Breathing Lessons

Allergy writer Alex Gazzola discovers how breathing can affect allergies and sensitivities.


We inhale and exhale around twenty thousand times a day, but according to some experts, incorrect breathing can trigger or worsen the gastro-intestinal, food intolerance and food allergy symptoms most of us would much prefer to live without. So is it time for those of us with food sensitivity issues to take a close look at how we take in our air?

Jen Tiller of Reality Quest is a complementary therapist and Buteyko practitioner who reduced the severity of her food sensitivities by doing just that. She says that all of us are born with the innate ability to ventilate ourselves appropriately, but that bad breathing habits are easy to pick up in life, leading many of us to breathe wrongly – from our chests, rather than from our abdomens, using our diaphragms. The end result is hyperventilation – breathing more than we need to breathe.

Acquiring bad habits
‘If we get ill, for instance, we often don’t notice the habits we get into as a result,’ she says. ‘With a bad cold we may start mouth-breathing, and continue mouth-breathing long after the cold has cleared. You may think your cold is lasting weeks and weeks – but colds don’t last that long. What’s happening is you’re continuing to breathe badly after the cold has passed and that can make you sniffly.’

She adds: ‘Often it’s a cumulative effect. You might have a virus, perhaps an emotional upset, you may start to eat poorly, and your body lapses into poor breathing. Our default position is correct breathing, but so much can throw it out of kilter, that you need to make a conscious decision to restore it.’

Add stress
Stress is another factor, according to Ann Copping, a consultant physiotherapist with 30 years’ experience of working with IBS patients. ‘Stress causes tightness around the shoulders and hits the muscles in the back of the neck,’ she says. ‘People who hyperventilate breathe using the top parts of their chests, rather than abdominally using their diaphragms. Around a quarter of IBS sufferers have this problem.’

We all learned at school that the air we breathe in is rich in the life-giving oxygen which we need, and the air we breathe out has higher levels of the waste gas carbon dioxide. Biochemically, overbreathing over-oxygenates the blood and causes a problematic dip in its carbon dioxide levels.

‘Once you reach a certain level of carbon dioxide loss, the body’s defence mechanisms kick in to prevent further loss, and smooth muscle tissues will go into spasm,’ says Jen Tiller. ‘These mechanisms aren’t particularly effective, but it’s what the body does. The tissues affected will depend on your own individual ‘weaknesses’ – for someone with asthma, airways will go into spasm, for a sinusitis sufferer, it’s the nose, and for someone with digestive problems, it’s the intestine.’

Disordered breathing and hyperventilation also tends to increase air-swallowing (aerophagia). ‘This can cause abdominal bloating and increased pressure on the diaphragm, which is directly over the stomach, and might cause painful spasm,’ says Ann Copping. ‘Increased pressure can cause acid reflux and heartburn, and because of extra air in the bowel, we think that oxygen-loving bacteria may increase, upsetting the balance of bacteria in the bowel, and causing additional symptoms of IBS.’

According to Ann, low carbon dioxide levels in the blood stimulate the production of extra histamine – the mediator in allergic reactions – making you more likely to suffer worse food sensitivity reactions, and possibly triggering further food allergies.

‘Your tolerance to alcohol will also be very low – and this is a possible sign that you’re hyperventilating,’ she adds. ‘If you used to be able to handle a glass of wine but can’t now, for instance, or one glass feels like three or four and leaves you with a hangover, this could be an indication of poor breathing.’

Breathing solutions
Desirable breathing – for all, not merely food sensitivity sufferers – is steady, gentle breathing which uses the diaphragm. It should be abdominal – your tummy muscles must be used actively and expand outwards during each in-breath.

This allows the diaphragm to be drawn down, and the negative pressure created in the lungs allows air to be drawn in smoothly, with minimum effort. The abdomen should contract when exhaling, which is the relaxation phase of the respiratory cycle, and it should be allowed naturally to return to its original position with no effort.

There is a simple technique to gain an awareness of your breathing, and it serves as a useful regular exercise to encourage healthy breathing in the long-term.

While seated, fully relaxed, place two fingers on your lower abdominals – the muscles just below the belly button. As you take a breath in slowly, press against those fingertips and allow your abdomen to expand. You can also lie on your bed with a book on your abdomen and ‘push’ it up as you inhale – not in an exaggerated fashion, just gently to get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing. On the out-breath, gently allow your abdominals to draw toward the spine. Pause on the out-breath for a second or two. Embrace the stillness of this paused out-breath, and be conscious of how calm you feel. Keep shoulders relaxed throughout. The more you do this, the sooner your body will subconsciously ‘pick up’ the correct way of breathing.

It’s a good idea to ‘check’ your breathing periodically, much as you might check your posture for slouching. Taking up yoga, meditation or related disciplines helps – as much of the benefits derived from these will be breathing-related.

Jen Tiller – whose motto is ‘breathe less, not breathless’ – offers private Buteyko and stress management consultations and lessons, but stresses that clients need to actively participate and perform breathing exercises regularly in order to reduce their sensitivities, especially deeper ingrained or more severe allergies, which take longer to improve than newer or milder ones. The exercises focus on slower breathing cycles and small pauses after the out-breath, which retrain the body to accept a higher and more desirable level of carbon dioxide.

Chronic overbreathing keeps your body on constant alert and defence mode, she argues, so that any exposure to a trigger can cause an immediate and disproportionately severe reaction. Reduce the body’s overloaded alert system through correct breathing, and – so the theory goes – you’ll be able to tolerate an inadvertent exposure to a trigger far better because the body will no longer be primed to respond inappropriately and immediately.

If you suffer from chronic overbreathing and do not address it, there is a long-term danger that your constantly primed defence and immune system will react to ever-increasing numbers of food triggers, sometimes eventually to the point of total food sensitivity, says Jen.

She adds: ‘Obviously, I don’t recommend taking unnecessary risks, but reactions will probably be milder as you address your breathing, and if asthma and wheezing are factors, controlled breathing with pauses will reduce these symptoms, and keep you calmer, which is of huge value during an allergic reaction.’

Jen also used to have additional sensitivities to additives, colourings and artificial chemicals and perfumes, and has found that her tolerance to these, when she is exposed to them, have improved noticeably.

Furthermore, hyperventilation tends to go hand-in-hand with mouth-breathing – rather than the far more desirable nasal breathing – and this in itself can cause further problems. Mouth breathing causes you take in more environmental allergens than you would through nasal breathing, and also bypasses the natural filtering mechanisms of nasal hair and mucus, leaving you more exposed to dusts, pollens and chemical triggers, and further burdening your immune system.

‘If you habitually hyperventilate you are putting constant stress on many of the body’s systems,’ summarises Jen. ‘If you can address that, it takes such a burden off the rest of the body that problems will resolve themselves, and you will have huge benefits to your health and well-being.’

Useful Information
* Jen Tiller of Reality Quest works with adults and children around London. She is happy to offer Foods Matter readers who can travel to her a free half-hour consultation. Others are welcome to e-mail Jen for a free self-assessment questionnaire. In both cases, mention this article. Contact: 01462 624 160; /

• Physiotherapy for Hyperventilation lists UK physiotherapists who provide training in diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation techniques. Check

First published in 2008

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