Breathing should be the most natural thing in the world but some of us have a tendency to overdo it! The medical term for this type of 'overdoing it' is hyperventilation syndrome and doctors have called it a silent epidemic.
Many women's lives are stressful and breathing is one of the vital functions that stress disrupts. In high pressure situations the body's 'fight or flight' response increases breathing. This mechanism was designed for emergency or short-term use. It gives us the energy and extra strength we need when we have to run faster, fight harder or stay awake longer. However, today our stressors tend to be sedentary and ongoing – money worries, relationship issues, traffic hassles. When we're sitting at the office, stressed out about our workload, we do not need additional breathing – we're not fighting or running from anyone – but our fight or flight response is making us breathe more. More than we need, in fact. For many of us this 'fight or flight' response is stuck on "on" and we are wired for action and breathing fast much of the time.
Over-breathing on an ongoing basis will, for many people, result in hyperventilation symptoms. An estimated 6-10 percent of the population suffers from hyperventilation syndrome to some degree, and the disorder seems to be especially prevalent in women aged 15-55 years. Doctors have called it a silent epidemic – silent because it is often misdiagnosed (the symptoms mimic other disorders) and epidemic because of the large number of people affected. Chronic hyperventilation symptoms can affect almost any part of the body, but they typically include at least one or two of the following:
- Frequent deep sighs and / or yawns
- Feeling like you cannot 'get your breath' or take a deep breath
- Dizziness, feeling 'spaced out', brain fog
- Chest pain or chest tightness
- Palpitations, racing heart
- Tingling or numb lips and / or arm (s)
- Tiredness, weakness, poor exercise tolerance
- High anxiety and phobias, panic attacks, broken sleep
- Achy muscles or joints
These symptoms occur as a result of inadequate carbon dioxide in the blood and poor oxygen delivery to the brain and other tissues. When you hyperventilate you blow off too much carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is an important chemical compound and we need a certain level of it in our blood and air sacs for our bodies to function properly. Low levels cause the blood vessels and airways to constrict. This can result in asthma symptoms for those who are susceptible, and less blood getting to vital organs and tissues. Carbon dioxide also regulates how much oxygen is released to the tissues. If we have low levels of carbon dioxide then hemoglobin hangs onto its oxygen molecules and does not release them as readily to the brain and other oxygen-hungry organs and tissues. So we get less blood delivering less oxygen. These effects, along with biochemical changes that occur within cells, cause the disturbing symptoms experienced by people with Hyperventilation Syndrome.
Standard medical treatment is to offer the individual a course of anti-anxiety medication in order to calm the mind and reduce breathing. However, this does not address the underlying breathing problem and symptoms often recur or are unresolved. Effective drug-free treatment involves learning to reduce your breathing volume and regain a healthy breathing pattern. It might take 6 or more weeks of daily practice if you have had symptoms for a long time, but the reward will be no more frightening symptoms, better tissue oxygenation and better health overall.
If you think you might have a problem with your breathing, or you experience any of these chronic hyperventilation symptoms, you should discuss it with your doctor or other health professional with a specialist knowledge of breathing problems. Buteyko Breathing practitioners specialize in hyperventilation treatment and these practitioners can be found on the internet.
Normal breathing should be undetectable at rest and during quiet activities. If you can see or hear your breathing you are breathing too much. The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu said, "Perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing." This is a hint to all of us to slow down and breathe less for better health.