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Are You a Chronic Over-breather?

Publication date: 15 April 2014

My favourite form of biofeedback is capnometry - a capnometer measures carbon dioxide in the breath which is the best way of detecting over-breathing. (Over-breathing is also known as hyperventilation).  It's my favourite firstly because so many of my clients are over-breathers (and most of them without knowing it) and secondly because I know if I can teach people to breathe well, then they will reliably feel different (and better).

Why are so many of my clients over-breathers? Most of my clients seek my help in one or both of two areas: 1. managing stress and anxiety and 2. dealing with fatigue and brain fog. Over-breathing is important because it reduces oxygen delivery to brain cells - in extreme cases by up to 60%. Most of the people I see are not extreme cases, in fact they wouldn't guess they are over-breathers, but they are typically 10-30% down on the optimum oxygen delivery. As a result, "executive function" suffers - the brain struggles to keep in check emotions like anxiety and anger, and also struggles with focus and motivation. It seems that breathing is a sensitive marker for this kind of problem. I'd say over 90% of people I see for these issues are at least mild over-breathers.

Another reason over-breathing is common is that we're often encouraged to practice deep breathing as a relaxation measure. In my experience this induces over-breathing, more often than not. Even forms of biofeedback such as Heart Rate Variability can induce over-breathing in the unwary.

So how would you know if you are a chronic over-breather? Of course the best way is to measure your breathing, but short of that, what are the signs and symptoms?

Hyperventilation can be acute or chronic. Acute is usually easy to spot, because it involves a change - the onset of unexplained breathlessness or air hunger, a feeling of tightness or even pain in the chest, light-headedness or dizziness or feeling faint. There may be nausea, sweating, palpitations, or tingling in the hands and feet.

Sometimes this kind of hyperventilation seems to come on with no apparent trigger. Probably there is a baseline mild over-breathing, which means that it's easy to drop into a worse state in response to something innocuous like eating a meal (which tends to increase breathing) or mild stress.

Chronic over-breathing is harder to spot because it doesn't necessarily change - we're talking about background symptoms. Here are the main ones:

  • Frequent sighing, yawning with big breaths
  • Irregular breathing & breath-holding
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia, disturbed sleep
  • Depression, anxiety, mood problems
  • Headaches, migraines
  • Poor concentration, executive function
  • Cold, numb or tingling in hands, feet
  • Gastro-intestinal: bloating, IBS
  • Blurred or hazy vision
  • Muscle pain or spasms or stiffness

Chest Breathing

Most people in this category of mild chronic over-breathing are predominantly chest breathers. There is a connection: the brain circuit that regulates breathing links to the diaphragm, which gets a somewhat locked up in chest breathing, thus breaking the control circuit.

Try sitting in front of a mirror, so that you can see your chest and abdomen. Watch for the subtle movements as you breathe. If you can see any lifting of the shoulders or the upper chest, this is chest breathing - it's a kind of lifting of the whole thorax. The opposite, abdominal breathing, is more of a sideways movement. If you're sitting at rest, there should be no need for the lifting movements - that should be your reserve capacity for when you are physically active.

You can also try feeling the movements by putting one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. Which one moves the most? It should be the belly hand.

If you think you are a chest breather or an over-breather, you may have a lot to gain from finding a capnometry biofeedback practitioner near you.

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