Carbon dioxide controls breathing

The level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our body is what controls your breathing. When carbon dioxide reaches a certain level, a signal is sent from the breathing center in your brain stem to the breathing muscles, which triggers an inhalation. Upon exhalation, we exhale carbon dioxide and a new breathing cycle starts. Carbon dioxide is produced in your body all the time, and when you breathe, you exhale the CO2 that has been built up in our body. The more active we are, the more CO2 is produced. That’s why we breathe more when we are out jogging compared to when we sit in the sofa chilling out.

The exercises Hold your breath sitting and Hold your breath walking, give an indication of your ability to tolerate carbon dioxide, as well as how high or low the levels of carbon dioxide are, in your body. A low carbon dioxide level, or low tolerance, means that you need to breathe more frequently.

Increase your ability to tolerate CO2 with breathing retraining

Normal breathing frequency, at rest, is about 8-12 breaths per minute. Many of us breathe a lot more, often 18-25 breaths per minute. This over breathing means that we are experiencing a low grade form of hyperventilation, which upsets the oxygen and CO2 balance. Thus we end up with too much oxygen in our body, and at the same time, we exhale too much carbon dioxide. At rest, the cells of your body produce around 240 ml of carbon dioxide per minute. The number of breaths per minute shows your ability to tolerate CO2.

Breaths/minuteml CO2
 308 ml
2012 ml
1516 ml
1024 ml
548 ml

The purpose of the 7 Step CBR Program to Better Breathing is to help you acclimate your body to tolerate higher levels of CO2, which will in turn lead to calmer breathing with fewer breaths per minute.

The reason why it is important to increase your tolerance for CO2 is that this gas has many important functions in your body. For example:

  • Antibacterial. A study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that the growth of staphylococci was 1,000 times higher when the bacteria were exposed to normal air for 24 hours, compared with exposure to air saturated with 100 percent CO2.
  • Increased oxygenation. Carbon dioxide forces the oxygen to leave the blood so it can enter into our muscles and organs and be of use. This is called the Bohr effect, after it’s Danish discoverer, Christian Bohr.
  • Widens smooth muscles. CO2 has a widening and relaxing effect on our smooth muscles. These muscles are found in our blood vessels, stomach, intestines, bladder, and womb can’t be controlled by our will.

People with COPD or emphysema have high levels of CO2

People diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and emphysema, have severely damaged lung tissue, which makes it hard for the carbon dioxide to be transferred from the blood to the air for exhalation. Therefore, these individuals have high levels of carbon dioxide, despite poor health. However, breathing retraining is still an excellent way of improving their health. When they improve their breathing by using the Relaxator Breathing Retrainer, for example, the pressure in the lungs increases so that the excess CO2 can be expelled and reset to normal levels.

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About the author

Anders Olsson is a lecturer, teacher and founder of the Conscious Breathing concept and the author of Conscious Breathing. After living most of his life with a ”hurricane of thoughts” bouncing back and forth in is head, Anders was fortunate enough to come across tools that have helped him relax and find his inner calm. The most powerful of these tools has undoubtedly been to improve his breathing habits, which made Anders decide to become the worlds most prominent expert in breathing. This is now more than 10 years ago and since then he has helped tens of thousands of people to a better health and improved quality of life.

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