We often take breathing for granted. It is something we rarely think about unless we are in a situation where our body demands more oxygen such as sprinting, or if we are deprived of breathing such as holding our breath under water. Our ventilatory system is on auto-pilot most of the time, controlled by our autonomic nervous system. Our breathing will self-adjust to changes in our environment as the demands for oxygen change.
I’m not going to bore you with the complex science behind ventilation, however there is a need for a basic understanding of physiology to appreciate how powerful the respiratory system can be when used efficiently.
We breathe because oxygen is needed to burn the fuel [sugars and fatty acids] in our cells to produce energy. Oxygen is brought into the lungs via breathing, where it is transported by red blood cells to the entire body to be used to produce energy. In order for the oxygen to be released from the red blood cells into our tissues, the pH (particles of hydrogen) of the blood needs to become more acidic. This increase in acidity comes from carbon dioxide which is a product of metabolism. Stay with me, that was the complex part.
There is approximately 24% oxygen in the air with every breath we take. Our body only needs about 5% to completely saturate our blood with oxygen. That means each breath we take we are getting 5 times the amount of required oxygen. Oxygen saturation is not the problem. Typically, we have plenty of oxygen circulating around the bloodstream, but if the carbon dioxide levels are too low, then the oxygen doesn’t get released and we become symptomatic. This is not a big deal in the short term, but chronic low levels of carbon dioxide lead to increased muscle burning (excess lactic acid), shortness of breath, weakening of the immune system, decreased sports performance, poor sleep and memory deficits, just to name a few.
Why would somebody have low carbon dioxide levels? Poor breathing mechanics. When we exhale, we are breathing out carbon dioxide, which is normal. However, if our breathing rate is too high, (too many breathes per minute),or our breathing volume is too large, (breathing out too much) or a combination of these two, then our carbon dioxide levels will drop and the oxygen will remain trapped on the hemoglobin molecules in our blood unable to feed the starving cells of our tissues.
Breath light to breath right! – This is a statement used by Patrick McKeon in his book The Oxygen Advantage. It is more advantageous to learn to take small breathes in, with small breathes out. Just like over-eating leads to obesity, increased chronic over-breathing leads to poor health. Smaller breathes in and out allow for more consistent pH levels in our blood allowing for improved oxygen release to our tissues. Increasing our bodies tolerance for higher CO2 levels with lower O2 levels is the key to increased performance with reduced dyspnea (shortness of breath).
Mechanical limitations: In some people, due to previous injury, there are muscle, joint or other tissue limitations that don’t allow for proper breathing mechanics to occur. This is when it is advantageous to see a functional manual physical therapist (FMT’s) who is trained to identify and treat these mechanical restrictions to allow the body to breathe more efficiently.
Should you have any questions about your breathing mechanics and the impact on your physical performance, please contact our office to see if an evaluation by one of our FMT’s is what you need.
Written by Dr. Brad Gilden, DPT, FAAOMPT, FFMT, CSCS