“Waiting to Exhale”: Breathing and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) By Cort Johnson
More than half of our patients with FMS or CFS develop a disordered pattern of breathing. They take very small rapid breaths using the small muscles of their chest instead of slow, deep breathing with the large muscles of the abdomen. Shallow chest breathing makes people feel tense” Dr Richard Podell
Breathing – How we breathe effects our energy production, our mental alertness, our ability to cleanse the body of toxins, our digestion, our mood and feelings of relaxation and/or tension in our body. Some studies suggest some chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients have shallow, rapid breathing patterns and/or are ‘breath holders’. This could result from an autonomic dysfunction and is certainly exacerbated by stressful situations.
My personal experience is my body overreacts to even small negative stimuli, causing me to hold my breath – possibly to unconsciously gird myself for whatever ‘blow’ is next to follow. Some researchers believe that entering into these shortened breathing patterns results in further sympathetic nervous system arousal (‘fight or flight’) thus setting the stage – in some people ( some CFS patients?) – for perhaps permanent system overactivation.
Suboptimal breathing patterns don’t cause CFS and taking on better breathing patterns won’t make you well but it but they can help your body to relax and heal, cleanse toxins and possibly improve your immune functioning. If you feel as if you belong to the ‘wired and tired’ subset of ME/CFS patients they may be particularly effective for you.
The idea that changing your breathing pattern can have beneficial effects on your health, emotions and mental outlook is not new. In fact it’s the basis of meditative techniques used around the world for thousands of years. In a Prohealth article, Shakta Kaur, a Kundalini yoga teacher in Chicago who leads “breathwalk” classes, said “Conscious breathing breaks up the habit patterns coded in the body and emotions. You end up transforming yourself, actually changing your body chemistry.”
Altering How You Breathe May Be Beneficial in ME/CFS Because
- Several studies suggest that ME/CFS patients may have a chronically over-active ‘fight or flight’ response and an under-active ‘rest and relax’ response. The ‘fight or flight’ response results in short, shallow breathing which, over time, can result in improper oxygenation of the tissues, fatigue, poor digestion, etc.
- Dr. Lapp reports that chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients typically have a kind of posture (tightened upper bodies, rounded shoulders, pinched in chests) that makes it more difficult for them to breathe deeply and efficiently. Physical therapists indicated that virtually all Dr. Lapp’s patients breathed from their chest rather than from abdomen.
- Dr. Podell reports that disordered and/or shallow breathing can cause numerous symptoms including mental fog, dizziness, irritability, chest pain, feeling numb and more. Unhealthy breathing patterns are one of Dr. Podell’s eight vicious cycles that help keep ME/CFS in place.
- Dr. Natelson reports that unhealthy breathing patterns further dysregulate autonomic nervous system (ANS) functioning. Studies indicating that the ANS may take its cues from the breath suggest that altering the way we breathe can alter how the ANS function.
- Studies suggest that simply standing up may cause some people with ME/CFS to unconsciously hyperventilate causing fatigue, stiffened muscles and other symptoms – a process that is not associated with emotional distress. Another study suggested that ‘stressful’ situations may propel people with CFS, without their realizing it, into unhealthy breathing patterns.
- The CFID’s Association of America is funding research examining physiological abnormalities that may help to explain the abnormal breathing patterns in CFS.
No one knows why people with CFS might enter into unhealthy breathing patterns. One possibility is that nervous system impulses to the diagphragm are not functioning properly. Another focuses on autonomic problems that result in increased CO2 levels in the body. Others revolve around problems in the stress response.
While breathing exercises do not cure ME/CFS they can help to readjust autonomic nervous system functioning, leading to better health and a higher-quality of life. The autonomic nervous system, which controls our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, etc. and which regulates immune functioning, is one of the systems of the body that can be retrained to some extent; i.e. it’s possible to turn stressful breathing patterns that have negative effects into healthier, relaxing breathing patterns.
- Dr. Natelson recommends a variety of breathing retraining techniques including biofeedback and Kundalini yoga exercises. “The PTs (physical therapists) pointed out to us that virtually all of our patients breathe from the chest.” Dr. Charles Lapp Dr. Cheney has long advocated the use of breathing exercises. Dr. Podell makes proper breathing a key aspect of his treatment protocol. Dr. Vallings reports that re-instituting proper breathing patterns can have excellent results in ME/CFS.
- Breathing properly can help turn down the ‘fight or flight’ response and turn on the ‘relaxation’ or ‘rest and digest’ response.
- The meditative affects of deep breathing are well known to reduce stress and thus may combat the sense of ‘nervous tension’ or ‘arousal’ that some ME/CFS patients report is present.
- Watching the breath is the easiest way to tell (a) when one begins to enter into problematic breathing patterns and (b)the triggers that cause one’s body to do that.