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Sleeping with the Enemy

Do you often wake from sleep with a headache?

If we exclude being ill and having drunk too much alcohol before going to bed what causes you to wake with a headache?

Often lethargy and extreme tiredness may accompany your headache upon waking. Why does this happen?

My experience and learning tells me that it is due to a lack of oxygen to your brain whilst sleeping. You may think  inhaling great lungfuls of air through your mouth or nose should give you plenty of oxygen during sleep.

Unfortunately this is not true. It may give you plenty of air but not necessarily enough oxygen.

We all know that air is comprised of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and .04% carbon dioxide (“CO2”). But did you know that within the tiny air sacs in our lungs (known as alveoli)  the composition of the air is 14% oxygen and 6% CO2?

The exchange of air gases which occurs within our alveoli results in oxygen being conveyed to our blood cells and tissues.

Although we need to rid our lungs of excessive CO2 when we exhale nevertheless CO2 serves a very important function by:

  1. working with haemoglobin
  2. regulating our breathing.

Without the right amount of CO2 pressure the haemoglobin won’t release an adequate amount of oxygen so that it can be carried by our arteries and veins to our tissues.

When we are exercising and our body is working hard it makes an abundance of heat and CO2, and in doing so, ensures a steady flow of oxygen to our tissues. But when we are asleep our body must rely upon the regularity of our breathing to ensure the steady flow of oxygen so that the restorative benefits of sleep can occur.


According to Mosby’s Medical, Nursing & Allied Health Dictionary (4th ed, 1994,  Mosby -Year Book, Inc, USA ) hyperventilation is defined as follows:

A pulmonary ventilation rate that is greater than metabolically necessary for the exchange of pulmonary gases. It is as a result of an increased frequency of breathing, an increased tidal volume or a combination of both, and causes an excessive intake of oxygen and elimination of carbon dioxide.

So if we are breathing too deeply and too quickly we will rid our body of a larger volume of CO2 than is necessary. Once this happens we will not receive enough oxygen. Think of those times when you have felt light headed and dizzy after blowing up too many balloons, blowing up an air mattress or after laughing long and hard. These are concrete examples of hyperventilation which have caused you to feel this way.

I was a chronic mouth breather who inhaled and exhaled too much air. I also had no regularity in my breathing pattern – it was dysfunctional both during the day and at night.

Regulating our breathing

Our respiratory settings are contained in our brain – the medulla bulb. This part of our brain controls our breathing. Sleep apnoea occurs when there are problems in the respiratory centre of our brain.

Buteyko breathing teaches that we need the right amount of CO2 so that it can regulate our breathing.

Breathing and the pH of arterial blood are reliant on each other to a large extent because breathing plays an important role in regulating the pH of the blood and the pH of the blood reciprocates by regulating the breathing. When the amount of CO2 is at a certain level it triggers the urge to breathe.

It is my clear understanding that when I experienced an apnoea (or pause in my breathing) during sleep my lungs were waiting for the CO2 levels to increase to a level where the urge to breathe was triggered.

So if we regulate our breathing during the day we can better regulate our breathing during sleep at night.

I found the retraining of my brain’s respiratory settings to be both the greatest challenge and the greatest benefit of undergoing reduced breathing exercises.  I will tell you why in my next post.

Please feel free to share your experiences.


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