Chronic hyperventilation; have you got it, what is it, and how do you fix it?

By Dr Janet Winter, Posted on July 28, 2011

The consequences of chronic hyperventilation or over breathing can be many;  tired muscles, headaches, anxiety, poor sleep, fatigue, allergies, cold hands, breathlessness, stuffed nose, IBS…. The list goes on.

One definition of hyperventilation is breathing more than your body requires, so if you are sitting, but breathing as if you were running, that is hyperventilation.

But that’s not a problem is it? The more oxygen the better, no? Unfortunately not. There is nearly 10 times more oxygen than we need in the air we breathe, so it is really easy to get enough into our blood and get 98% saturation of haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen.

The problem comes when we flush out too much carbon dioxide by breathing too much; it’s not just a waste gas, but we need high amounts in our tissues, and  as there is very little in the air we breathe, we can  flush it out by breathing too much. (And we don’t get much more oxygen for our trouble, as you can’t get more than 100%!) In fact another definition of hyperventilation is by measuring blood gases and finding an abnormally low amount of carbon dioxide.

Well why do we need that carbon dioxide? Imagine that you have lots of oxygen in your blood stream. The blood supplies all the body tissues with this oxygen, but there has to be a mechanism to release that oxygen in the right amount, in the correct place, i.e in the tissues that need it most – the ones doing most work.  And what do the hard working tissues release? Carbon dioxide. Yes it is carbon dioxide that is the signal from those hard working muscles etc that more oxygen is needed.  So the high amounts of carbon dioxide in active tissues, trigger oxygen release from haemoglobin on red blood cells, and drive it out of the bloodstream to where it is required.

The problems arise when too much carbon dioxide is flushed from the system, and oxygen cannot be released efficiently from the bloodstream to the tissues that need it.  So THE MORE YOU BREATHE THE LESS OXYGEN YOU GET!  This is a very well documented effect, the Bohr effect.

So hyperventilation: tired muscles, headaches, anxiety, poor sleep, fatigue, allergies, cold hands, breathlessness, stuffed nose, IBS….   Do you recognise any of them?

The news doesn’t get any better, as this chronic hyperventilation is also known as hidden hyperventilation, and is unlikely to be recognised by your GP. Over the years you may collect more symptoms, with increased severity.

But the good news is that once you recognise it, you can put right this hyperventilation, and gently correct your breathing, often watching your troublesome symptoms dissolve away as you do.

This is what a Buteyko practitioner can help you with.

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