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Hyperventilation: Primitive Pathological Reflex

A reflex is an involuntary and almost instantaneous (muscular) reaction in response to a stimulus. Among all pathological reflexes and primitive reflexes, hyperventilation is one of the central primitive reflexes of the nervous system. This reflex is highly prevalent these days in a chronic form: chronic hyperventilation is present in over 90% of normal subjects and even more common in disease (see the Homepage for charts and clinical results).

Most of the time, our lungs were developing and evolving in primitive conditions when the CO2 content in air was high (up to 7-12% during the first stages of lungs' development) and low O2 values (about 1% or less during the first stages). During these stages of evolution the process of control of breathing by the nervous system was developed. Since this primitive air had very little O2, our evolutionary predecessors could get more oxygen in tissues only by breathing more air. Later, during a gradual decline in CO2 content and increased O2 levels, the situation radically changed. Breathing more air causes reduced oxygen delivery to cells in modern conditions.

Composition of air in atmosphere and cells of the human body

 CO2 and oxygen: Evolution of air composition on Earth

Any stressful situation, digestion, search for food, mating, playing, and any other activity required more oxygen. How? By breathing more. Hence, hyperventilation became the most fundamental primitive reflex, as soon as first lungs (or prototypes of human lungs) appeared on Earth. Only totally peaceful stress-free rest had low metabolic rate where heavy breathing would not provide any advantage for survival.

The reflex to hyperventilate, as it is easy to notice is even more fundamental for humans than the drives to drink, eat, mate, and other primitive reflexes. Why? This is because when the human baby is born, the first things it starts to do is to breathe deeply as if expecting that air has very little O2 and a lot of CO2. (All developing or survived human cultures and tribes have used swaddling of infants to ensure their survival and good health, as we discussed before.)

Most sick people (over 90%) die due to the same pathological reflex: hyperventilation, when this primitive reflex again gains the control over the human brain and nervous system, and sufferers frantically gasp for more air, as if expecting to get more oxygen (see Heavy Breathing Pattern - Highest Mortality Rates). Hence, hyperventilation is the main in-built primitive reflex of the nervous system.

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  1. Stimulus (physiology) (From
  2. Causes of Hyperventilation (From
  3. Hyperventilation (From

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