Chronic hyperventilation = chronic asphyxia!

hyperventilation - i need some oxygen - comic

Hyperventilation? Yet another issue that has nothing to do with me. Some people might think: “If I were to hyperventilate, I would know.”

Surely, there is the acute type of hyperventilation which shows up as a crisis and which no one can miss. But there is also the chronic type of hyperventilation, which is much more subtle and insidious, which we may not notice, and that dysregulate us over time, with very heavy consequences.

The main consequences hyperventilation: a poor oxygenation of the body

It is a paradox: hyperventilation deprives us of oxygen! The level of oxygen in the blood barely moves: it is very stable. What varies according to our breathing is rather the amount of CO2: the more you breathe, the more CO2 you eliminate! One would think that removing CO2 is a good thing because it is thought to be a waste for the body. The problem is that CO2 is also very useful.

Inside the red blood cells, there is hemoglobin. This large molecule (that gives the red color to the cells) can catch, thanks to the iron that it contains, oxygen molecules in order to to transport them in the bloodstream (because otherwise oxygen is very insoluble). The oxygen-hemoglobin bond is not very stable: when a red blood cell passes near a tissue that needs oxygen, this bond breaks and the tissue can benefit from that oxygen molecule.

transport of oxygen via hemoglobin - scheme

So far so good. Except that, if CO2 runs out in the blood (hyperventilation), it activates some mechanisms that will stabilize the oxygen-hemoglobin bond. The release of oxygen to the tissue is then very difficult.

No oxygenation of tissues without CO2 - scheme
Hyperventilation -> moins de CO2 -> l’oxygène ne parvient plus aux tissus

This is where things go wrong: the tissues lack oxygen and they complain to the brain. The latter then asks the lungs to breathe more in order to get that oxygen. Each breath releases CO2 – we are designed as follows: even if we lack CO2, each breath brings oxygen and releases CO2. So the amount of CO2 in the blood continues to decrease.

The more we breathe, the more we asphyxiate!

I need air! - comic

A risk of cancer?

Bad oxygenation of the body has an infinite number of harmful consequences. Healthy cells need oxygen to produce energy, and a lack of oxygen can cause the mutation of healthy cells into cancer cells. Indeed, it is a mechanism of adaptation: cancer cells have a mode of energy production that is anaerobic (without oxygen, via fermentation). Lack of oxygen is therefore a risk factor for cancer, as well as poor diet and lack of exercise.

Arterial pressure

The lack of CO2 (hypocapnia) causes the contraction of the blood vessels: the production of NO gas, which enables the dilatation of the vessels, is directly related to the amount of CO2 in the blood. Therefore, the lack of CO2 inhibits the release of NO gas by the endothelial cells1 (which lay on the inside wall of the blood vessels). Which prevents the dilatation of the vessels. The latter remains consequently contracted and the blood pressure raises.

the amount of NO depends on the amount of CO2 - scheme
The amount of NO gas which expands the vessels depends on the amount of CO2.

Poor brain flow and oxygenation

The brain is not spared by these mechanisms: the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from the rest of the body, allows free circulation of the CO2. For all the reasons we’ve seen previously, the brain is poorly irrigated and poorly oxygenated. So I will let to your imagination the potential damage to the nervous system and the consequences thus arising…

Symptoms

Is hyperventilation the origin of the problem, or only the symptom of a deeper problem? In any case, this dysregulation of the body does not really have any specific symptom, if only the permanent feeling of air shortage. Asthma is often associated with hyperventilation, but it is possible to hyperventilate without experiencing any asthma attack. Mouth breathing is often associated with hyperventilation.

Many chronic diseases could be linked to chronic hyperventilation: yes, if I’m talking about it on this blog, it’s for a good reason! However, the evidence is hard to find: on the one hand, the link is difficult to establish, on the other hand, it doesn’t interest the labs so much because there is no medication business in there…

Causes of hyperventilation

It is very difficult to identify the causes of chronic hyperventilation. This is most likely due to a physiological disturbance, worsened by stress. And like we’ve seen before, once hyperventilation is established, it feeds itself.

The solutions

You think you might be concerned? Do not panic, there are very simple solutions!

Breathe less!

This seems obvious: if you breathe too much, you should breathe less! More practically: breathe slowly, through the nose, using the diaphragm, and with small amplitudes. You have to trigger a slight feeling of air shortage, which makes you want to take a deep breath. Resist, and continue, but do not force too much either.

You should then feel calmer. The heart may slow down a bit. A sensation of heat may also occur. If the opposite happens, you may have tried too  hard: breathe a little more in order to find the balance that works for you.

I will very soon dedicate an article to exercises of this type, but you can already try and breathe less, it works!

Edit – here is the article : the Buteyko breathing method.

Breathe through the nose

As seen in a previous article, breathing through the mouth can cause many health problems. If this is your case, fix it by focusing your attention on a nasal breath .

shut the mouth - comic

And when you have a stuffy nose?

A study2 was able to show that when the nose is obstructed, if one continues nevertheless to breathe through the nose with a small flow, the excess CO2 will automatically trigger the removal of the obstruction. So: when you have a blocked nose, just breathe less (but still by the nose) to clean it! Incredible, right?

Manage Stress, Meditate and Company

I am probably not the first one to tell you that you must learn to manage your stress, especially with a diaphragmatic breathing and some breathing exercises (do not breathe deeply, breathe very lightly!) Or with meditation… But the fact is, you cannot get rid of a chronic illness if you don’t fix your stress first! And the same applies to chronic hyperventilation.

work vs meditation

Plus, breathing and meditation are bound together! When you focus on your breathing, you meditate. It is not more complicated than that!

Philosophical conclusion

Breathing is like meditation: there are those who have been practicing it for thousands of years, and those who still think it is not a good enough reason to bother trying.

Immediately try to breathe less: take 10 minutes. And tell me how you feel in the comments!

  1. Carbon dioxide influence on nitric oxide production in endothelial cells and astrocytes: cellular mechanisms.
  2. Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology
    March 1988, Volume 245, Issue 2, pp 112-115
    Changes in nasal airway resistance in response to controlled external respiratory obstruction

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