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When Less is More When it Comes to Breathing

Buteyko breathing teaches us how to achieve proper oxygenation of our tissues and organs by breathing less.

This appears counter intuitive (or seemingly contrary to commonsense). Why? Well, we are taught and encouraged from an early age to relax and take a deep breath. Pregnant mothers are taught deep breathing exercises during ante-natal classes.

Unfortunately when this advice involves a large mouthful of air inhaled so only the chest expands it will eventually lead us to sickness. Buteyko teaches that we should only use our nose for gently breathing (in and out). By doing so our diaphragm is engaged. Our chest should be still and our tummy should expand and contract in sync with our diaphragm.

Our cells need approximately 6.5% of CO2 and 2-3% O2. However the air we breathe contains only 0.3% CO2 and 21% O2. How is it that we survive? Is it not counter intuitive to expect that we can live as healthy beings with such an air composition?

Fortunately the gas exchange environment within the alveoli sacs in our lungs has 6.5% CO2. This is the amount necessary for normal oxygenation of our tissues and organs. The composition of gases within this environment must be preserved otherwise we risk imbalancing the pH of our blood which, in turn, regulates our breathing.

If we habitually mouth breathe we eventually blow out a greater amount of CO2 than is physiologically necessary. The consequence is that a CO2 deficit will result in O2 binding to haemoglobin instead of O2 being released to our tissues and organs (known as the Bohr effect).

If we mouth breathe we will inhale a greater volume of air and increase the likelihood of a greater rate of breaths being inhaled over time than is physiologically required. We will then begin to establish a pattern of hyperventilation which can, if unchecked, lead to oxygen starvation or hypoxia.

This MRI image shows a brain on the left exhibiting normal breathing. The red and yellow areas exhibit the highest O2 and the dark blue areas exhibit the least O2. The brain on the right shows a 40% reduction in O2 after 1 minute of over breathing. Not only is O2 availability reduced but glucose, required for brain functioning, is also significantly reduced due to a decrease in the diameter of the brain’s blood vessels. The hyperventialtion (or CO2 deficit) has led to a constriction of blood vessels (or vasoconstriction).

Try quickly blowing up several balloons and you will feel dizzy lightheaded, breathless and in need of air. In other words you will be hyperventilating, decreasing your CO2 and jeopardizing your ability to obtain the benefits of O2.

By slowly breathing through our nose we can regulate our breathing and the accumulation of Nitric Oxide (as described in my last post) will combine with CO2 to oxygenate our tissues and organs. We can achieve more oxygen saturation and achieve good health by breathing less.

I apologize for the complexity of the issues raised in this post. It may seem counter intuitive to have a complex and technical discussion on our respiratory system when breathing appears such a simple and an automatic function.

But dysfunctional breathing can quickly become an automatic function manifesting in asthma, sleep apnoea and other respiratory ailments. The simplicity of our breathing belies a series of complex functions which occur some 20,000 times each day.

So by breathing less we counter intuitively achieve greater oxygenation of our tissues and organs.

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