Breath Retraining in the Management of Asthma
by Barbara Benagh
The Autonomic Nervous System
Like other involuntary bodily functions, breathing is usually controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which enables the human organism to run like a well-oiled, self-correcting machine. There are two branches to this system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic. The parasympathetic branch, known as the "relaxation response", controls resting functions of the body. It slows the heart and breathing rate, as well as activating digestion and elimination. The sympathetic branch has the opposite effect. It rouses the body and regulates active functions related to emergencies and exercise. When emergencies arise, the sympathetic branch floods the body with adrenaline &endash;the well-known "fight or flight" response. Heart rate goes up, and breathing rate increases to supply the body with an infusion of oxygen. If the danger is real, the increased energy is used. If not, the body stays in a state of overstimulation which can become chronic, causing a number of symptoms including anxiety and hyperventilation (over breathing). Since few of us are immune to the constant stresses and strains of modern life, the alarm bells of the sympathetic nervous system are constantly being rung. It is a real juggling act to maintain a healthy autonomic balance, a challenge at which asthmatics generally fail.
Although most asthmatics are unaware of it, we tend to chronically breathe at a rate two to three times higher than normal which disrupts the vital balance of respiration. Paradoxically, instead of providing more oxygen, over breathing actually robs our cells of this essential fuel. We do take in more oxygen when we over breathe; but, more importantly, we also breathe out too much CO2. Most of us learned in school that when we breathe we (deleted words) expel carbon dioxide as a waste gas but not that how much we expel is very important . If the CO2 level get too low, the hemoglobin that carries oxygen through the blood becomes too "sticky" and doesn't release sufficient oxygen to the cells. Eventually, starved for oxygen, the body's natural defenses kick to try and halt the dangerous depletion of CO2. These measures produce the classic symptoms of an asthma attack: smooth muscles tighten around the airways, and the body produces excess mucus and histamine (which causes swelling) to constrict them even further&endash;and we're left gasping for breath.