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Hyperventilation & Health

December 22, 2003 01:57 PM

You're walking along a beautiful beach and you find yourself filled with tension and anxiety. You're sitting at home trying to relax and you find yourself fearful and apprehensive. You're talking to a friend on the phone and you notice that you're irritable and out of sorts. You're at work and you just cannot concentrate. Time to go for psychotherapy? Not necessarily?at least not according to Dennis Lewis, the author of the highly acclaimed book The Tao of Natural Breathing and the recently released audio program from Sounds True Breathing as a Metaphor for Living.

Lewis maintains that these negative emotional experiences can be the result of excessively fast breathing--also referred to as "overbreathing." This kind of breathing, called hyperventilation, often occurs when we take quick, shallow breaths from the top of our chest. It also frequently occurs when we breathe through our mouths. He points out that although the average breath rate for people at rest is about 12 to 15 times a minute, many of us breathe even faster than this. And when we do, we will generally find ourselves anxious, irritable, apprehensive, and even fearful?all for no apparent reason. He also believes that even the rate of 12-15 times a minute is often faster than it needs to be and is itself often a subtle form of chronic hyperventilation.

"It's important to understand the role of carbon dioxide in helping to ensure the efficient utilization of oxygen in the body, which is absolutely imperative for maintaining good health. When we breathe too fast," Lewis explains, "we reduce the level of carbon dioxide in our blood below its optimum level. This reduced level of carbon dioxide causes many problems. For example, it causes the arteries, including the carotid artery going to the brain, to constrict, thus reducing the flow of blood throughout the body. It also makes it more difficult for the red blood cells to release oxygen to the cells of the brain and body. When we have too little carbon dioxide, our brain and body will experience a shortage of oxygen no matter how much oxygen we may breathe into our lungs. This lack of oxygen switches on the sympathetic nervous system?our 'fight or flight' reflex?which makes us tense, anxious and irritable. It also reduces our ability to think clearly, and tends to put us at the mercy of obsessive thoughts and images."

According to Lewis, however, the effects of chronic hyperventilation go far beyond these mental and emotional symptoms. Lewis states that some researchers and medical doctors, including Professor Konstantin Buteyko from Russia, now believe on the basis of many studies that chronic hyperventilation is instrumental in some 200 medical problems and diseases, including asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, memory loss, sinusitis, arthritis, panic attacks, stress, rhinitis, headaches, heartburn, and many more.

Lewis points out that although chronic hyperventilation can be the result of underlying emotional or psychological problems, it can also be the result of bad breathing habits formed in childhood. One such habit is mouth breathing, which releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide very quickly. It is very important, therefore to learn how to breathe only through your nose is the normal activities of your daily life, including when you are doing aerobics. Chronic hyperventilation can also be the result of poor posture, excessive muscular tension, poor diet, and the prevailing image of the hard, flat belly that we find in fashion and fitness magazines. To breathe naturally, says Lewis, is to breathe with our whole body, the way a baby or animal does. For this to occur, we not only need a flexible, unconstricted ribcage, but also a supple belly. Our belly needs to be able to expand on inhalation and retract on exhalation.

According to Lewis, this bellows-like movement of the belly supports the upward and downward movement of the diaphragm. When the belly expands on inhalation, the diaphragm can expand farther downward into the abdomen, which allows the lungs to expand more fully. When the belly retracts on exhalation, the diaphragm can relax farther upward helping to empty the lungs. The diaphragm's increased downward and upward range of movement not only allows the lungs to take in and release air (including oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other gases) with fewer, slower, more-coordinated breaths, but it also helps to massage all the internal organs. This "internal massage," says Lewis, has a healthful impact on digestion, elimination, blood flow, the immune system, and the nervous system.

Lewis, the cofounder of a highly successful technology-related business, has been studying the breathing process for the last 30 years in a variety of disciplines. After he sold his business several years ago to a large English firm, he found himself with an abdominal pain that his doctors could neither diagnose nor cure. During this period, he met a body work practitioner who was able to alleviate the problem in several hour-long sessions. This practitioner used a technique called Chi Nei Tsang?a form of internal-organ energy massage and breathwork brought to the West by Taoist master Mantak Chia. Lewis found this approach so helpful that he went on to become a certified practitioner and worked for a couple of years in a well-known acupuncture clinic in San Francisco.

Lewis says that it was his experiences with Chi Nei Tsang that inspired him to write his book The Tao of Natural Breathing and develop his audio program Breathing as a Metaphor for Living, which bring together the meditative wisdom of the East with the scientific knowledge of the West with regard to breathing. "As I began working on ordinary people with various physical and emotional problems," says Lewis, "I saw that many of these problems were related to their breathing. I also saw that most of us are unaware of our bad breathing habits and have little understanding of how these habits undermine our health and well-being."

Lewis says he wrote the book and developed his audio program so that people could begin to explore this important subject for themselves. "Breathing exercises are a dime a dozen," says Lewis, "especially advanced exercises such as breath retention and alternate nostril breathing. You can walk into almost any bookstore and find a variety of books and tapes promoting such exercises. What you can't usually find in these stores, however, are books and tapes with a clear understanding of natural breathing and of how the way we breathe relates to the various inner and outer aspects of our lives?not just to the amount of oxygen we take in, but also to our ability to ward off disease, to think clearly, to sense and feel the needs and emotions that are motivating our behavior, and so on. Until we begin to have this understanding, and until we begin to have some experience of natural breathing, many breathing exercises can actually be detrimental to our health and well-being."

One example that Lewis gives of how breathing exercises can be detrimental to our health is the many deep breathing exercises that people often do. "Deep breathing is not the panacea it is made out to be," says Lewis, "especially when it is forced. Many people in today's world don't have sufficient body awareness, diaphragmatic strength, and breathing coordination to intentionally breathe deeply without hyperventilating. People who try to breathe deeply often end up by pulling their bellies in and trying to expand their chests, which is just a very inefficient and unhealthy form of shallow breathing. Such deep-breathing exercises improperly done in this or other ways can bring about even more hyperventilation, weaken the diaphragm, and cause disharmony in the breathing muscles. In any case, our breathing was never intended to always be deep, but rather to be spontaneously and naturally responsive to the needs of the moment."

Lewis' new book Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, which includes many of his recent insights and discoveries, is due out from Shambhala in May 2004.