Chest breathing (or thoracic breathing) is very common in modern people. More than 50%
of adults have predominantly chest breathing at rest. It is easy to observe this effect around. However, medical textbooks, various Eastern therapies and techniques (such as yoga, Buddhism, tai-chi, etc.) all teach that normal or healthy breathing at rest is mainly diaphragmatic. And it done mainly with the diaphragm at the begining of the 20th century. What are the causes of this shift to chest breathing?
Chest breathing appears when body oxygen and CO2 levels become too low.
Chest breathing is even more common for
people with chronic diseases, who breathe too deeply at rest, as this table shows.
More than 90% of sick people have upper chest breathing with increased minute ventilation, respiratory rates, and minute volume (i.e., automatic deep breathing at rest or taking too much air per one breath). Thoracic breathing causes three fundamental
health effects that promote chronic diseases and lead to low body-oxygen levels.
Upper chest breathing reduces blood oxygenation
The textbook, Respiratory Physiology (West, 2000), suggests that the
lower 10% of the lungs transports more than 40 ml of oxygen per minute, while
the upper 10% of the lungs transports less than 6 ml of oxygen per minute.
Hence, the lower parts of the lungs are about 6-7 times more effective in oxygen
transport than the top of the lungs due to richer blood supply mostly caused by
During thoracic breathing, lower layers of the lungs, which are most valuable in oxygen
transport, get much less, if any, fresh air (less oxygen supply). This causes reduced
oxygenation of arterial blood in the lungs and can lead to so called
"ventilation-perfusion" mismatch (as in COPD or emphysema). Normal breathing is diaphragmatic,
allowing homogeneous inflation of both lungs with fresh
air, similar to
what happens in the cylinder of a car engine due to the movement of the
piston. Hence, during diaphragmatic breathing, all alveoli are
homogeneously stretched vertically and get fresh air supply with higher
O2 concentration for superior arterial blood oxygenation. In contrast, chest
breathing creates problems with blood oxygenation. This leads to
reduced cell oxygenation: the driving force of all chronic diseases.
Thoracic breathing causes lymphatic stagnation
Dr. Shields, in his study, "Lymph, lymph glands, and homeostasis" (Shields,
1992) reported that diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the cleansing work of the lymph
system by creating a negative pressure pulling the lymph through the
lymph system. This increases the rate of elimination of toxins from visceral
organs by about 15 times. Why is this so?
The lymph system,
unlike the cardiovascular system with the heart, has no
pump. Lymph nodes are located in parts of the human
body that get naturally compressed (squeezing) due to movements of body parts.
For example, lymph nodes are located around the
neck, above arm pits and groin area. Hence, when we move, stretch or turn the
head, arms and legs, these lymph nodes get mechanical stimulation to push the
lymph through valves.
This is how the
lymphatic system works. However, the lymph nodes connected to the
stomach, kidneys, liver, pancreas, spleen, large and small colons, and
other vital organs are located just under the diaphragm - over 60% of all lymph
nodes in total!
Hence, nature expects us to use the diaphragm in order to remove
waste products from these vital organs all the time - literally with
each breath, 24/7. Hence, another problem with thoracic breathing is stagnation
in the lymph system and accumulation of waste products in
vital organs located under the diaphragm. (This effect is also mentioned in
other sources, for example,
Thoracic breathing means low blood oxygen
who are chest breathers virtually always have deep breathing (large breaths) at
rest or sleep and suffer from hyperventilation (breathing more than the norm).
When we breathe more air, we get less oxygen in body cells. In fact, the slower
your automatic breathing pattern at rest (down to only 3 breaths/min), the
larger the amount of oxygen delivered to cells.
Keep in mind that, while healthy normal breathing is abdominal or
diaphragmatic. It is very small in amount (only 500 ml of air per one breath at
rest) so that healthy people usually do not feel their breath.
Find your type of breathing at rest
Do you breathe using the diaphragm or chest at rest? Check
Easy test. Put one hand on your abdomen (or stomach) and another one
higher, on your upper chest (see the picture on the right). Relax completely so
that your breathing dynamic has little changes. Pay attention to your breathing for about 20-30
seconds with both hands in place. (You want to know more about your usual unconscious
breathing and find out if you have chest or abdominal breathing.) Take 2-3 very slow and deep breaths to feel
your breathing dynamics in more detail.
Now you know more about your usual breathing pattern. In order to be certain,
you can ask other people to observe how you breathe when you are not
aware of your breathing (e.g., during sleep, while reading,
Learn how to stop upper chest breathing
There is a special page that provides instructions
how develop diaphragmatic breathing 24/7 with 3 breathing
exercises, instructions, techniques, and long term
solutions to problems with thoracic breathing. The link to this page is provided right below here (in the next paragraph), as your bonus content.
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