Shallow Breathing: Causes, Effects, Solutions
The term "shallow breathing" can refer to 2 different processes:
- breathing mechanics (problems with thoracic or chest breathing);
- breathing volume (too small tidal volume or amount of air per inhalation). Bear in mind that ideal or healthy automatic breathing at rest is very small in amount, but mainly abdominal.
Shallow breathing causes
Shallow breathing is generally caused by one factor only: hyperventilation (or breathing more air than the medical norm). In normal conditions, hyperventilation cannot improve blood oxygenation in any significant degree: normal breathing provides arterial blood with 98-99% oxygen saturation. Hence, overbreathing reduces CO2 levels in the arterial blood. This causes decreased oxygen delivery to cells leading. Cell hypoxia and hypocapnia can cause a spasm in all muscles of the human body: airways, colon, arteries, arterioles, and the diaphragm.
Shallow breathing can be triggered by anxiety, stress, night sleep (or being in a horizontal position), fatigue, mouth breathing, and other factors that cause hyperventilation.
Shallow breathing symptoms
The symptoms of chest breathing are very individual and can range from dyspnea (or shortness of breath, which is common during terminal cancer, HIV-AIDS, cystic fibrosis, COPD, emphysema, and many other conditions) and angina pain (a sign of low heart oxygenation) to blocked nose, sleep apnea, anxiety, fatigue and constipation. All these symptoms are analyzed on the web page Symptoms of hyperventilation.
Shallow breathing treatment
Since hyperventilation causes chest breathing, the solution is simple: normalization of breathing. However, it is not easy to implement in practice because it is necessary to correct the automatic (unconscious) breathing pattern that is going on day and night.
Could shallow breathing mean low tidal volume?
However, when we speak about tidal volumes (a single volume of inhaled air), normal healthy breathing and ideal breathing for maximum body-oxygen levels are shallow (a tiny air volume inhaled in during one breath). Hence, it is sensible that healthy people are usually unable to sense their respiratory movements.
Sick people have heavy and deep (often noisy) breathing because they breathe too much (see the Homepage). They often feel movements of air in the nasal passages, chest movements (due to chest breathing or shallow breathing), and other effects related to their hyperventilation, which is the main problem.
There are, however, exceptions to these observations. Some groups of people can feel their breath, even though they have easy and light normal breathing:
- Healthy children (e.g., 6-10 years old) with normal breathing patterns are able to feel their breathing (even though it is tiny in amounts) due to acute awareness of their bodily sensations.
- Vice versa, elderly people, even when they breathe 2 times faster and/or twice more deeply than the medical norms, often do not notice any sensations of their heavy breathing because of they have not paid enough attention to their breath for many decades.
- People who have been learning and practicing breathing retraining methods and techniques (the Buteyko method, Hatha Yoga, etc.), often have acute perceptions of their breath - even if they breathe less and slower than the physiological norms or have shallow (small in volume) automatic breathing.
This is possible because of their deliberate focus on breath sensations during their training sessions, including Buteyko shallow breathing exercise*.
Old Hatha Yoga manuscripts are full of ideas and quotes on to how to restrict, slow down and restrain breathing (see Yoga pages for more detail). These ideas are wise since breathing less during our automatic or unconscious breathing increases body oxygenation.
*Note. The main Buteyko method exercise is sometimes called "shallow breathing", but "reduced breathing" is a more accurate term.
For more information, visit Diaphragmatic breathing exercises and techniques.
Reference pages: Breathing norms and the DIY body oxygen test:
- Breathing norms: Parameters, graph, and description of the normal breathing pattern
- Body-oxygen test (CP test) : How to measure your own breathing and body oxygenation (two in one) using a simple DIY test
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 body tissues
- Nerve stabilization: Carbon dioxide has powerful calmative and sedative effects on brain neurons and nerve cells
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