Patrick McKeown: Breathing Too Much Can Ruin Your Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Oxygen Advantage" by Patrick McKeown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is breathing too much a problem? How does Patrick McKeown explain the cycle of excessive breathing?

According to Patrick McKeown, breathing can become an issue if you do too much of it. His book The Oxygen Advantage says that modern living conditions cause the average person to breathe too much, which can lead to weight gain, mental health problems, and more.

Keep reading to learn how taking in too much oxygen can ultimately backfire on you.

The Problem: You Breathe Too Much

According to Patrick McKeown, breathing too much is a widespread habit degrading the health of almost everyone in modern society. Specifically, the average person inhales and exhales more frequently than they should and breathes habitually through the mouth, a larger airway than the nose. But why is taking in more air than you need so bad for you?

We’ll begin this section by breaking down what happens in your body when you breathe and how this changes when you breathe too much. Then, we’ll detail the adverse health effects of heavy breathing. Finally, we’ll use this information to explain why modern society causes so many people to breathe too much.

How Breathing Too Much Hurts You

McKeown explains that breathing serves two main functions: taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. First, you inhale oxygen because the muscles and organs in your body need it to function. When you inhale, tiny air sacs inside your lungs called alveoli absorb oxygen and pass it into the bloodstream. Your circulatory system ensures that this oxygen travels to your muscles and organs.

Second, you exhale carbon dioxide because your digestive system produces more of it than your body needs as it breaks down food into energy. Additionally, your body generates a lot of carbon dioxide whenever you physically exert yourself, as a byproduct of intense muscle activity.

Breathing More Blocks the Flow of Oxygen

Generally, the more oxygen your body sends to your various muscles and organs, the better they can do their jobs, asserts McKeown. However, breathing too much causes your muscles and organs to absorb less of the oxygen in your bloodstream, preventing them from working optimally.

When you breathe too much, you exhale large amounts of carbon dioxide, removing it from your blood. This is unhealthy because blood needs carbon dioxide in it to pass oxygen on to muscles and organs—a phenomenon called the Bohr effect. The less carbon dioxide there is in your blood, the less your body can access its blood oxygen.

Many assume that breathing excessively is good for you because it increases the amount of oxygen you inhale into your body. However, McKeown contends that this extra oxygen doesn’t do you any good. In everyday life, your blood is almost always fully saturated with oxygen—it can’t hold any more, no matter how much you inhale. Unless your body is truly low on oxygen (for instance, if you’ve been intensely exercising or you have lung damage), breathing heavily vents carbon dioxide from your blood without impacting your blood oxygen level.

The Vicious Cycle of Excessive Breathing

McKeown asserts that when you breathe too much, your body becomes accustomed to low levels of carbon dioxide, and you develop a hypersensitivity to it: Your brain sends you desperate signals to breathe harder in response to the slightest buildup of carbon dioxide, including any time you physically exert yourself. If you give into your brain’s signals and gasp for breath while exercising, you’ll exhale carbon dioxide that you need to oxygenate your body, resulting in swift full-body exhaustion.

This creates a vicious cycle, as the frequent impulse to breathe heavily causes you to constantly exhale, ensuring that your body is only accustomed to this low baseline of carbon dioxide.

Other Adverse Symptoms of Excessive Breathing

Aside from decreasing your tolerance for carbon dioxide and reducing oxygenation of your muscles and organs, breathing too much degrades your health in other ways. Let’s take a look at a few of these adverse symptoms.

Symptom #1: Greater Anxiety and Stress

McKeown argues that breathing too much makes you feel more anxious and stressed because it triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. Our bodies normally breathe heavily in response to danger; so when you breathe excessively, your body assumes that there’s a threat nearby, making you feel perpetually stressed.

Symptom #2: Weight Gain

According to McKeown, breathing too much causes you to gain weight. A lower tolerance to carbon dioxide means that it takes less physical exertion for you to lose your breath and become exhausted. This makes it more difficult to exercise, which makes it harder to lose or maintain your weight.

On the other hand, McKeown states that when you breathe less and your internal organs get more oxygen, they digest food more efficiently, which naturally reduces your appetite and helps you avoid overeating.

Symptom #3: Increased Mental Fatigue

We’ve discussed how excessive breathing gives less oxygen to your muscles and organs, and McKeown specifically notes that this includes the brain. Because heavy breathing deprives your brain of oxygen, you feel tired and think slower. Training yourself to breathe less can improve your alertness and mental acuity.

Symptom #4: Constricted Breathing

Lower levels of carbon dioxide in the blood cause the airways in your chest and throat to tighten, which causes shortness of breath in moderate cases and asthma in severe ones. McKeown asserts that low blood CO2 from excessive breathing is the primary cause of asthma.

Symptom #5: Constricted Blood Vessels

Finally, breathing too much causes your blood vessels to narrow, reducing blood flow and making it more difficult to get oxygen to the different parts of your body. These constricted blood vessels also increase your risk of cardiovascular issues like heart failure.

Why You Breathe Too Much

According to McKeown, there are a few reasons why modern living conditions influence us to breathe more than our bodies should. First, we live less active lifestyles than people did in the past. As a result, our bodies aren’t accustomed to movement, causing us to breathe heavily in response to any exertion. Overall, this means that we breathe much more than our ancestors did.

(Shortform note: Why are we less active than people were in the past? Some experts assert that this is simply due to the development of technology, rather than any other cultural or economic shifts. As machines take over jobs that require physical labor, we have fewer reasons to get moving. Research shows that people 100 years ago got an average of five times more daily exercise than we do today.)

Second, we eat more processed foods, which McKeown contends makes our blood more acidic. This causes you to breathe more as your body urges you to get rid of the acidic carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and rebalance your blood’s pH. These breathing habits make your blood less acidic over time, which causes you to crave more acidic processed foods. This creates another unhealthy feedback loop.

(Shortform note: Some experts challenge the notion that processed foods make your blood more acidic, asserting that there’s no evidence that the food you eat influences the pH of your blood. That said, these experts agree with McKeown that processed foods are less healthy than whole foods, as they contain far fewer nutrients and increase the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.)

Third, McKeown explains that we frequently suffer from chronic stress, putting us into fight-or-flight mode and encouraging heavy breathing. Since it’s rare that you can quickly resolve modern sources of stress (like a high-pressure sales job), stress becomes a long-term condition rather than a short-term response, causing perpetual heavy breathing (which in turn makes you more stressed, as we discussed).

(Shortform note: Is it possible to live in a modern society and avoid chronic stress? Some experts say “yes”: In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal contends that by improving your mindset and attitude toward stress, you can engage with stress without triggering your fight-or-flight response. A positive attitude toward stress triggers a challenge response where your breathing accelerates in the short term to help you perform. However, you recover from this heightened state more effectively, avoiding the long-term habit of heavy breathing.)

Patrick McKeown: Breathing Too Much Can Ruin Your Life

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Oxygen Advantage summary:

  • How proper breathing can help you lose weight, sleep better, and more
  • How modern living conditions cause people to breathe too much
  • Training exercises to help you breathe less and build CO2 tolerance

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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