- Updated on January 20, 2022
By Dr. Artour Rakhimov, Alternative Health Educator and Author
Most of the time, breathing is regulated by the ANS (autonomous nervous system). In healthy people movement of the diaphragm provides at least 75% of the changes in air volume in the lungs during inhalation at rest, as one may see in many medical textbooks (e.g., p. 312, Castro, 2000; p. 595, Ganong, 1995). Inhalation involves activation of the diaphragm (the initially dome-shaped diaphragm is stretched sideways and becomes flatter), and, hence, inhalation, as a process of muscular activation, is normally controlled by the sympathetic part of the ANS. Exhalation, in health, involves relaxation or passive recoil of the diaphragm (p. 314, Castro, 2000) indicating parasympathetic control of this part of the process. In normal conditions (12 breaths per minute) one breathing cycle (inhalation-exhalation) takes 5 seconds. Inhalation lasts about 2 s and exhalation about 3 s (p. 313, Castro, 2000; p.541, Straub, 1998).
Since an average person takes many thousands of breaths every day, the parameters of his or her breathing can be considered as a window, through which certain disturbances in the ANS can be detected. Let us consider the typical breathing parameters of sick people.
The above studies in minute ventilation show that people with asthma and heart disease breathe about 2.5 times more air every minute (about 15 l/min instead of 6). How is it possible that they breathe so much? Such breathing rates are possible by breathing faster (not 12 times per minute, but 15-20 or even more times per minute) and deeper (up to 700-1,000 ml of air per breath instead of 500 ml as it should be in health). If a healthy person needs about 3 s to exhale 500 ml through the relaxation of the diaphragm, there is no way for a sick person to exhale more air (700-1,000 ml) in less time using only relaxation. Hence, sick people unconsciously apply muscular efforts to exhale air from the lungs in resting conditions. These muscular efforts need sympathetic control indicating that hyperventilation means abnormal control of this vital function (breathing) by the ANS. Moreover, this fast and deep breathing is usually, but not always, accompanied by chest breathing, when the rib cage, not the diaphragm, does the main job of air movement. Hence, hyperventilation also means abnormal innervations or dis-regulation of control of the breathing muscles by the ANS. Furthermore, practice shows that hyperventilation is usually accompanied by the reversal of the two phases of breathing: inhalations often become longer than exhalations. One may notice how sick people take a prolonged inhale and then the rib cage collapses to expel air with force and audible noise. Finally, the breathing of sick people is often uneven and irregular with sighing, coughing, snorting, sneezing, etc.
All these abnormal processes take place 24/7 and they indicate pathologies in the functions of the ANS. The ANS, in its turn, regulates contractions of the heart, digestion, production of hormones, and many other vital processes. It is logical to expect then that chronic overbreathing can lead to various health abnormalities through negative effects on the ANS, but too little research about these negative effects is currently available.
Ganong WF, Review of medical physiology, 15-th ed., 1995, Prentice Hall Int., London.
Straub NC, Section V, The Respiratory System, in Physiology, eds. RM Berne & MN Levy, 4-th edition, Mosby, St.