Excess weight is often thought to be the result of an imbalance between energy from food consumed less energy spent throughout the day. However, well known researchers such as Zoe Harcombe, have pointed out that weight is not simply the end product of calories in less calories utilised for metabolism and exercise. Weight loss is more complicated than adjusting food intake, nutrients and exercise levels although this is usually part of the picture. Apart from the emotional and mental aspects of eating there is also a close link between breathing and metabolism.
Metabolism is the biochemical process by which your body combines food and drink with oxygen to convert it into energy. Your basal or resting metabolic rate (BMR) rate is how much energy you burn at rest to perform autonomic functions breathing; heart rate; digestion etc. determined by your: age; sex; body size and composition (muscle uses more energy). This rate is generally fairly consistent although physical activity and exercise can have an impact. However our respiration rate (speed, volume), our breathing mechanics (upper/lower chest, lung capacity) and the cadence (rhythm) of our breath affect this metabolic equation and ultimately tissue and organ function.
I first came across Butekyo breathing when I studied at Westminster University, whilst learning about the pathophysiology of asthma and nutritional support strategies. Dr. Konstantin Butekyo was a Russian Doctor, who taught breathing techniques to his asthma patients. This method is now taught by Patrick McKeown. He has combined Butekyo with other exercises to improve breathing for both sport and health into the Oxygen Advantage® technique in which I am trained.
Through over a decade of working with thousands of people to improve their breathing Patrick has observed that there seems to be a relationship between breathing volume and food consumption. Many of his clients would be using the techniques to resolve asthma, anxiety, stress or snoring but report a secondary benefits such as reduced appetite, weight loss, increased water intake and less craving for processed or unhealthy food choices.
When we eat less our energy expenditure often reduces in tandem. Carrying extra weight can also make exercise more challenging. This is partly because of the extra pounds but often being overweight leads to the development of poor breathing habits such as hyperventilation, sighing, upper chest breathing and mouth breathing. This means breathing increases during rest and quickly becomes erratic during exercise.
Poor breathing habits are common. One study estimates as many as 50-80% of the general population have some element of dysfunctional breathing. The drivers are believed to be: pollution; poor quality food; central heating; lack of physical exercise and so much time spent sitting down. In addition many holistic practitioners and some forms of exercise such as yoga and pilates promote the idea of big, deep breaths. If the breath is taken into the upper chest it will activate our sympathetic nervous system or stress response. This way of breathing can become a habit. If we regularly take even occasional large upper chest breaths throughout the day this can upset pH balance, blood oxygen saturation and even food digestion and absorption can suffer. It is not a time to digest food if the body is primed to run away from a predator.
Using the Oxygen Advantage® breathing techniques to reduce and normalise breathing helps to bring the body back into balance. Reducing and softening the breath helps to normalise blood pH which is often too acidic. The resulting stimulation of the para-sympathetic nervous system can help to reduce emotional eating. Some of the exercises simulate high altitude training and we have known for many years that animals and people lose weight at high altitudes. At altitude blood oxygen saturation reduces which seems to diminish appetite. Reduced breathing and breath holding temporarily lowers oxygen saturation in the blood inducing an anaerobic state which forces the body to burn fat stores. The body adapts by releasing hormones to raise the concentration of red blood cells in the blood to increase oxygenation levels and aerobic capacity.
In 2018, researchers Yong, et al., found a significant increase in VO2 max and the BMR of healthy subjects when they tested them pre and post diaphragmatic breathing exercises. This is important because 70% of our energy supports our BMR and as lean tissue requires more energy than adipose tissue (fat) to maintain itself, lean tissue may be preferentially lost when we try to lose weight. So raising BMR may be another way the technique supports healthy weight loss.
Our blood vessels, airways and organs including our digestion system are lined with a hundred thousand miles of smooth muscle. If we over breathe and don’t move much our tissues receive less oxygen and constrict, impairing function and sensitising our sympathetic nervous system. When we correct how we breathe tissues dilate and function improves, stimulating our metabolism to self-regulate and correcting issues such as breathlessness, constipation and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Breathing is first on the list when it comes to survival, before food and water but often it’s last on the list of our health priorities. We pay little attention to getting it right. It is a very overlooked aspect of health and can be a key component to achieve weight loss and better health with less effort and less focus on food intake.
Get in touch to see how the Oxygen Advantage® training can help you to lose weight, address dysfunctional breathing, breathe better during exercise or just to improve your overall health.
Signs that you may have sub-optimal or dysfunctional breathing: feeling tense; cold hands and feet; a low body oxygen level test score; frequent sighing or yawning; mouth breathing at night; exercise induced asthma; snoring.
Harcombe, Z. (2010) The obesity epidemic, Columbus Publishing.
Kiesel, et al. (2017) Development of a screening protocol to identify individuals with dysfunctional breathing’, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy’, 12 (5), pp.774-786.
Mayo clinic staff (1998-2020); ‘Metabolism and weight loss: how you burn calories’; [available at]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508.
McKeown, P. (2015) The Oxygen Advantage, Harper Collins Publishers: New York.
Parkes, M.J. (2017) Reappraisal of systemic venous chemoreceptors: might they explain the matching of breathing to metabolic rate in humans? Experimental Physiology https://doi.org/10.1113/EP086561
Rothenberg, R.L., (2020) Restoring Prana, Singing Dragon, London and Philadelphia.
Yong, M-S. et al., (2018) Effects of breathing exercises on resting metabolic rate and maximal oxygen uptake, Journal of Physical Therapy Science; 30(9), pp.1173-1175.