You are breathing wrong

This summer I was planning to spend some time practicing breathwork across Europe. For those not familiar with what breathwork is

Breathwork is breathing with intention in order to provoke physical or mental changes

I found out very fast that the majority of people have no idea what a superpower breathing can be. And of course that we are breathing fundamentally wrong (hint: you should breathe less).

How can breathing make you stressed

We all know to "take a deep breath to relax" or to "take a deep breath, this is going to hurt" and we assumed that breathing more air makes things better. Newsflash: It is not.

If you ever had a panic attack (or seen a movie where someone was super stressed), you might know about the paper bag trick. The trick is that when you are stressed, breathe in and out inside a small paper bag. How this works is that you are breathing CO2 instead of oxygen. When we are stressed, we breathe more oxygen (and we hyperventilate) and our CO2 blood levels go down. And this is bad. Surprisingly, our brain freaks out A TON when CO2 levels are low. Our brain also freaks out when CO2 levels are high (lack of oxygen) but this is something that we can learn to control (up to a level).

Why I need high CO2 in my blood? CO2 is bad!

CO2 and oxygen are in a balance in your bloodstream. This balance is disrupted when you are inhaling tons of oxygen. Of course there are cases where this disruption leads to an improved system and we'll get there. But messing up with the balance without intention is a recipe for disaster.

One of the first symptoms is starting to feel light headed, jittery and panicky. In order to increase your CO2, there are a couple of ways. One is to breathe more CO2 from a paper bag (inhale and exhale in the paper bag). The other is to stop breathing. And before you start passing out from holding your breath, let me explain how we should increase our CO2.

What is CO2 good for?

Oxygen is awesome. If you hold your breath right now, you will last (before gasping for air) 1 or 2 minutes (the world record is around 24 minutes). For me, that is a very strange fact. Why the most important thing for our survival is not stored? Why I store fat the moment I eat some chocolate but I cannot store oxygen?

Oxygen is being used to create energy by providing the "fire" to "burn" nutrients . Storing tons of "fire" can be problematic as fire has a tendancy to spread. Uncontrollably. The conversion to energy is happening in the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. These little guys are responsible for producing the energy that we need (if you want to get technical, they produce ATP) and they are using oxygen in the process. At another post we'll talk about why you should be taking CoQ10 as a supplement to increase your ATP production.

But what happens when you pump your system with too much oxygen all day long?


By overusing your mitochondria, you start creating inflamation in your body (you create free radicals). Inflamation can be good if it is controlled (like when you go to gym, you pump iron and then your muscles recover and you get stronger) but if it happens all the time is bad. Very bad.

On top of that, your mitochondria are not working very efficiently. They create energy that is not used as it supposed to. This has been linked to a lot of illnesses like diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's just to name a few. Your mitochondria need to be trained. And the way to train them is by restricting their oxygen.

Getting high on your own supply

When I was training for my pilots' license, I was told about hypoxia - the phenomenon of not having enough oxygen. It happens when you are over 20000 feet and you can check this video to see that it is hilarious (when you are on the ground).

Hypoxia is deadly when you are flying a plane because you feel ephoric as your brain start hallucinating and you have no idea that you are in danger. You are just very very happy (happy hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, noradrenaline are released when CO2 levels are high). And this happens because there is lack of oxygen.

Soooo, now oxygen is good?

When you increase for a bit your CO2 levels, you are putting your body under stress. Like going to the gym and you exercise. When the exercise is over the balance is restored, your body has improved. Your mitochondria are operating a bit more efficiently, the inflammation has gone down and the temporary inflamation created has actually attacked any possible intruders.

By increasing mindfully your oxygen levels, you make your blood alkaline (you increase it's pH) and my increasing your CO2 levels, you make it acidic. This switch, makes your autonomous nervous system to rebalance and leads to reduced stress, reduced anxiety and increased performance.

Increasing your CO2 levels (as we said you can learn to increase the threshold with practice), you can increase your athletic performance. This is due to the fact that you increase production of ATP. An example is by using the Wim Hof breathing, you can perform a lot more push ups than you are able to do, all while holding your breath.

Damn this is interesting

And it is not even the beginning! Wait until we talk about what happens when you dive in cold water and stay there for a long time and your prehistoric brain turns on and starts protecting you. Or how by not breathing you can have increased physical performance. Or how you can convert fat to "brown fat" that is used faster for energy. Or why breathing through your mouth can mess up your HRV (heart rate variability).

In the next posts, we'll cover topics like:

  1. How to unblock your nose in 1 minute by alternating your breathing
  2. How to hold your breath for 2 minutes with less than 1 minute practice
  3. How you can improve your immune system with breathing exercises (and tons of scientific research)
  4. Six different breathworks for relaxation (Wim Hof, Holotropic, Buteyko etc)
  5. Why breathing from your mouth changes the structure of your whole face
  6. And tons of more cool factoids

Coming Next: Exploring Wim Hof breathing

If you liked this article, you are going to love this
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- Fri 04 June 2021

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