Are You an Overbreather? Balance CO2 + O2 for Mood Support

You probably have no idea if you are overbreathing, but you should! Overbreathing is a common subtle breathing disorder linked to numerous health concerns.  

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Are You an Overbreather? 

You probably have no idea if you are overbreathing, but you should! Overbreathing is a common subtle breathing disorder linked to numerous health concerns.  

  • Stress 
  • Fear 
  • Anxiety 
  • Emotional unrest 
  • Circulation issues 
  • Digestive concerns 
  • Breathing problems 
  • Musculoskeletal complaints, like low back pain  

Overbreathing is a breathing pattern disorder (BPD), caused by the chronic tendency to shallow breathe in the upper chest, rather than using all five lobes of the lungs. In its extreme, it is called hyperventilation, which affects 10% of adults and is linked to severe anxiety, panic, and phobias.3  

While only one in 10 experience hyperventilation, a large percentage of us experience its milder form: overbreathing. See if you have any of the signs of overbreathing below. 

Signs of Overbreathing2-4 

  • Frequent sighing + yawning  
  • Breathing discomfort  
  • Disturbed sleep  
  • Erratic heartbeats  
  • Feeling anxious + uptight  
  • Pins + needles  
  • Upset gut / nausea  
  • Clammy hands  
  • Chest pains  
  • Shattered confidence  
  • Tired all the time  
  • Achy muscles and joints  
  • Dizzy spells or feeling spaced out  
  • Irritability or hypervigilance  
  • Feeling of “air hunger” 
  • Breathing discomfort  
  • Breathing through the mouth 
  • Audible breathing during rest 
  • Regular sniffing 
  • Irregular breathing 
  • Holding the breath (apnea) 
  • Taking large breaths prior to talking 
  • Yawning with big breaths 
  • Upper chest movement 
  • Movement of shoulders while breathing 
  • Lot of visible movement when breathing 
  • Effortful breathing 
  • Heavy breathing at night 

Nose Breathing or Mouth Breathing? 

From a sedentary lifestyle with excessive sitting to a diet of processed food that requires little chewing to high stress levels, many lifestyle factors accumulating over decades have changed the way we breathe. Over time, studies have found the human skull has become longer and more narrow, decreasing the size of our airways. This has forced us to wear braces, pull wisdom teeth, and open our mouths when we breathe.5 

Chronic mouth breathing primarily engages the upper chest, leaving the lower lobes (with the majority of blood for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange) of the lungs with limited access. When I did research for my first book, Body, Mind, and Sport, I asked numerous pulmonologists and comparative anatomists about the difference between nose and mouth breathing. I was told there was no difference and that, while we have five lung lobes, we only need the upper two! I kept asking myself, Then WHY do we have a such intricately designed nasal passages and five lobes of the lungs? 

It turns out the nose is a sophisticated breathing apparatus engineered to deliver oxygen (O2) to the lower lobes of the lungs. The mouth is not designed for breathing—it is much better equipped for eating and talking. 

O2 + CO2 Balance 

It takes much longer to take a full breath through two small nostrils than through a big open mouth. Long, slow nasal breaths give the lungs time to properly exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2). Quick, shallow mouth breaths cause us to overbreathe oxygen and underbreathe (or become deficient in) CO2

Hyperventilation: a state of overbreathing, where oxygen levels rise and carbon dioxide levels fall.  

Modern humans do not fully exhale because we do not fully inhale. When we sit all day, it becomes an anatomical challenge to fully inhale and exhale.  To make matters worse, the ribcage has a function called “elastic recoil,” which means it squeezes the heart and lungs with each breath, 26,000 times per day. If we switch from nose breathing which drives air into the lower lobes, causing the ribs to open, to shallow mouth breaths that never access the lower lobes, the ribcage’s elastic recoil will quickly slam it shut, making the ribcage a literal cage forcing shallow breathing.  

Quick, rapid shallow breathing repeatedly inhales more oxygen than we can utilize while not giving the body time to build healthy levels of CO2. Oxygen and CO2 levels much be in balance. Each shallow breath therefore over breathes in excess oxygen and under breathes or blows off too much CO2

Take a minute and breathe all your air out. Ask yourself: Is this the way I exhale regularly? My guess is probably not! 

When the exhale is shortened, we compensate by taking more frequent and shallow inhalations. The result is a faster breathing rate. Today, the average adult breathes 16+ times per minute. According to breathing expert Patrick McKeown, a healthy adult should breathe no more than 12 times per minute. 

