Normal breathing is defined as:

  • A silent, gentle wave pattern
  • 8-10 breaths per minute
  • Through the nose
  • Powered via the diaphragm with minimal or no upper chest or shoulder movement
  • Yielding a tidal volume (volume of air in and out) of 4-5 litres per minute.

These diagnostic norms combined with the optimal concentration of CO2 in arterial blood of 40mmHg partial pressure, will ensure that the pH of the blood is maintained at its ideal levels (7.35-7.45).

The respiratory centre(s) in the brain control breathing rate and depth and primarily use the concentration of CO2 in arterial blood (pACO2). pAO2 is also used in part (via receptors in the carotid arteries), but, as oxygen availability in cells is directly related to pACO2 (The Bohr Effect), CO2 concentrations remain the primary determinant.

A functional or normal breathing rate of 8-10 breaths combined with pACO2 of 40mmHg will allow for maintenance of pH in the ideal range of 7.35 to 7.45.

Therefore if pACO2 drops below 40mmHg, it follows that the breathing rate will have to increase to maintain this ideal pH range.

If the pACO2 remains below ideal for an extended period of time (as is the case with over-breathers or those with chronic breathing disorders such as asthma, snoring, hyperventilation etc), the brain will accept this as normal functioning and will adapt by establishing this elevated breathing rate as normal. So the respiratory centre(s) in the brain will now have a lower pACO2 as a ‘trigger point’ to re-instigate breathing via the diaphragm.

As mentioned earlier, the diagnostic norm of 8-10 breaths per minute translates to 12,000-14,000 breaths per day. Yet the average person breathes up to 30,000 times per day. This suggests that the average person breathes roughly twice as often as we are ‘designed’ to and, more seriously, that the average person does not meet diagnostic norms for breathing. And therefore, is not capable of breathing functionally or optimally due to habitual over-breathing patterns.

Indeed, our clinical experience has confirmed this. Using CapnoTrainer biofeedback technology, we have not found a single person, without previous training, capable of breathing at a level that is considered functional according to diagnostic norms. So we are all over breathers – both in rate and volume until we are trained to breathe functionally again.

Common sense, reinforced by research, suggests that performing a bodily function at a level that is considerably inferior to that which is found to be optimal (from an evolutionary perspective) will ultimately lead to a compromise in function, including pathology, elsewhere in the body.

For example, we all know that living with blood pressure that is significantly above or below what is the diagnostic norm for blood pressure (and, as such, the blood pressure our system was designed to function optimally at) will lead to serious side effects or pathology. Indeed, high blood pressure and low blood pressure are both medical conditions that are taken very seriously by the medical community.

Similarly, if insulin levels are constantly elevated compared to diagnostic norms (via elevated blood sugar levels), then diabetes can eventually be the result. Obviously, diabetes or hyper-insulinaemia are both treated as serious or chronic life threatening medical conditions that are in epidemic proportions in the Western world.

Yet, whilst it is common knowledge that most or all of us over-breathe compared to diagnostic norms, why is it that over breathing is not treated as a serious medical condition?

Perhaps because breathing is so central to our functioning at all levels of the body and in all systems of the body, the side effects of over breathing are not as obvious as they are with the above abnormalities in our physiology or biochemistry.

Understanding the problem requires an understanding of the current medical model and its origins.  The medical system which evolved to deal with the historically predominant threats of infection and trauma became a system which focuses its energy on acute treatment of distinct, specific diseases, seeking to eliminate a single causative agent, with the patient as a passive recipient of the ‘cure’.  We can see how this approach is out of alignment with the new wave of chronic disease.  Instead, these patients require long term management, of multiple, overlapping states of dysfunction, driven by numerous causative factors, with the patient being required to take the primary role in their own risk reduction.