| Are You Breathing Too Much?
by Sussanna Czeranko, ND
We take thousands of breaths every day without thinking about it. Breathing is as natural as the sun shining in the sky. What possibly could be mysterious about breathing? From the moment our little bottoms were struck by the doctor at our birth, we have had the innate wisdom of inhaling and exhaling without consulting an instruction manual or a breathing coach. Breathing is unconscious, simple, and seamless. At least it is if we are healthy. But if we have a respiratory condition such as asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, or allergies, things get complicated and can get serious if untreated.
The question “Are we breathing too much?” may come as a surprise because we do not think we could possibly breathe too much. Yet, too many of us live under stressful circumstances and there is a direct correlation between respiratory patterns and the stressful environment and lifestyles we live in.
Our nervous system, uniquely programmed to react to danger for self-preservation, embeds deeply in our viscera the same nervous system that hunters and gatherers counted on to save them when lethal danger came. Our 21st century nervous systems still work like they did when we were hunters and gatherers faced with fight or flight reactions. When stress predominates in our lives, our whole body is impacted. Even without the looming tigers, our body’s defence system acts just as if such urgent danger exists. Our digestive and immune systems take a back seat while our heart rate accelerates, our breathing speeds up, and blood is pumped to our muscles to anticipate the fight or flight response. When such stress continues day after day, our bodies are invariably compromised, often to the point of failed homeostasis.
The pernicious thing about stress is that it does not choose only one organ or system. It affects every system: nervous, immune, hormonal, digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, and urinary tract. Its symptoms include anxiety, chest tightness, inability to breathe, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, poor concentration and memory, irritability, depression, fatigue, poor sleep patterns, yawning, sighing, weakness, abdominal bloating, indigestion, hormonal disturbances, etc. When chronic stress inundates our day-to-day lives, we may experience heart disease, hypertension, insomnia, weak immunity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, the list continues. Stress is the number one reason patients seek medical care, and too often the symptoms of stress are lost, overlooked, or underestimated.
One of the first people to understand how stress affects our respiration was a Russian doctor, Dr. Konstanin Buteyko (1923-2003). He spent over 50 years of his life studying the impact of dysfunctional breathing on health. As a medical scientist, Buteyko conducted hundreds of experiments studying breathing and he formulated breathing exercises that can restore and retrain our breathing to a healthy pattern. He developed a remarkable approach to the treatment of diseases by recognizing that stress symptoms increase when we breathe too much or chronically hyperventilate. Just as when we eat excessively, obesity ensues with well-known consequences such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc., so too Dr. Buteyko found that excessive breathing changes oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body.
Using exclusively his breathing methods, he successfully treated over 100,000 patients who were experiencing chronic diseases. Benefitting from the existing science found in medical textbooks, Buteyko discovered that breathing more than what is physiologically necessary alters the body’s chemistry. When breathing optimally, our body chemistry is kept in balance or in homeostasis with each breath. Every breath has the capacity to either balance acid/alkaline levels, keeping cellular pH at its optimal level, or begin the process of disrupting the fine-tuning of our homeostatic balance. The concepts that underlie the Buteyko breathing method turn everything that we think about breathing upside down and inside out.
If you face respiratory problems, breathing exercises prescribed by your health provider to help remedy your symptoms would be highly unlikely. Drugs and/or devices more probably were sought out first, and if these did not work, then more medications. The vicious cycle of respiratory symptoms is accompanied by much fear about being able to take the next breath. Learning the Buteyko method addresses the diseases of chronic stress by providing tools, breathing exercises, and patient education.
The first step to improving one’s breathing is to develop awareness of how we breathe. It is instructive to observe whether you are breathing with your nose or mouth, with your chest muscles or with your diaphragm. You will soon be noticing people around you breathe and be surprised that many primarily use their mouths. By breathing through your nose, and thus reducing overbreathing, you are taking a first key step toward respiratory health and positively impacting your stress levels.
We live at a time when technology dominates every part of our lives (including health and medicine) with increasing sophistication and expense. New medical devices and technologies as well as new super drugs inundate the health care terrain. Its focus on disease and the impact of pharmaceutical and surgical side effects, as opposed to prevention, natural therapies, and long term wellness, is such that many increasingly choose alternative approaches to get their health needs met. One such choice is restoring our breathing patterns. That’s what Buteyko is all about.
The Quick Breath Test
- When you take a deep breath, do you inflate your chest?
- Do you tire easily or wake up tired?
- Do you often feel that you are not getting a full breath?
- Do you feel short of breath or breathless?
- Do you sigh often?
- Is your breathing mostly in your chest?
- Do you breathe with your mouth?
- Are your muscles often tense or sore to the touch?
- Do you experience queasy sensations in your chest or stomach?
- Do you snore and have problems with your sleep?
- Do you wake up in the night to urinate?
- Do you have excessive nasal mucus on waking?
- Are you thirsty on waking?
- Do you experience anxiety or panic out of the blue?
- Do you suffer from headaches and mental fatigue?
Ineffective breathing can cause all of these symptoms. All of them can disappear as you learn to restore your breathing to a healthy pattern. If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can gain significant benefits from learning the Buteyko Breathing Method.
Dr. Czeranko is a licenced naturopathic doctor in Saskatchewan, having formerly practiced in Ontario and in Oregon, USA. She is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and a founding board member of the Buteyko Breathing Educators Association. She has incorporated Buteyko Breathing into her clinical practice since 2005. Sussanna studied the Buteyko method in Canada, the U.S. and in the U.K. She has published numerous articles about the effectiveness of Buteyko and has taught and treated several hundred patients using the Buteyko method. She is also an active trainer of naturopathic physicians in the Buteyko method in Canada and the U.S. Her clinical practice, Manitou Waters, is in Manitou Beach, SK. For more details and upcoming events, see the display ad on page 11 of the 27.3 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal.