Breathing less instead of more…

By exploring different breathing techniques I noticed that a lot of them involve breath retention, aka holding your breath. Why is that? It seems somewhat counter intuitive, because we want to maximize the amount of oxygen in our body right?! A lot of people think they can do that by taking deep breaths. I don’t know about you, but I was certainly one of those people.

Well, as it turns out, it’s quite the opposite: you might inhale more oxygen, but you absorb less oxygen when you’re over-breathing and that can lead to a lot of health problems (not just respiratory).

So, how many people are over-breathing? Almost everyone on occasion and many of us chronically. Dozens of studies have shown that nowadays “normal subjects” breathe about 12 L/min at rest, while the medical norm is only 6 L/min.

The dangers of over-breathing, it´s the radicals!

Oxygen is obviously vital for our survival, but it is potentially dangerous in excess and leads to the formation of free radicals that damage cells. When an overload of free radicals cannot gradually be destroyed, their accumulation in the body generates a phenomenon called oxidative stress. Lung disease such as asthma is associated with strong oxidative stress.

There are quite a few internal and external factors besides over-breathing that can cause an overload of free radicals and therewith oxidative stress (air pollution, animal foods, drugs such as antibiotics etc.). Many people have heard that antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene protect us from free radical damage. And this also explains my love for high doses of vitamin C and my switch to a plant-based-diet.

But we can boost our intake of herbs, supplements and super foods extra rich in antioxidants as much as we want, we can still have abnormally high concentrations of free radicals when we’re over-breathing. So another intervention is needed.

When it comes to over-breathing, CO2 is our big friend. An this is also where breath retention comes in.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), your favorite ´antioxidant´

What comes as a surprise to most people is that carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas when it comes to breathing. Oxygen and carbon dioxide need to work hand in hand to make your system work and both gases are equally important.

Without getting too much into the technical side of things, what you need to know is this: carbon dioxide is crucial, because it helps your body to release oxygen to the cells. Your blood might be completely saturated with oxygen from all that extra breathing you’ve been doing, but if there’s too little CO2 around, hemoglobin will hang onto its oxygen molecules (this is called the Bohr effect) and your cells and tissues, including your brain, will suffer from a lack of vital oxygen.

This also explains why breathing into a paper bag can actually help people who hyperventilate (for example asthma sufferers). It helps them breathe back in the carbon dioxide they’ve lost by over-breathing.

Another way to increase the level of CO2 in your body is by holding your breath.

But before you start randomly holding your breath…

How do you know if you’re over-breathing in the first place?

So over-breathing means breathing a volume of air greater than that which we require. Usually over-breathing is not noticeable to an untrained observer and it is therefore often referred to as hidden hyperventilation. Here are some of the characteristics typically noticed by over-breathing:

breathing through the mouth  – audible breathing during rest – Regular sighs  – Regular sniffing  – Irregular breathing – Holding of breath (apnea) -Taking large breaths prior to talking  – Yawning with big breaths-  Lot of visible movement – Strenuous breathing  -Heavy breathing at night


I found myself ‘guilty’ of at least 7 of these characteristics… And you might also think by now that you’re an over-breather. So, what now?!

What happens when you hold your breath a few minutes a day?

The longer you hold your breath you become ‘hypoxic’ which is a state of very low O2 levels in your blood. If it continues for too long the lack of O2 will have serious consequences as we need O2 to exist. However short periods of hypoxia also known as intermittent hypoxia has been shown in various studies to be beneficial to health. It is not only widely used in sports, but also in treatment of diseases such as:

  • COPD
  • Bronchitis
  • Bronchial asthma
  • Coronary hear disease
  • Arrhythmias

In case you want to read more about the health benefits of intermittent hypoxia, you’ll find an interesting scientific review of the existing literature on this topic here.

But…if you want to get down to action NOW, continue reading…

Increase your CO2 tolerance!

Depending on our ability to tolerate CO2, we can either supercharge our overall health and maybe even become athletes, or we set ourselves up for various health challenges… The latter might sound quite aggressive, but I’m describing it this way for a reason, because our tolerance to CO2 is adjustable. Which means we have some control over it. Great news!

When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace ~Author Unknown

So how do we increase our CO2 tolerance? By holding our breath. There are various techniques available out there on the ‘market’ that can help you with this, such as for example pranayama (which literally means ‘breath restraint’) or the Buteyko breathing method. This last method is known for being extremely helpful for people with respiratory disease, such as asthma. I’ll get deeper into these specific breathing methods in future blogs, but for now I’ll share a video with you that helped me determine my current CO2 tolerance:



My CO2 tolerance is currently somewhere around 30 seconds, but I’m practicing to increase it. My hope is that this helps me to offset the last bit of medication that I’m on. I’ve been able to throw my antibiotics out of the window this spring, now it’s only an inhaler (Foster) that’s left. To be continued…

box] By the way…. from July 8th till July 15th whatsyourexcuse and B-Mind are organizing an exciting week at the Alpenretreat in Austria. It will be all about ´finding your breath´! The breath is one of your most powerful instruments. Learning more about it and knowing how to use it is a gift for life. Come join us! To find out more about the programme and to BOOK DIRECTLY click here.[/box]

I would always recommend that you consult with your specialist before you embark on your own breath-holding-adventure. Not only because I’m not a doctor, but also because the health benefits attributed to intermittent hypoxia are highly dependant on the duration, frequency and severity of the hypoxic episodes.