Why is the way I breathe so important?

The way we breathe can have a major impact on multiple bodily functions. You may not realise that a lot of physical symptoms that we experience everyday can be related to poor breathing patterns. The most common breathing dysfunctions I see in clinical practice are hyperventilation and mouth-breathing, which often occur together. It is important to recognise that breathing dysfunction is not a disease in itself – it is rather ‘dys-functional’ as opposed to ‘functional’ breathing, which ideally maintains the body in a state of balance without using excess energy and resources.

Hyperventilation Syndrome (HVS) is defined as breathing in excess of the body’s needs, which reduces the level of carbon dioxide in the blood below normal range. Believe it or not, maintaining carbon dioxide levels is actually important for healthy functioning of our bodies. Lowered carbon dioxide levels from hyperventilation increase the body’s pH or ‘alkalinity,’ which triggers a series of adaptive changes that produce symptoms (see flowchart below):

Chaitow. L, Bradley. D & Gilbert. C (2014) Recognising and Treating Breathing Disorders, 2nd Edition, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier

What are the consequences of not breathing well? Why and how does this happen?

As you can see in the flowchart above, there can be multiple consequences that arise from hyperventilation or ineffective breathing. The possible symptoms of HVS or over-breathing are not just limited to those listed above.

Stress or traumatic events cause us to feel anxious, which supercharges our sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for dealing with danger or perceived threat. This then triggers over-breathing (hyperventilation) which only further exacerbates the anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. When the body is on ‘high alert’ we can develop the sensation of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and tense muscles, especially in the upper body (chest, neck, shoulders and jaw). These muscles begin to ache and it is at this point that people may come to see their osteopath with back pain, neck pain, jaw pain or headaches, often unaware that the underlying culprit may in fact be the way they are breathing!

The vicious cycle continues as due to upper body tension, breathing may become more rapid. As excess carbon dioxide is lost through over-breathing, the blood becomes more alkaline. As the body wants to restore a state of balance, the kidneys will excrete calcium into the urine in an attempt to increase the blood’s acidity. Loss of calcium further contributes to increased muscle tension and even muscle pain, cramping and altered heart rhythms!

Additional symptoms of HVS and mouth-breathing can also include voice disorders (dysphonia), sleep apnoea, snoring, frequent sinus infections and chronic cough (of no explained medical cause). If you think about it, most of us have experienced at least one of these symptoms at various times in our life!

How can I improve my breathing?

There are simple breathing exercises that can be performed on a daily basis to help reduce hyperventilation or inefficient breathing. These exercises (if performed correctly and regularly) can reduce muscle tension and sensations and symptoms of anxiety, as well as potentially reducing the frequency of sinus infections, snoring, chronic cough and voice hoarseness. Breathing exercises are tailored to the individual’s presenting problem, health status, physical capabilities and lifestyle. These exercises typically involve teaching clients how to slow down their breathing, encouraging deeper breathing (‘diaphragm breathing’) and the use of the deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor to assist with voice production.

About Catherine

Dr Catherine Coventry (Registered Osteopath) has previous experience working alongside a Buteyko Breathing Therapist in Newcastle. Catherine has also personally experienced the benefits of ‘breathing retraining’ to address her own chronic cough (associated with exercise) and chronic sinus infections and hayfever. As a singer Catherine also understands the importance of breathing for optimal vocal performance. She has worked with singers and sufferers of chronic dry cough to optimise voice production and reduce symptoms of throat irritation, pain and tightness. Catherine also frequently works with athletes to improve breathing for sports performance, as well as working with anxiety sufferers and patients with generalised neck, back and shoulder pain and stiffness.

Book an appointment with Catherine online at www.ogosh.com.au or phone our friendly team on (03) 4202 0446 or (03) 5255 5040 to discuss how Catherine can help you to achieve your health goals.