Does how I breathe really matter?!

First of all, there is no ‘wrong’ way to breathe. If you’re alive, you’re breathing pretty well 😄

But: no matter how healthy your diet is, how well you exercise, sleep and recover: if your breathing isn’t efficient your body can not function optimally. 

That’s a pretty strong statement, so let me back it up with a few facts:

  • Efficient breathing behaviour means proper regulation of body chemistry (pH), a chemistry that ensures electrolyte balance and proper distribution of oxygen. Inefficient breathing behaviour means deregulating body chemistry.
  • 70% of the toxins we accumulate in our bodies are released through the lungs. This means if we don’t breathe efficiently, we also don’t get rid of those toxins. 
  • Efficient breathing helps regulate your blood pressure, your digestion, your cortisol levels, your stress level, etc. 
  • Interested in losing weight? Have you ever thought about what happens to the fat you lose? You breathe it out in the form of CO2 ( carbohydrates = carbon)…

So what is inefficient breathing?

Inefficient breathing is breathing that doesn’t support optimal health. It is most easily recognised as a superficial, stressed breathing pattern: too fast and high in the chest. Most people breathe completely unconsciously. That doesn’t change the fact that inefficient breathing impairs your energy management, your mood and your health! 

The majority of people breathe inefficiently. Why? Stress is a big cause, but also our fixation on flat stomachs and the ‘superhero’ pose with chest puffed forward and a rigid abdomen. Mouth breathing is also directly linked to inefficient breathing patterns. We use our breath to suppress emotions (think about how you stifle a laugh, or stop yourself from crying), when we do that too often it can cause chronic breathing issues.

We also tend to hold our breath often without realising it, and then overbreathe to compensate afterwards.

Even how we eat affects our breathing: if you eat a meal high in refined carbs, sugars and processed foods you create an acidic environment in the body. Our body’s compensatory mechanism to maintain pH balance is to trigger an increased breathing rate.

Recent research has shown that the body starts sending signals (changes in breathing pattern) for an hour before a panic attack hits, but because we are so out of tune with our bodies we don’t recognise these signals.

When we overbreathe (as more than 70% of the population does!) we blow off too much CO2, and can’t bind oxygen efficiently. CO2 is not a waste gas but one we need to release oxygen into our cells. A lack of CO2 leads to dizziness, tightness in the chest, exhaustion, stress, poor circulation, inability to focus, cold hands and feet, … even though our O2 saturation can be at 96-100%, without CO2 that O2 is worthless.  A recent survey showed 60 percent of the ambulance runs in the larger USA cities are a direct consequence of symptoms precipitated by overbreathing.

And what is efficient breathing?

Efficient breathing is low and slow: diaphragmatic breathing at a rate of less than 10 breaths per minute (at rest). Optimal breathing has been scientifically proven to be achieved at an even slower rate at an average of 5,5 breaths per minute!
By breathing less, your breathing also becomes more diaphragmatic. An efficient breath is one where our ribcage expands 360° horizontally.

An efficient breath stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn activates our parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest). The movement of the diaphragm massages the heart and organs helping blood flow and digestion. An efficient breath maintains our O2 / CO2 balance and optimises our body chemistry. 

How can I tell if I’m overbreathing?

Do a quick check: set a timer for 1 minute, close your eyes and count your breaths without trying to influence them (one breath = an inhale + an exhale). How many do you count? If it’s more than 10 breaths per minute at rest, you are overbreathing. 


Next check: put a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly. Inhale and simply watch which hand moves first. If the hand on your chest moves first and moves vertically: you are most likely overbreathing. 

Acute symptoms of overbreathing



What can I do if I’m overbreathing?

  1. Breathe consciously
    Becoming aware of your overbreathing is the first step. You can’t change something you don’t notice. Check in to your breathing regularly, you can even set an alarm to remind yourself if necessary.
  2. Breathe through your nose
    Nose breathing automatically supports a more efficient breathing pattern. Your breaths are more diaphragmatic, nitric oxide is produced which helps dilate your vascular system so you can absorb more oxygen, it lowers your stress-level, the list of benefits goes on and on!
  3. Breathe slower
    Slow down your breathing rate, focussing on extending the exhale. If you can, double your exhale (i.e. inhale for 3 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds). This calms the nervous system and allows you to relax.
  4. Breathe through your belly
    Breathing slower should also stimulate deeper breaths. Practice this by simply putting one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. On each inhale, make sure the hand on your belly rises first. The hand on your chest doesn’t have to move, but it’s fine if it does. (n.b. Belly breathing is not fully efficient breathing, but it’s a great first step)
  5. Breathe horizontally
    Breathing should be effortless. Watch yourself breathe in a mirror. Do your shoulders move up and down with each breath? Is there tension around your collarbones and neck? If so, that means you’re breathing vertically using accessory muscles. This uses up significantly more energy than an efficient, horizontal breath.
    Try to relax your jaw, neck and shoulders and focus on belly breathing to start. Ideally, there should be no vertical movement when you breathe.
  6. Work with a breathing coach. They can help you improve your breathing mechanics and breathing technique.