As eight out of ten people who are diagnosed with thyroid problems are women, the statistics are similar to fibromyalgia and ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), with nine out of ten and 7.5 out of 10, respectively being women. The symptoms of fibromyalgia and ME are, like thyroid problems, many and varied, so it can be difficult to get a diagnosis. Poor breathing habits are very likely to be a major contributing cause for this discrepancy between genders.
There are several reasons that women are in the risk zone to develop poor breathing habits, which over time can give rise to many of the symptoms that are typical of thyroid problems (as well as ME and fibromyalgia). For example, menstruation, pregnancy, overly tight bras, “good girl syndrome” and hormone imbalances. You can read more in this article: Women at risk develop poor breathing habits.
Below are six breathing-related causes to thyroid problems:
1. Decreased energy production
The thing that characterizes thyroid problems more than anything else is a lack of energy and excessive fatigue. Energy production is also called metabolism, where a high metabolism correlates to a high energy production and a low metabolism means that little energy is being produced.
An important function of the thyroid is to regulate the metabolism, so it matches the body’s needs. Let’s look closer at this from a breathing perspective.
Why do we die after only a few minutes if we stop breathing? From a lack of oxygen, right? The natural follow-up question is “Why is oxygen so vital?” The answer is that it allows us to effectively produce energy. We can generate energy in two main ways from the nourishment we consume – with oxygen or without it.
The energy that is produced in our bodies is called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. ATP production is a universal process which is used by every living organism, be it plants, animals, or humans. ATP is our body’s energy currency, and it is used to getting work done, such as moving a muscle, thinking a thought, manufacture proteins, digesting food, or fighting bacteria.
Producing energy without oxygen is quick but ineffective
Energy production without oxygen is an anaerobic process known as fermentation. While it does produce energy quickly, it’s at the same time relatively little energy. Fermentation creates two ATP from one nutrition molecule. This is only approximately 6% of the available energy available from nourishment.
Furthermore, only sugar, or glucose as it is known when it is stored in the body, can be used as fuel. Since fat can’t be burned without oxygen, you are at the same time closing the door a bit to your fat reserves, which can eventually lead to sugar cravings and obesity.
Producing energy with oxygen is an aerobic process which is known as combustion or cellular respiration. This process is slower, but very effective, and takes place in the cell’s mitochondria. This extracts up to 100% of the available energy.
From the same amount of nourishment, up to 30-32 ATP can be produced, in other words combustion creates 16 times as much energy as energy production without oxygen (fermentation). Additionally, the mitochondria can use both sugar and fat as fuel.
Lack of oxygen causes energy chaos
The ATP energy that is created by our body works the same way as money in our wallet. When we have money, we can eat our fill, buy clothes, and find a place to live, while a lack of money will make life harder.
We are all extremely dependent on energy, not only as individuals, but also as a community. Think about what would happen if the power suddenly was cut off is a city such as Stockholm, New York, or Tokyo. What would happen? It’d be chaos, right?
In the same way, when our oxygen supply decreases, there is chaos inside our body. So the reason why we die when we stop breathing is that the lack of oxygen creates a lack of energy, as our mitochondria stop functioning.
When we have poor breathing habits, we thankfully don’t die, but we deprive our body of some critical oxygen, so not as much energy can be produced, and the fatigue becomes more palpable. In this article, you can find more information: LACK OF ENERGY – The Foundation for Poor Health.
2. Poor circulation
When energy is produced in the mitochondria, where oxygen and nourishment become ATP-energy, heat and carbon dioxide are also formed. When we over-breathe (breathe at a higher volume than normal), we breathe out more carbon dioxide than is created in the body, which causes problems with circulation.
Carbon dioxide has a relaxing and widening effect on the blood vessels. When your breathing is worsened, the carbon dioxide pressure is decreased, which makes the blood vessels contract, and your circulation is worsened. It is because of this that breathing in a bag works for a panic attack. During panic we over-breathe, which lowers the carbon dioxide pressure, and in turn lowers the circulation to the brain, which causes a lack of oxygen in the brain, and the brain becomes stressed.
