This of course means more stress, as it's highly likely no one can tell you why you don't feel so good. Is it heart disease? Is it cancer? Oh dear, this is stressful. And on we breathe..........

And that, in a nutshell, is one of the main theories behind why some people (and it's a very conservatively estimated 10% of us) learn to over-breathe all the time and why others do not -although I would suggest that if any of us worked hard at it for long enough we could all achieve it.

Next time I think I'll answer the question "So what if I have low carbon dioxide and I breathe more than the next person?". Surely that means more oxygen, right? Maybe it's a good thing? Aaaaaah.... no! Remember, you can go to http://www.breathingwise.com/ for more information.

Legal Disclaimer: Unfortunately, because of the litigious world in which we live, I must remind you that this blog expresses my opinion only. Although my opinion is based on the most up to date, published research I can find, it has still been interpreted by me and remains an opinion, not fact. It takes a very long time for scientific theory to be classified as fact. Theories are 'proven' and 'disproven' for years before consensus is reached. So really, consider everything you read, here or anywhere else, as a theory and as information that may or may not apply to and/or assist you. I suggest you use any information you get here to start a discussion with a knowledgeable, compassionate health professional as to how it relates to your situation. I am not liable for any injury that you suffer supposedly as a result of anything you read here.

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