Chest Breathing | Thoracic Breathing: Effects, Tests and Solutions
Chest breathing (or thoracic breathing) is very common in modern people. More than 50% of adults have predominantly chest breathing at rest. It is even more common for people with chronic diseases, who breathe too deeply at rest, as this table shows.
Minute ventilation rates (chronic diseases)
click below for abstracts
|Normal breathing||6 L/min||-||Medical textbooks|
|Healthy Subjects||6-7 L/min||>400||Results of 14 studies|
|Heart disease||15 (±4) L/min||22||Dimopoulou et al, 2001|
|Heart disease||16 (±2) L/min||11||Johnson et al, 2000|
|Heart disease||12 (±3) L/min||132||Fanfulla et al, 1998|
|Heart disease||15 (±4) L/min||55||Clark et al, 1997|
|Heart disease||13 (±4) L/min||15||Banning et al, 1995|
|Heart disease||15 (±4) L/min||88||Clark et al, 1995|
|Heart disease||14 (±2) L/min||30||Buller et al, 1990|
|Heart disease||16 (±6) L/min||20||Elborn et al, 1990|
|Pulm hypertension||12 (±2) L/min||11||D'Alonzo et al, 1987|
|Cancer||12 (±2) L/min||40||Travers et al, 2008|
|Diabetes||12-17 L/min||26||Bottini et al, 2003|
|Diabetes||15 (±2) L/min||45||Tantucci et al, 2001|
|Diabetes||12 (±2) L/min||8||Mancini et al, 1999|
|Diabetes||10-20 L/min||28||Tantucci et al, 1997|
|Diabetes||13 (±2) L/min||20||Tantucci et al, 1996|
|Asthma||13 (±2) L/min||16||Chalupa et al, 2004|
|Asthma||15 L/min||8||Johnson et al, 1995|
|Asthma||14 (±6) L/min||39||Bowler et al, 1998|
|Asthma||13 (±4) L/min||17||Kassabian et al, 1982|
|Asthma||12 L/min||101||McFadden & Lyons, 1968|
|COPD||14 (±2) L/min||12||Palange et al, 2001|
|COPD||12 (±2) L/min||10||Sinderby et al, 2001|
|COPD||14 L/min||3||Stulbarg et al, 2001|
|Sleep apnea||15 (±3) L/min||20||Radwan et al, 2001|
|Liver cirrhosis||11-18 L/min||24||Epstein et al, 1998|
|Hyperthyroidism||15 (±1) L/min||42||Kahaly, 1998|
|Cystic fibrosis||15 L/min||15||Fauroux et al, 2006|
|Cystic fibrosis||10 L/min||11||Browning et al, 1990|
|Cystic fibrosis*||10 L/min||10||Ward et al, 1999|
|CF and diabetes*||10 L/min||7||Ward et al, 1999|
|Cystic fibrosis||16 L/min||7||Dodd et al, 2006|
|Cystic fibrosis||18 L/min||9||McKone et al, 2005|
|Cystic fibrosis*||13 (±2) L/min||10||Bell et al, 1996|
|Cystic fibrosis||11-14 L/min||6||Tepper et al, 1983|
|Epilepsy||13 L/min||12||Esquivel et al, 1991|
|CHV||13 (±2) L/min||134||Han et al, 1997|
|Panic disorder||12 (±5) L/min||12||Pain et al, 1991|
|Bipolar disorder||11 (±2) L/min||16||MacKinnon et al, 2007|
|Dystrophia myotonica||16 (±4) L/min||12||Clague et al, 1994|
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.
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 gravity.
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, http://www.amsa.org/healingthehealer/breathing.cfm.)
Thoracic breathing means low blood oxygen
People 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 yourself.
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, studying, etc.).
Learn how to stop chest breathing
Module 8 (Learning Section). How to Learn and Develop Diaphragmatic Breathing 24/7 with 3 breathing exercises, instructions, techniques, and long term solutions to thoracic breathing problems.
This video clip (Chest Breathing in Modern People) explains why modern people are chest breathers:
Reference pages: Breathing norms and medical facts:
- Breathing norms: Parameters, graph, and description of the normal breathing pattern
- 6 breathing myths: Myths and superstitions about breathing and body oxygenation (prevalence: over 90%)
- Hyperventilation: Definitions of hyperventilation: their advantages and weak points
- Hyperventilation syndrome: Western scientific evidence about prevalence of chronic hyperventilation in patients with chronic conditions (37 medical studies)
- Normal minute ventilation: Small and slow breathing at rest is enjoyed by healthy subjects (14 studies)
- Hyperventilation prevalence: Present in over 90% of normal people (24 medical studies)
- HV and hypoxia: How and why deep breathing reduces oxygenation of cells and tissues of all vital organs
- Body-oxygen test (CP test) : How to measure your own breathing and body oxygenation (two in one) using a simple DIY test
- Body oxygen in healthy: Results for the body-oxygen test for healthy people (27 medical studies)
- Body oxygen in sick : Results for the body-oxygen test for sick people (14 medical studies)
- Buteyko Table of Health Zones: Clinical description and ranges for breathing zones: from the critically ill (severely sick) up to super healthy people with maximum possible body oxygenation
- Morning hyperventilation: Why people feel worse and critically ill people are most likely to die during early morning hours
References: pages about CO2 effect:
- Vasodilation: CO2 expands arteries and arterioles facilitating perfusion (or blood supply) to all vital organs
- The Bohr effect: How and why oxygen is released by red blood cells in tissues
- Cell oxygen levels: How alveolar CO2 influences oxygen transport
- Oxygen transport: O2 transport is controlled by vasoconstriction-vasodilation and the Bohr effects, both of which rely on CO2
- Free radical generation: Reactive oxygen species are produced within cells due to anaerobic cell respiration caused by cell hypoxia
- Inflammatory response: Chronic inflammation in fueled by the hypoxia-inducible factor 1, while normal breathing reduces and eliminates inflammation
- Nerve stabilization: People remain calm due to calmative or sedative effects of carbon dioxide in neurons or nerve cells
- Muscle relaxation: Relaxation of muscle cells is normal at high CO2, while hypocapnia causes muscular tension, poor posture and, sometimes, aggression and violence
- Bronchodilation: Dilation of airways (bronchi and bronchioles) is caused by carbon dioxide, and their constriction by hypocapnia (low CO2)
- Blood pH: Regulation of blood pH due to breathing and regulation of other bodily fluids
- CO2: lung damage: Elevated carbon dioxide prevents lung injury and promotes healing of lung tissues
- CO2: Topical carbon dioxide can heal skin and tissues
- Synthesis of glutamine in the brain, CO2 fixation, and other chemical reactions
- Deep breathing myth: Ignorant and naive people promote the idea that deep breathing and breathing more air at rest is beneficial for health
- Breathing control: How is our breathing regulated? Why hypocapnia makes breathing uneven, irregular and erratic.
Castro M. Control of breathing. In: Physiology, Berne RM, Levy MN (editors), 4-th edition, Mosby, St. Louis, 1998.
Ganong WF, Review of medical physiology, 15-th ed., 1995, Prentice Hall Int., London.
Shields JW, MD, Lymph, lymph glands, and homeostasis, Lymphology, Dec. 1992, 25, 4: 147.
West JB. Respiratory physiology: the essentials. 6th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins; 2000.
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