Since we breathe out approximately 100 times as much carbon dioxide as we breathe in, breathing into a bag means that we re-inhale part of the carbon dioxide we just exhaled. Breathing into a bag therefore increases the carbon dioxide pressure rapidly, which means the blood vessels to the brain are widened. The increased circulation brings nourishment and oxygen to the stressed, panic-filled brain, which calms down.
When, due to over-breathing, we have a lower carbon dioxide pressure, and thereby a worsened circulation, the body prioritizes the circulation to the most vital organs, such as the kidneys, the lungs, the heart, and the brain. The first organ that receives less blood is the skin, followed by the muscles.
Dry and/or irritated skin is common with thyroid problems
It is common to have irritated and/or dry skin with thyroid problems, and it is an indicator that the circulation to the skin is not functioning optimally. When this happens, two major negative effects occur. The first is that it becomes difficult to tolerate heat. Since the skin is responsible for regulating our body temperature, reduced circulation to our skin causes us to have difficulty regulating our body’s heat.
If the body overheats, it can’t get rid of the excess heat through the skin, and our core temperature increases. The only way the body can compensate for this is to decrease the activity in the thyroid, which is responsible for the body’s metabolism and thereby also the heat production.
To summarize: an important reason for an underactive thyroid is to compensate for decreased circulation to the skin, which occurs due to over-breathing, which lowers the carbon dioxide pressure and makes the blood vessels contract.
3. An increased amount of inflammation
With thyroid problems, it’s normal for inflammation levels in the body to be high. A term which is used for a large amount of inflammation is autoimmune disease where the immune system is overactive and attacks the body. Poor breathing is likely to be a major reason for the immune system to run amok.
The mitochondria, where oxygen and nourishment are converted to ATP-energy, heat, and carbon dioxide are also called our incinerators. These furnaces work precisely like regular fires. We can get the fires to decrease in strength by preventing oxygen from reaching the fire, and we can get the fire to increase in strength by using a bellows to make more oxygen reach the fire. If we were to get it into our heads to blast it with pure oxygen, it would gain an explosive course.
The mitochondria can’t work without oxygen. A person who weighs 70kg (154 pounds) holds approximately 1,6 liters (54 ounces) of oxygen in his body. This is a very small amount compared to carbon dioxide, which we hold 120 liters (4,060 ounces) of, in other words, 75 times as much. The reason for this is that too much oxygen is dangerous. We only take in a little oxygen at a time to ensure that the process for producing energy doesn’t go overboard.
Over-breathing brings in too much oxygen
One aspect of over-breathing is that we get too much oxygen. Earlier, we explained how the carbon dioxide pressure decreases during over-breathing, as we exhale too much of it. With oxygen, the opposite occurs, the oxygen pressure increases as over-breathing causes us to inhale too much oxygen. The laws of physics state that a substance will attempt to move from a higher pressure to a lower pressure, so the pressure can be equalized, sort of like pushing on a toothpaste tube. The pressure inside the tube increases and the toothpaste is forced out of the tube where the pressure is lower.
Our cells constantly consume oxygen so they can produce energy effectively and thereby fulfill their tasks. Therefore, the oxygen pressure in our cells and organs is much lower than it is in our blood. When the oxygen-filled blood (with a high oxygen pressure) reaches the cell (with a low oxygen pressure), the oxygen is forced from the blood to the cell, so the pressure is equalized.
With over-breathing, the pressure is increased, first in the lungs, then the blood, and finally in the cells and organs, which get more oxygen than they need. The excess of oxygen causes problems in the cells’ mitochondria.
Too much oxygen increases free radicals and inflammation
We can compare this with what happens if we eat more calories than we use. The body stores the excess in our fat cells, right? It’s a natural process that has ensured our survival for thousands of years. By storing fat when food is plentiful, we’ve been able to survive during hard winters where food is scarce.
The same principle occurs if you have an excess of oxygen, in other words, more than you need to meet your energy requirements. Instead of contribution to the production of more energy in the mitochondria, part of the oxygen is converted into free oxygen radicals. Free radicals aren’t bad things in and of themselves. For example, the immune system uses them to create inflammation intended to deal with bacteria and other invaders.
The problem occurs when we produce too many free radicals and therefor have too much inflammation. The inflammation reaction in our body can be compared to when metal rusts, or when the apple turns brown after you take a bite and expose it to oxygen.
