- Healthy Breathing, Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide Paradox, Light Slow and Deep
Healthy Breathing, Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide Paradox, Light Slow and Deep
🤸♀️ Stretch 60
Your weekly Stretch, aiming to teach you something new about your brain & body in less than 15 minutes per week. Thoughts or feedback? Let me know!
I once heard Andrew Huberman say in an interview, “We’re more than a bag of chemicals, but all this stuff is hardwired.”
I often think about this, especially when I’m feeling frustrated or unmotivated. Neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemical processes in our body play a significant role in how we think, feel, and act.
Can we reduce everything we experience to biology and chemical interactions? Maybe not. (That’s a much bigger philosophical question outside of the scope of my little newsletter. 😉)
But like Huberman says, this stuff is all hardwired. Recognising there’s a biological basis for your thoughts and emotions takes guilt and self-criticism out of the equation. Plus, you gain a level of agency and control when you see how you can influence that biology.
The more we know, the more we can work with our bodies rather than against it.
In a previous Stretch I wrote about a breathing pattern to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to your brain, so I’d like to use this Stretch to learn about the biochemical process behind this.
Sources are the Huberman Lab episode on Breathing as well as The Oxygen Advantage (the breathwork modality I’m now training in! 🤩)
🫁 THE OXYGEN AND CARBON DIOXIDE PARADOX
There’s a direct relationship between how much and how quickly we breathe, and the state of our nervous system and thus our physiological and mental health.
We assume our body reflexively knows how much air it needs at all times, but seems like that is not the case. Our bodies have adapted to our modern lifestyles, which often involve chronic stress, sedentary habits, unhealthy diets, overheated homes, and lack of fitness.
All of that has led to a culture of dysfunctional over-breathing, for some people up to 2 and 3 times the required amount.
We breathe too much, too fast and often through the wrong hole.
(An incredible book to read is Breath by James Nestor, a journalist who travelled the world to explore what went wrong with our breathing and how to fix it.)
Studies that have explored breathing patterns have shown that most people breathe anywhere between 15-30 breaths per minute. These numbers probably don’t mean much until you know that the healthiest and most efficient way of breathing is only 5.5 breath cycles per minute.
You can easily measure your own respiration rate if you’d like. Just set a timer for one minute and count the number of breath cycles. One breath cycle = one inhale + one exhale. Don’t change anything about your breath and just breathe how you normally would.
I’m at around 15-17 breaths per minute. Not terrible, not great either!
Now, you might be thinking… why does this matter? It’s just oxygen. Can’t be that bad.
Here’s where it’s helpful to understand the physiological process of two major players in our body: oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).
O2 in, CO2 out
We breathe in oxygen and we breathe out carbon dioxide.
All of the cells, muscles and organs of our body need oxygen as fuel to function. A healthy person usually has an oxygen saturation level between 95-99%. That means that they have more than enough oxygen in their bloodstream at all times.
However, that doesn’t mean the cells of their bodies are well oxygenated. There’s a difference between oxygen intake (inhaling oxygen) and oxygen uptake (oxygen delivery to your cells.)
That’s the paradox: the amount of oxygen your body can use is not entirely dependent on the amount of oxygen in your blood.
What determines how much of this oxygen your body can use is the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood.
Most people think that carbon dioxide is just a waste gas that we exhale from our lungs, but it’s actually an essential ingredient. It’s the #1 variable that allows the release of oxygen from the red blood cells to be metabolized by the body.
And here’s where the problem with overbreathing becomes clear:
When we overbreathe, we exhale and offload more carbon dioxide than we should. When there’s not enough carbon dioxide in the system, there’s less oxygen being delivered to the cells and tissues which means they can’t work as effectively as we need them to.
Especially for the brain, you can imagine this is problematic.
At rest, that 3-pound electrified pâté is the most energy-consuming organ in your body. When there's a lack of oxygen, even for a short period, it can impair brain function. The brain becomes hyper-excitable, causing anxiety and making it difficult to focus and make decisions.
