Dr. Jon Dunn, 
Licensed Naturopathic Doctor

Naturopathic Health Care, Inc.

Natural Health Newsletter
Asthma, Sleep Apnea, 
Nasal Congestion and the Bohr Effect
JUNE, 2013 
It was the late Russian doctor Konstantin Buteyko who discovered the link between proper breathing and a number of respiratory conditions.  Overbreathing is the habit of taking in more air then what is required, and for most people this goes unnoticed.   However, an acute and pronounced example of overbreathing is the hyperventilation that leads to panic attacks.

Common signs of overbreathing include; mouth breathing, sighing, nasal sniffles, dry mouth, irregular breathing, sleep apnea, yawning, heart irregularities, poor memory and concentration, heavy breathing at night, upper chest breathing and effortful breathing.   The list is only partial because oxygen deficit affects all levels of our health and well being. 

Instead of the normal 10-12 breaths a minute, 15-20 breaths a minute is typical of most overbreathers.  Overbreathers are starved for oxygen, yet paradoxically the more air they take into their lungs, the less air or oxygen they will have at the cellular level.  The reason for this can be explained by the Bohr Effect; the relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an end product generated from the breakdown and processing of nutrients that give us energy.  CO2 is released from the lungs when we exhale. With overbreathing, too much CO2 is released and this creates a big problem.  

Oxygen is bond to hemoglobin in the blood stream.  The release of oxygen is dependent on the presence of CO2.  If CO2 in the blood is deficient, due to overbreathing, hemoglobin will not release oxygen, and the result is oxygen starvation at the cellular level.  This causes the urge to breathe more.  You see this with the person who is hyperventilating (too much oxygen) and needs to breathe into a paper bag in order to capture and return CO2 to the blood stream.  The resultant elevation of CO2 will then allow the release of hemoglobin bound oxygen.

The bond of hemoglobin to oxygen and the CO2 triggered release of oxygen from hemoglobin is called the Bohr Effect.  With overbreathing, the more we breathe, the more CO2 is lost from the lungs, the less CO2 there is in the blood stream, and the vicious cycle of overbreathing and associated low CO2 symptoms continues.   The solution: learn to change the habit of overbreathing and breathe less.

The habit of overbreathing by day carries on into the night.  With sleep apnea, there is a lack of available oxygen at the metabolic level and the person will stop breathing; sometimes hundreds of times a night for 10 seconds to several minutes.  The reason the brain/nervous system tells the lungs to stop breathing for a period of time is to allow CO2 levels in the blood to increase and thereby release the hemoglobin bound oxygen.   

Same with asthma: lack of CO2 leads to bronchoconstriction and the urge to breathe harder.  Breathing a little less hard during an asthma attack will raise CO2, correct the bronchospasm and bring relief for the asthmatic.

Histamine release increases with prolonged overbreathing.  Histamine causes tissue inflammation, swelling and consequent allergic type reactions such as nasal congestion.  “Cardiologist Clause Lum comments that”: “Hyperventilation presents a collection of bizarre and often apparently unrelated symptoms, which may affect any part of the body, and any organ or any system.”

Here are some questions to identify if you are an overbreather:

  • Breathing with diaphragm or upper chest muscles?
  • Is the breath noisy and audible?
  • Sigh or yawn a lot?
  • Breathing through nose or mouth?
  • What is the respiratory rate (breaths per minute: 10-12 or higher)?

The Buteyko method instructs patients to deliberately diminish the respiratory depth and rate for a period of time by relaxing the respiratory muscles until a slight deficit of air is noticed.  There are three rules:

  • Reduce the volume of air during inhalation so that a slight hunger of air is felt for a period of time. The exhalation of air is effortless, requiring no muscular control.
  • Let your body feel as relaxed as possible. Any skeletal muscle tension leads to the breath deepening and you don’t want this.
  • Nasal breath at all times. Do not mouth breathe at night (Buteyko suggests surgical tape over the mouth; in the a.m. peel off slowly) and do not sleep on your back (tape a ball to your back).  If nose is really plugged: reduce ingestion of milk products and wheat products.

To go further into the actual treatment technique transcends the scope of this newsletter.  While not particularly difficult, the explanation requires several pages of reading. 

There are many books on the subject, and one that I like is by Patrick McKeown:  Close Your Mouth: Buteyko Breathing Clinic Self Help Manual.  His first breathing exercise quickly and efficiently teaches the reader how to clear out nasal congestion and stop mouth breathing.  It has a focus on asthma, but almost all respiratory related issues can be helped with this technique.

I hope you have enjoyed this month’s newsletter.  As always, comments and feedback are welcome.

In Health,
Jon Dunn, ND
Most cases of asthma, sleep apnea, and nasal congestion have a similar origin: overbreathing.  Living in the modern world is the cause, and the solution is not to breath more, but less.