An effect of over-breathing is that you get too much oxygen, which increases the inflammation and makes you “rust” on the inside. The other effect, which we mentioned earlier, is where you get too little oxygen because of low carbon dioxide pressure, which decreases the production of energy and makes it so the cells and organs can’t accomplish as much. These two circumstances can co-exist so that certain parts of the body get too little oxygen while other parts get too much. In the end, your thyroid receives conflicting and sometimes incorrect information and struggles to achieve balance within the body.
4. The brain sends faulty information to the thyroid
The hypothalamus in your brain collects information about what happens inside as well as outside your body and then sends signals to make an appropriate response to the incoming stimuli. One of the signal pathways goes through the pituitary gland, which controls the thyroid. This pathway is called the HPA-axis, which is the wide signal route that goes between the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal organs and is also a part of your body’s stress response. For the hypothalamus to send the appropriate signals, it needs to have good data on which to base a decision.
For your hypothalamus, it’s a situation similar to crossing the road at the same time as plugging your ears and closing your eyes. Under such circumstances, you prevent yourself from accessing important information, and it’s easy to see that it’s harder to make wise decisions based on so little data.
The most important way the brain receives information from inside the body upon which to base a good decision is the vagus nerve. The name ‘vagus’ comes from the Latin word ‘wanderer,’ and the vagus nerve is often called the wandering nerve. It is our largest nerve, which “wanders all through our body” and is connected to basically all organs, except the adrenal glands, where stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are created.
Conscious Breathing activates the vagus nerve
As 90% of all the information in the vagus nerve travels from the organs to the brain, its most important job is to help the brain understand what’s happening in the body so it can formulate an appropriate response.
The vagus nerve functions best when we are calm and realxed, and the most effective method to activate the vagus nerve, or in other words, increase the amount of information traveling from the organs to the brain, is by calming our breathing and taking conscious, low, small, slow, and rhythmic breaths in and out through the nose. When you suffer from poor breathing, the risk of the hypothalamus receiving a narrow data range increases, and the instructions to the pituitary gland and the thyroid become defective.
Another connection is that the vagus nerve controls the muscles that surround the thyroid. Studies show that the activation of the vagus nerve increases the blood flow to the thyroid. Since the thyroid releases hormones directly in the blood, good circulation is a prerequisite to ensure the thyroid will be able to do its job.
5. Too much adrenaline and fight/flight
For some people, the thyroid is overactive, which means the metabolism is too high. One conceivable reason for this is excessive stress as well as high levels of adrenaline for an extended period of time.
Masses of studies show how increased levels of adrenaline, over time, negatively affect the hypothalamus and the pituitary. Since the pituitary gland controls the thyroid, a domino effect is created, as the stress has a negative effect on the thyroid which once again gets faulty information from the brain.
From a breathing perspective, this is interesting. In one study, the participants hyperventilated for 20 minutes, which meant that the carbon dioxide pressure was halved. This led to the adrenaline levels increasing by a massive 360%.
When they repeated the same exercise, but instead had the participants hyperventilate air which contained 5% carbon dioxide, approximately 100 times more than ordinary air, the carbon dioxide pressure remained unchanged. The interesting bit was that the adrenaline levels ALSO remained unchanged. The conclusion is that when carbon dioxide pressure drops, adrenaline levels go the opposite direction. This indicates that a low carbon dioxide pressure activates our stress system.
If we exist in a state of fight or flight and live our lives off adrenaline, our adrenals will increase in size over time in order to meet the increased demand. This is not viable in the long run, and the adrenals will eventually become exhausted and adrenalin production will be lowered. We have then moved away from fight or flight mode, and wound up in a freeze-state where energy is scarce and the recovery rate is low. The thyroid makes the same journey, where it goes from being overactive to underactive, and we feel exhausted.
6. Unprocessed mental and emotional stress (trauma)
What is possibly most important of all, and generally contributes to lots of health problems, is that we have experienced different types of mental and emotional stress (trauma) that we haven’t been able to process, forgive, accept, or heal.
Most people can confirm that somewhere from six months to three years before contracting an illness, they experienced something which left deep scars. It can be anything from a car crash, abuse, a cheating spouse, getting laid off, one’s kid getting treated unfairly, to a close relative or loved one’s death, etc.
