I was invited to give a presentation on better breathing last week by FibroMacc, Macclesfield’s fibromyalgia (FM) support group.
I read out a long list of symptoms, which the audience recognised as very typical of FM. However they were surprised when I revealed that I was not reading from a review of FM or ME/CFS symptoms, but a review of the symptoms of chronic hyperventilation.
Symptoms of hyperventilation
Chronic hyperventilation (breathing too much) is one example of disordered or dysfunctional breathing that I see frequently in my breathing clinic. And as I have stated in previous blog posts, the more you breathe the less oxygen you get; here is an example of decreased oxygen in the brain after a minute of controlled hyperventilation. Oxygen levels can drop by 60%! This is not commonly acknowledged; so prevalent and ingrained is “the more you breathe the better”, that this false assumption or belief may actually make people sicker; advice to “take deep breaths, fill your lungs, flush out the waste” can be unhelpful!
Breathing badly can deplete all the body tissues of oxygen (even though there is plenty of oxygen in the blood stream) and low oxygen can affect every system leading to varied symptoms: circulatory (e.g. palpitations, cold hands); respiratory (e.g. asthma, breathlessness, sinusitis, allergies); immune (e.g. itchy skin, intolerances); digestive (e.g. IBS); cognitive (e.g. poor concentration and memory, anxiety etc.) and pain and exhaustion are commonplace. However, not every bad breather will have ME/CFS/ME, genetics will play a part and no two people will have identical symptoms.
The sympathetic nervous system will be on overdrive, powering all the fight or flight or freeze responses required in times of danger, in turn increasing heart and breathing rates, and causing the vicious cycle of feeling unwell, which can lead to increased anxiety and yet more breathing. This is STRESS!
Some recent studies have linked ME/CFS/FM with low oxygen in the body tissues, especially in muscles after exertion. This could provide a compelling explanation for some of the problems faced by ME/CFS/FM sufferers, especially post exertional malaise.
Low body oxygen could also explain why breathing education help these problems, by getting more oxygen into the body tissues. Disordered breathing could contribute (or even cause) the symptoms in susceptible people.