Master the science of breathing through oxygen and carbon dioxide balance

Have you already discovered your favorite breathing routine? With the abundance of exercises available, finding ‘the one’ might seem challenging.

Iris de Kock
Speech therapist, breathing and vocal coach

The most effective breathing exercises

Have you already discovered your favorite breathing routine? With the abundance of exercises available, finding ‘the one’ might seem challenging. However, I believe the specific exercise matters less than understanding why you're engaging in it. As a breathing specialist, I emphasize the importance of comprehending the theory behind all routines. Today, I aim to share this vital knowledge with you. Brace yourself, as it might be a bit intricate. However, once you grasp the theory, you will not only deepen your understanding but also enhance your practical application in exercises. Let’s start exploring!

Your respiratory network

Imagine your respiratory system as a branching network, starting with the trachea and extending to tiny air sacs called alveoli. These microscopic structures, akin to balloons, collectively encompass a surface area nearly half the size of a tennis court! Within the alveoli, a vital gas exchange occurs: as you breathe in, oxygen (O2) replaces carbon dioxide (CO2), which you breathe out. The thin walls of the alveoli, adorned with tiny blood vessels, facilitate a seamless transfer of oxygen into the bloodstream and the swift removal of carbon dioxide. Oxygen then hitches a ride on red blood cells, embarking on a journey to nourish your cells. Importantly, the optimal release of oxygen happens in the presence of carbon dioxide, emphasizing its significance alongside oxygen!

The commander of breath

Your breathing rate is managed by the respiratory center located in the brainstem, but here’s the twist: it’s primarily regulated by fluctuations in the CO2-levels in the blood. When the CO2-level rises higher than your body is accustomed to, a signal prompts your diaphragm to increase the pace of your breathing. But if, by accident, your body becomes accustomed to a low CO2-level, the respiratory center commands quicker breaths all the time. It’s important to note that these disruptions don’t occur without reason. Factors like stress, illness, pain, mouth breathing, smoking, specific dietary habits, improper exercise, or excessive talking or singing can contribute as well. In such cases, your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight state) may enter a freeze state, potentially leading to chronic stress for the body. Remember, these adjustments don’t happen arbitrarily, various factors come into play!

Breath control during an ice bath

Picture yourself stepping into an ice bath. The initial shock of cold water triggers a sympathetic response, and you observe an acceleration in your breathing. Faster breathing results in more expulsion of CO2. Releasing excess CO2 may compromise effective oxygen absorption; potentially cause cramps in smooth muscle tissue such as capillaries, leading to colder hands and feet; and alter the acidity of the blood, which is like fever to your blood. That’s why there is always an emphasis on slow breathing, as it helps maintain a balance between O2 and CO2. Although, calm breathing doesn’t necessarily mean deep breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial, but avoid excessive inhalation. Instead, concentrate on the exhale: the longer the exhale, the stronger the parasympathetic activation (rest-and-digest state).

Enhance your CO2-levels

In summary, to enhance your CO2-levels, practice reduced breathing. Incorporating a brief pause, holding your breath between exhales and inhales, can already offer benefits. Additionally, physical activity increases CO2-production in your body, so opt for activities like taking the stairs, enjoying a walk outdoors, or hitting the gym! Lastly, remain mindful in situations that can disrupt your body and respiratory system, such as experiencing stress, excessive talking, or dealing with a cold. In situations like this, try this exercise: breathe through just one nostril for five or ten minutes, repeating three to six times a day.

Curious to explore the captivating realm of breathing even more? Keep an eye out for my upcoming blogs!

Enjoy the cold,

Iris de Kock

Speech therapist, breathing and vocal coach

Follow me on: @iris.dekock