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Buteyko Breathing: The Importance of Carbon Dioxide

Miriam Bunder

How much air we breathe is regulated at the respiratory centre of our brain, the medulla oblongata and pons. Ideally we take 8-12 breaths in per minute. That is, 15,000 breaths per day, 500ml litres of air per breath and 4-6 litres of air per minute.

This regulation of breath can be disrupted when you are stressed. Not just mental stress that you experience at work but also physical stress such as: allergies, jet lag, chronic pain, surgery, extreme heat or cold, and excessive exercise. Bouts of stressful episodes can lead to dysfunctional breathing of 15+ breathes per minute, doubling the ideal breathing ratios. In time your body becomes accustomed to your new ‘normal’ breathing pattern but this leads to a lower level of circulating carbon dioxide in your body.

Increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and tissue spaces to sufficient amounts:

  1. Switches on your calming parasympathetic nervous system and dampens your stress hormonal response, the sympathetic ‘fight-or-flight’ nervous system.
  2. Increases oxygenation to your tissues (the Bohr effect).
  3. Dilates your smooth muscles.

As we all know, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out oxygen mixed with carbon dioxide. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is produced naturally in the body through the process of converting food and oxygen into energy, cellular respiration. What you may not know, the presence of CO2 in the bloodstream is important for oxygen to be able to reach all areas of the body!

The breathed in oxygen enters the lungs and finds its way to the end of the bronchioles to lots of tiny air sacs, called alveoli. A process called gas exchange, happens when oxygen molecules seeps through the air sacs walls into the bloodstream and CO2 moves from the bloodstream into the air sacs. CO2 travels upward to the lungs to be exhaled, ideally out through the nose.

Within the bloodstream oxygen moves through with the 'attached’ help of haemoglobin molecules (red blood cells). For oxygen to pass out of the bloodstream to fuel organs, tissues, muscles and cells, it needs to disengage from the haemoglobin molecules. This is where CO2 in bloodstream comes into play. Having the right quantity of CO2 saturation of the blood, 5%, allows the oxygen molecules to loosen the bonds to the haemoglobin molecules and to pass through the blood vessel walls.

When your breath rate is within the healthy volume range (4-6 litres per minute), 75% of oxygen intake is exhaled. Breathing excessively doesn’t induce further oxygenated blood, it actually lowers the amount of CO2 circulating in your bloodstream (due to gas exchange), minimising how much oxygen can break away from the haemoglobin molecules to fuel your body.

Summing up the first two points, all forms of stress can produce a perpetual cycle of dysfunctional breathing, unbalancing the amount of available oxygen and carbon dioxide.

The third role of carbon dioxide is its ability to relax muscles. There are 3 types of muscles: smooth, skeletal and cardiac. I’ll explain the effects of having sufficient amounts of circulating CO2 on smooth muscles, as it is remarkable at what conditions it can improve!

Smooth muscles surround all hollow structures in the body: blood and lymph vessels, bronchial airways, and several internal organs. Low levels of CO2 will cause the smooth muscles to spasm and constrict. A sufficient level of CO2 allows smooth muscles to widen and dilate easing tension on vessels and organs.


Smooth Muscle Link

Asthma Bronchial airways
Reflux Oesophagus, stomach
Constriction headaches Blood vessels around the brain
IBS, constipation, gut spasms Bowel
Painful periods, PCOS Uterus
Irritable bladder, bedwetting Bladder, ureters
Oedema Lymphatic vessels


With a lower amount of circulating CO2, specialised nerve cells (chemoreceptors) within your respiratory centre become sensitised to the presence of CO2 and starts a pattern of over-exhaling CO2, leading to a cycle of habitual over-breathing (hyperventilation). Buteyko breathing techniques are working with neuroplasticity of the brain. By reorganising the neural pathways of the brain we are retraining and recalibrating the respiratory centre to accept higher levels of CO2.

In one sentance what can Buteyko breathing do for you? By practising the Buteyko techniques you will allow yourself to breathe at a slower, steadier and calmer pace, have less muscle cramps and spasms, and have a healthier oxygenated body.


4 March 2016

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