Less Is More: The Story of CO2

Therapeutic Associates

Breathing less generally means that we build up more CO2. Believe it or not, in most cases, that equates to our cells getting more oxygen. Here’s how it goes:

Breathing basics:

When we breathe in, we inhale oxygen to the lungs all the way down to the alveoli. These are little air sacs where oxygen is then transferred into the blood stream via hemoglobin on the red blood cells. Oxygen is then transported via our arteries to all the organs and tissues in the body. Once it arrives at those tissues, the oxygen is released for us to use. Hemoglobin exchanges oxygen for the carbon dioxide byproduct of using the oxygen from the last trip and brings it back to the lungs for you to exhale. This is how it works when everything is functioning as it should.

As life would have it, sometimes (often) things get turned upside down, or knocked off kilter. One very common example is the remarkably prevalent habit of breathing too much. Yes, too much. That might be breathing too fast (rate), taking in too much air (volume), or a combination of the two. When we over breathe, we blow off too much CO2, and this causes other problems.

diagram of oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle during breathing

The importance of CO2 and blood pH:

Oxygen will not be released properly when it gets to the tissues UNLESS the pH balance of the blood is ideal. If the pH is off (high in the case of too little CO2), the hemoglobin will hold onto the oxygen and NOT release it to the tissues in need. If this happens, we get symptoms that feel like too little oxygen, even though there is plenty of oxygen in the blood.

This might include:

  • Feeling short of breath, feeling the need to sigh, pain/fatigue, increased muscle tightness, dizziness, headaches, tingling, chest pain, anxiety/panic, change in blood pressure, etc.
  • The pH depends on both your kidney function (which is very slow to change) and your breathing (which can change very quickly). More dramatically, it depends on your carbon dioxide. If you have too little carbon dioxide then you won’t be able to use the oxygen you inhaled.
  • The connection between blood pH and kidney function and carbon dioxide is shown in the Henderson-Hasselbach (H-H) equation:
    pH = kidney bicarbonates / carbon dioxide

The trick is to breathe in and out less, slower, low in the body, AND in a way that feels comfortable for your body.

Less is more:

What can you do to make sure your carbon dioxide is in a good range, so that you can use all that oxygen? The answer is surprising – breathe less! Most of us are “over breathing,” which means we inhale too much air and decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in our system. This changes our pH and can make us feel the symptoms of dysfunctional breathing.

Consider trying one of these activities:

  • Feather Breathing: Place your finger under your nose and pretend your finger is a feather and your nose is a fan. Try to breathe in minimally and out slowly enough that the feather doesn’t move in the wind. You can also try it without your finger there. This is called “imaginary” feather breathing. It is important to find a way to do this activity with ease. Be careful to not exaggerate the activity or that will come with its own host of problems. Let it be comfortable. Think of it this way “only breathe the breath you need in this moment.”
  • Counting: Try inhaling for three seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds. If this does not feel like a good ratio for you, try a different one, as long as the exhale is longer than the inhale.
  • Prone breathing: Try lying on your stomach with your forehead supported on your hands. This will help you to breathe more slowly and get you to use all the parts of your diaphragm.

The trick is to breathe in and out less, slower, low in the body, AND in a way that feels comfortable for your body. Don’t worry, it takes some practice and plenty of patience. Working with a physical therapist, especially one certified in breathing behavior, can help you find an individually tailored treatment plan to help correct breathing dysfunction.

Please check back soon or follow us on social media for up coming Therapeutic Associates Breathworks educational content.

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