We should breathe deep for optimal health, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. Let me explain.
Dr. Konstantin Buteyko was tasked with researching the breathing patterns of diseased patients. He discovered that these patients all exhibited the same breathing patterns as they crept closer to death – deep, heavy breathing, also known as hyperventilation.
This discovery was the basis of his contribution to the medical field:
Hyperventilation (over-breathing) causes a decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2), and these chronically lowered levels of CO2 lead to spasms within the blood vessels and cause oxygen starvation of the tissue.
When we over-breathe, we lower the amount of CO2 available in our lungs, blood, tissues, and cells. This is called hypocapnia, which is when the O2 in our hemoglobin isn’t getting released, and therefore there is less O2 getting into the cells that need it.
The brain perceives this deficit and sends the signal to breathe deeper in order to get more O2. And the cycle continues an average of 23,030 times per day.
Here’s the basic physiology: when we breathe in, our lungs are filled with a mix of gases, but primarily oxygen (O2). That oxygen is transported into our bloodstream where it’s picked by tiny red proteins called hemoglobin.
The hemoglobin gets pumped around by our pulmonary system and when it reaches our tissues, the magic begins. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from the tissue and that same CO2 molecule acts as a doorway for Oxygen (O2) to get inside the cell.
The role of CO2 is crucial in this process. The common thinking is that we need to breath deep and take big, strong breaths. Well, research is showing us that’s it not that simple. The issue with deep breathing is that when we do it, we’re dumping carbon dioxide from the cells that need it.
And when there’s no carbon dioxide present, then oxygen cannot get into the cell. Dr. Buteyko theorized that we can create the perfect mix of CO2 and O2 by slowing down our respiration rate – that is, how many breaths we take per minute, as well as only breathing through our nose.
A healthy individual has a respiration rate of 8-12 breaths per minute, and a sick person consumes upwards of 6 times the amount of oxygen of a healthy person!
The goal isn’t to breathe deep, and to breathe more. It’s to breathe easy and to breathe less. This means that we become more efficient.
You can measure how efficient your body exchanges O2 and CO2 in less than 2 minutes, and all you need is a stopwatch. It’s called the Control Pause (CP) test.
The CP test is a diagnostic tool that provides immediate insight into your physical wellness. Here’s how to do it:
- Take a small silent breath in.
- Take a small silent breath out.
- Hold the exhale and start the timer.
- Stop the time when you feel the first signs of air hunger.
- Your inhalation at the end of the breath-hold should be no longer than the start of your breath-hold. If you had to take a big breath in, you likely pushed too long.
- The total seconds that you held the exhale is your CP baseline.
There are a couple of things to be aware of: this isn’t testing your maximum breath-hold time. When taking the breath in, it should be a normal-sized breath. Also, this isn’t a means to correct your breathing; it’s nothing more than a diagnostic tool.
How To Interpret Your Results
A score of 60 or higher indicates excellent levels of health. The average person should aim for this, while competitive athletes should aim for a CP score of 90 or higher. A person with a high CP score has excellent breathing mechanics and can maintain the optimal balance of O2/CO2 in their body. They are highly active and generally know how to better manage their stress levels.
A score of 30 indicates a good level of health. You probably don’t have a chronic disease at this level. You don’t get sick often, and if you do you recover quickly. You probably exercise regularly and have even improved your awareness of breathing mechanics and respiration rate. Your risk for heart disease or a stroke is minimal.
Scoring around 20 seconds indicate deteriorating health. Your body isn’t functioning as well as it could – you might have asthma or get sick regularly. In order to improve your score, it would be wise to develop a daily breathing practice and begin to make some shifts in your lifestyle. At this level, you are consuming 3x the optimal amount of oxygen, which means that you are consuming enough oxygen for three people.
A score of 10 or less indicates severely impacted health. People with a score less than 10 are often suffering from a chronic disease and are consuming upwards of 6x the amount of oxygen needed.
So, in a nutshell, the higher your CP score, the better your health. The lower your CP score, the worse your health.
But the good news is that with daily practice and a shift in awareness (mouth breathing to nasal breathing, slowing down your respiration rate), you can expect to increase your CP score by 3-4 seconds each week. A general rule of thumb is that you will feel noticeably better each time your CP increases by 5 seconds.
If you’re interested in leveraging the power of breathing to impact your physiology, health and mental state, be sure to check out my 30-day Breathwork Challenge.