Huberman mentioned a study that showed a 30-40% reduction in the amount of oxygen delivered to the brain when there’s not enough CO2 in the system.
That’s huge! Can you imagine operating at such a reduced capacity? Or can you imagine operating at an increased capacity of x%?!
Carbon dioxide also plays a role in the widening and narrowing of airways and blood vessels. A reduction in CO2 levels prevents some of the normal patterns of dilation of airways and blood vessels, so there’s less blood flow.
Breathing too much for short periods of time is not a significant problem, as no permanent change in the body occurs. But when we breathe too much over an extended period of days to weeks, a biochemical change takes place inside us that results in an increased sensitivity or lower tolerance to carbon dioxide, creating a habit of overbreathing—and that has a massive impact on our mental, emotional and physical health.
Carbon dioxide creates the urge to (over)breathe
Here’s the other piece to this:
When you hold your breath, you’re stopping oxygen from coming in and you’re not releasing any carbon dioxide. After a while, you’ll start feeling that urge to breathe.
That is not because of a lack of oxygen, because remember, your body has more than enough oxygen in its system.
That urge comes from the build-up of carbon dioxide.
That’s why the first thing you do when you stop holding your breath is blow out. You would think that the most urgent need would be to get fresh air in rather than stale air out, but no—you don’t need more oxygen, you need to get rid of the excess carbon dioxide.
Now, the more sensitive you are to carbon dioxide, the quicker you will feel that urge to breathe and typically the faster your overall respiration rate.
In simple terms: your brain doesn’t like too much carbon dioxide and so it’s constantly stimulating your breathing muscles to breathe. That’s how you get to 15-30 breaths per minute.
Someone with a respiration rate of 5.5 cycles per minute has a very high tolerance to carbon dioxide. They don’t need to breathe as often as they can tolerate the higher levels of carbon dioxise in their system.
Okay, now that we all feel sufficiently bad about ourselves for messing up something as natural and simple as our breathing, let’s talk solutions!
Re-training functional breathing
The good news is that it’s absolutely possible to re-train your breathing patterns.
You do this by training yourself to breathe less.
Healthy breathing has 4 simple dimensions:
Source: The Oxygen Advantage
When we’re breathing light, slow and deep, we’re allowing carbon dioxide to build up in our system. This improves the oxygenation of your cells and over time, adjusts the receptors in the brain to tolerate higher concentrations of carbon dioxide.
Another element here is the importance of nasal breathing. There are lots of benefits to nasal breathing but a big one is that nasal breathing is generally associated with slow, belly breathing versus mouth breathing is more associated with fast, chest breathing.
That’s exactly what I’m learning in my breathwork training. The modality I’m training in, The Oxygen Advantage, is all about how to restore functional, healthy breathing. If you’re interested in breathwork, that should really be where you start. All the exercises and Wim Hof retreats won’t make a big difference if your regular, day-to-day breathing is dysfunctional.
A simple exercise to start
A great way to start practicing this is by doing a daily breathing exercise of 10-15 minutes where you…
Breathe light. Take smaller breaths than you usually would. Make it so light that you can barely feel the air going in and out of your nose. You want to create a slight (but tolerable) feeling of air hunger.
Breathe slow. Inhale to a count of 4, exhale to a count of 6. (Add dramatic pauses between breaths for extra flair!) Slow this down so much that you can imagine the hairs in your nose not moving.
Breathe deep. Keep your chest still and breathe "low" into your belly, using your diaphragm. Imagine you’re breathing all the way down to your legs. But keep in mind that your chest should not be moving. (A deep breath doesn't mean taking a big gulp of air!)
It takes time and practice, but what I love about is this is you can combine these breathing exercises with meditation. It’s basically like a focus-re-focus meditation. As I wrote about before, that’s one of the best things to do to improve your focus in other areas of your life.