Generally, our society isn’t particularly good at processing difficult feelings. Instead of allowing ourselves to grieve, cry, be angry, or disappointed, we turn to alcohol, TV, games, food, exercise, work, and other sources to avoid confronting the issue that constantly enters our thoughts. This escape doesn’t involve getting rid of the problem; instead, we bury it inside ourselves, and it becomes a big energy drain, which we keep with us everywhere we go.
Our breathing is a direct reflection of our internal stress
When we experience something difficult, adrenaline is pumped into our body to prepare us to run away from danger or defend ourselves. This ancient reaction is, however, not an appropriate response when sitting in an office chair where the problem is comprised of an inconvenient email or an angry customer on the phone.
We don’t fight or flee but remain seated and think unkind thoughts or sigh resignedly. Mental or emotional stress which isn’t followed by physical activity or rhythmic, low, diaphragmatic breathing builds up in the body and, sooner or later, causes major problems.
Your breathing is also changed with mental and emotional stress. Difficult emotions are often situated in the stomach, which we can all confirm from times when we’ve become worried and our stomach reacts, resulting in the need to use the restroom, before doing something which makes us feel stressed.
If we earlier in humanity’s history escaped from tigers and other dangers by showing a clean pair of heels (running away), we largely run today from our stress and fears by moving our breathing to our chest. While this avoids confronting the stress and worry, we’ve seen what negative consequences this worsened breathing can cause.
What can I do to help my thyroid?
Here are some easy tips that you can try on your own to help your thyroid:
- Physical activity with a closed mouth. Physical activity increases your metabolism, and thereby the production of carbon dioxide. By closing your mouth and only breathing through your nose, your breathing slows down and the loss of carbon dioxide is minimized. Physical activity with a closed mouth is the optimal way to increase the carbon dioxide pressure in the body. Furthermore, it’s good to perform exercises that minimize tension in the neck so the blood can flow through it and reach the thyroid. Here it is also appropriate for the mouth to be closed.
- Hum. When you hum, that is to say, close your mouth and rest your tongue in the roof of your mouth at the same time as producing a humming sound, the circulation of air in the upper airways increases markedly. Furthermore, the production of the hormone NO (nitric oxide) increases. It is produced in the nasal sinuses and according to studies by Karolinska Institute, a medical institute in Sweden, the increase is by a whopping 1,500-2,000%. NO widens both the airways and the blood vessels in the neck, which stimulates the thyroid. At the same time as humming, you can also massage the throat and neck area to further increase circulation.
- The Breathing Anchor. The breathing anchor involves focusing on longer exhalation than inhalation, while at the same time imagining an anchor sinking lower and lower into your stomach. Breathing becomes low, slow, small, and rhythmic, inhaling and exhaling through the nose, and we restore the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. We often require too much of ourselves which makes us tense, and places us fight or flight mode to a higher degree. When we use the breathing anchor, it can help us lower our demands and increase the ease with which we accept what occurs, so we can relax and instead activate our parasympathetic, calming system. The breathing anchor also activates the vagus nerve which stimulates the circulation to the thyroid.
- Tape your mouth at night. Breathing through your mouth lets cold, dry air full of bacteria and particles come down the airways. It gives rise to irritated, inflamed, and swollen airways. It is possible that this also affects the thyroid negatively. During the day we should strive to have our mouths closed as much as possible as breathing through the nose warms, dampens, and cleans the air of bacteria, which minimizes irritation and swelling in the airways. At night you can tape your mouth to ensure that it is closed, so the breathing only occurs through the nose.
- Relaxator Breathing Retrainer. An excellent resource for achieving a calm, low, rhythmic, slow and relaxed breathing is to use the Relaxator Breathing Retrainer. It gives an adjustable resistance on the outbreath, thus enabling a longer exhalation which is key to calm, slow breathing.
While poor breathing habits, stress and other factors can create the environment in your body for issues like thyroid problems, by improving your breathing, you can begin to effect change in your body that will boost your thyroid function as well as your energy.
One of the nicest things about improving your breathing is that it’s absolutely free and doesn’t have a laundry list of dangerous side effects like many of the drugs we take to subdue symptoms of illness. Improving your breathing is something you can do anywhere at any time, and the benefits may reach far beyond what you may expect.