We recommend "Functional Breathing with Patrick McKeown": https://lifespa.com/098-functional-breathing/

Feeling Stressed or Anxious? Build CO2 Tolerance  

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is the trigger to release oxygen (O2) from hemoglobin in the blood into your tissues. If we chronically over breathe oxygen, we never let CO2 levels rise to our evolutionary standards. Instead, O2 literally stays stuck to the hemoglobin and we never fully oxygenate our tissues. As CO2 levels rise, oxygen is freed from the hemoglobin and saturates the tissues, blood supply to the brain surges, and the nervous system relaxes.4 

Over breathing, by definition, causes higher levels of oxygen to flood the lungs and blood. Oxygen is a stimulant, linked to stress, fear, anxiety, and phobias, while carbon dioxide is a nervous system sedative that relaxes smooth muscle, increases blood supply, and activates repair.4  

To combat anxiety, stress, sleep issues and many more health concerns, building up your ability to tolerate higher levels of CO2 acts as a natural sedative calming, destressing and relaxing the mind, body and nervous system. Over breathing oxygen with shallow mouth breathing acts to over stimulate and stress the mind, body and nervous system. Learning how to breath correctly can correct the imbalance of CO2 and O2 and restore access to a state of inner calm than many of us have lost. 

NOTE: We often think we need more oxygen, but studies show 75% of the oxygen we inhale is exhaled unused.4 

Over breathing causes chemoreceptors to be overly sensitive to CO2 levels (a sense of early air hunger), triggering early, shallow, quick, and inefficient breathing. With over breathing we feel a premature  urge to breathe fast and shallow that causes chronic low levels of CO2 resulting in an intolerance to even the slightest levels of rising CO2. Learning how to rebuild CO2 tolerance, resets our chemoreceptors to be comfortable with healthy levels of air hunger and rising levels of CO2. This balance between oxygen and CO2 is a powerful tool to optimize health and longevity. 

Test Your CO2 Tolerance 

Take this Buteyko breathing test called your BOLT Score (Body Oxygen Level Test), discussed in Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage, weekly to assess your progress in building CO2 tolerance.  

  • Breathe normally.  
  • After a normal exhale, hold your breath until you feel the first sense of breathing discomfort.  
  • Record the time. 

Healthy non-overbreathers are usually able to hold their breath for 25-30 seconds (longer for athletes). If you can’t hold for more than 15 seconds, it may indicate low tolerance to carbon dioxide. 

Build CO2 Tolerance with These Exercises 

  1. Exercise exclusively with nose breathing. If you have to open your mouth, you are going too fast.
  2. Breathe through your nose while you sleep. Learn how to tape your mouth. 
  3. Practice pranayama with breath holds twice a day. Read all my pranayama breath retention articles.
  4. Learn to breathe slowly at a rate of six breaths per minute to reset your chemoreceptors to not overreact to CO2.

Are you an overbreather? What will you do to optimize your breathing patterns? 

We recommend "Ayurveda Explains Rise in Heart Disease among Middle-Aged in Healthiest Cities": https://lifespa.com/heart-disease/

References

  1. Breathing Pattern Disorders and Physiotherapy: Inspiration for Our Profession. Tania CliftonSmith, Janet Rowley 
  2. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Breathing_Pattern_Disorders#cite_note-:0-21 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1290766/?page=1 
  4. https://buteykoclinic.com/the-facts-about-overbreathing/ 
  5. Breath. Random House 2020. Nestor, James.  

6 thoughts on “Are You an Overbreather? Balance CO2 + O2 for Mood Support”

    • Would wearing a mask pose a health issue as far as shallow breathing is concerned? Would we retain CO2 in excess and could use of masks over extended period of time produce low oxygen blood levels? (hypoxia)

      Reply
      • Hi Carmel,

        Most masks have good airflow or are leaky, so it is not a risk.

        Since most of us over breath, masks can help a little but do not replace breathing practice and pranayama.

        Be Well,
        Dr. John

        Reply
  1. Interesting … I do breathe very slowly, usually about 6-8 breaths per minute. And I consciously breathe through my nose, having followed your work for years. And I learned from a yoga teacher to breathe into my belly rather than raising my ribcage.

    But I just tried holding my breath on an exhale and the first try I only got to 9 seconds, the second try to 12 seconds. So I guess I need to start practicing that part as you suggested.

    I’ve often worried that maybe I was breathing too slowly compared to everyone else. So I’m glad to read your article that seems to say that’s likely not a problem. Could it be that I’m not getting enough oxygen even though I’m breathing slowly thru my nose?

    Reply
    • Hi Susan,

      As Dr. John has written in his many articles on breath holds recently, most people are actually getting too much oxygen based on the way they are breathing and your description of your breath hold on the exhale supports that. There’s nothing particularly wrong with getting plenty of oxygen, but as Dr. John explained, it is an activator rather than a calming agent.

      Continue slowly and gently practicing your breath hold on the exhale and your CO2 tolerance will gradually increase. CO2, as Dr. John has outlined, can help to calm the body, which nearly everyone needs these days.

      Best,
      LifeSpa Staff

      Reply

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