The recent rains in Southern California have left the Los Angeles air clean and smelling like eucalyptus, and I’ve been taking full advantage, inhaling the (relatively) fresh air as much as I can, hiking with my dogs in Elysian park. But I’ve begun to notice that, lately, I’m yawning and sighing a lot. I yawn even as I write this. It’s not because I’m tired–I slept plenty. But I find myself frequently craving a deep, consummate breath–and getting one–on a regular basis. I thought this was a sign of good respiratory conditioning; I swim and hike every day. I’ve also begun to notice a faint but consistent, high-pitched ringing in my ears. I had no idea that those gulps of air and the ear ringing could be symptoms of a little-known phenomeon called Chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome. Hyper=too much; ventilation=air. Too much air. Too much oxygen. Too much oxygen? Isn’t oxygen a good thing? Don’t they have bars where you have to buy it?
I had also been taught, in my bodywork courses, that oxygen was one of the things I didn’t have to consume in moderation. Not so. This condition of over-breathing, or Chronic Hyperventilation, is actually widespread; some estimates claim that 90% of the population suffers from some degree of CHS.* When you survey the list of related symptoms in the article below, you may find that you also have a touch of it. Then, you can find out what to do about it.
*Michael Lingard, “Chronic Hypterventilation & A Proven Solution, Oct. 2007.
Oh, that tempting yawn, that satisfying sigh, that craving for air, that almost-tickle, almost-giggle, where the base of your throat meets the top of your lungs….time for another deep full breath. Or…maybe not.
Craving air when you are sitting or moving moderately–when your muscles and activity level do not demand it–could be an indication that you are already receiving too much oxygen. Those extra deep sighs and fulfilling yawns feel so good, but they can also perpetuate a cycle of neuro-pulmonary dependence and physiological hazard.
Too much breathing can be bad for us. Why?
Very (very) simply: We breathe in oxygen and breathe out excess carbon dioxide, the poisonous waste product of the respiration process. But our bodies can only use so much oxygen at once; if we take in too much, the carbon dioxide concentration of our blood drops to below its normal level, raising the blood’s pH value, making it more alkaline. This initiates the constriction of blood vessels which supply oxygen to the rest of the body, preventing the transport of oxygen and other molecules necessary for the function of the nervous system.
Carbon dioxide regulates the activity of the autonomic nervous system. If carbon dioxide is low, it stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, putting the body on alert: we go into fight/flight mode, which is appropriate in an emergency. But when we continually over-breathe, we end up in a chronic emergency state. Our breath becomes shallow and quick, our digestive system works less efficiently, our blood vessels and smooth muscles constrict and spasm. We might experience ‘brain fog,’ dizziness, lightheadedness, anxiety, and a host of other symptoms (see below).
Asthma is believed to be an extreme case of hyperventilation. In an article entitled Hyperventilation Syndrome and Asthma, Demeter and Cordasco note, “Hyperventilation, whether spontaneous or exercise induced, is known to cause asthma.”2 Meaning asthma is the result of hyperventilation, rather than its cause. The onset of a possible asthma attack can result in a short period of rapid breathing. By controlling this initial ’emergency,’ over-breathing phase, asthmatics can prevent a vicious circle of over-breathing from developing into an asthma attack. By breathing less, an asthmatic (or all of us) can breathe better.
According to Brenda Stimpson, physiotherapist and President of “Breathing Wise, Inc,” in Pasadena, “The brain gets used to an increased breathing volume and it works hard to maintain this higher volume. Sneaking in extra breaths in the form of frequent sighs and yawns is one way the brain keeps chronic hyperventilators hyperventilating.”
Who would have thought it possible: Oxygen addiction!
The urge to sigh or yawn, we all know, is contagious. Even the thought of sighing brings on the desire. But, “It only takes one sigh every seven minutes to maintain chronic hyperventilation,” Stinson says. I know I sigh a lot more often than that.
The most common symptoms of Chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome include: shortness of breath, frequent sighing or yawning, chest pains, heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, cold, tingling or numb lips or extremities, headache, chest pain, coughing, blurred or double vision, panic attacks, snoring, restless sleep, yawning, sighing, ringing in ears, muscle spasms, twitching, cramps. CHS has been known to be associated with a vast number of other diseases, as well.
While learning how to breathe for health can be a long-term, lifelong process, the most important thing to do is SLOW DOWN your breathing. In the 1960s, the late Konstantin Buteyko, a Ukrainian doctor, developed a series of breathing exercises that focus on nasal breathing, controlled breath holding and relaxation. His method is widely used in the management of ashtma.
In short, to reverse the negative effects of chronic hyperventilation, we need to breathe less. Two things you can do:
1) always breathe through your nose
2) try swallowing when you feel the constant urge to yawn or sigh
Breathing through the nose limits air intake and forces breath to slow down. Proper nose breathing reduces hypertension and stress for most people.
Also, the nostrils and sinuses filter, clean, and warm the air going into the lungs. Mouth breathers bypass this critical cleansing step. Training yourself to nose breathe while waking can help the way you breathe while sleeping. Mouth breathing also accelerates water loss increasing possible dehydration. Nasal breathing is especially important in certain situations such as dehydration, cold weather, laryngitis, and when the throat is sore or dry because it does not dry the throat as much.
Some fitness trainers advocate nose breathing for their athletes. It increases lung efficiency and endurance, and reduces recovery time. (On the other hand, nose breathing while swimming is not advisable!)
I thought I was primarily a nose breather, but once I started paying attention to this, I started catching myself frequently breathing through my mouth. It takes concentration, constant reminders, and patience, but it’s well worth it. Stress goes down. The world feels more manageable.
Swallowing is a way to replace and squelch the urge to yawn or sigh. At first, you may have to keep swallowing, again and again, until your brain ‘gets it’.
For more information on how to deal with chronic hyperventilation, please see the links page in this newsletter.
1. Kenneth Baillie and Alistair Simpson. “Hyperventilation calculator”
2. The American Journal of Medicine; December 1986; Vol. 81; p989. Hyperventilation Syndrome and Ashtma. (Demeter, Cordasco.)
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