What is hyperventilation?

Before you start to look for cures for hyperventilation, it is very important that you understand how the respiratory system works and what hyperventilation is. Understanding the illness is the first step in the healing process.

The respiratory center in the brain

The respiratory center in the brain activates the respiratory muscles in the chest and abdomen. The frequency at which this occurs, is determined by the acidity level of the blood. The acidity level rises and falls depending on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. CO2 is a waste product of the burning processes in our organs and muscles. Part of it stays in the blood and the remaining amount is exhaled through the lungs.

When the body’s activity increases, e.g. physical activity, more ‘fuel’ is burned and therefore more CO2 enters the blood. The acidity level increases and the respiratory center reacts by increasing the breathing frequency. This also allows more oxygen to enter the blood, which further enables the burning process. If the body is at rest, less ‘fuel’ is burned and the amount of CO2 in the blood drops. The acidity level drops accordingly and the respiratory center responds by a lowering the breathing frequency.

Everybody hyperventilates!

If someone is breathing more than needed, a situation arises which is named after a CO2-shortage: respiratory alkalosis, in common language ‘hyperventilation’ (see causes). Everyone hyperventilates under certain conditions. It is a normal reaction to danger and excitement: the body is being prepared for necessary actions like fight or flight. (hence the body needs more oxygen). The temporary loss of CO2 is compensated by HCO3 buffers in the body. The person feels a little dizzy and could experience some tingling sensations. As soon as the cause of the hyperventilation is gone, the buffers are replenished.

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What happens inside the body?

In situations of continuous stress or tension, there is the danger that – due to the continuous hyperventilation – the CO2 buffer system becomes depleted. The blood then becomes alkaline (the opposite of acidic). In this situation, two specific effects become noticeable: firstly, the blood vessels are squeezed tight and the oxygen exchange in the body’s cells becomes obstructed. The squeezed blood vessels can actually cause a reduction of the blood supply to the brain of 30 to 40%. This then leads to a shortage of oxygen, which causes reduced brain functionality. The person starts to get blurry vision, sounds suddenly appear very distant, there is a lack of concentration of the mind and the person is unable to think clearly and feels like he or she might faint. The alkaline blood will cause a variety of these effects.

Chronic hyperventilation

This problem becomes even bigger when the alkaline condition is maintained for too long. The respiratory center starts to adjust to the low acidity level of the blood as if that is the normal condition. When the respiratory center adjusts, it increases the breathing frequency, which leads to much lower levels of CO2 in the blood. Hence it keeps the body in the alkaline condition and thus maintains the hyperventilation. The situation has now become a chronic form of hyperventilation. The only way to cure this condition is to reset the respiratory center’s sensitivity to CO2 back to a normal value (see treatment).

Read more about hyperventilation symptoms…

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