Part of Chapter Nine: Rapid Weight Loss Without Dieting
The Oxygen Advantage® By Patrick McKeown
Time and time again I have witnessed startling changes to the diets of my reduced breathing students, often without the need for deliberate avoidance or willpower. These individuals, when shown how to address their poor breathing habits and increase their BOLT by at least ten seconds, automatically find their diet changing towards normal, choosing healthy foods over processed foods. It begs the question: might breathing be the missing link in the majority of weight loss programs?
The loss of appetite and resultant weight normalisation from obtaining a higher BOLT may be due to a combination of several factors, including: blood pH shifting towards normal, the effects of simulated high altitude training, or simply because an increased feeling of relaxation helps to reduce ‘emotional eating’. In this section we will examine each of these elements to help explain why the appetite is reduced when Oxygen Advantage® exercises are employed.
Overweight individuals tend to have poor breathing habits such as chronic hyperventilation, frequent sighing, and breathing from the mouth and upper chest. Putting on a few extra pounds causes us to breathe more heavily, and not just during physical exercise – breathing volume is increased during rest as well. There is a clear relationship between breathing volume and food intake. The question is whether processed and acidic foods lead to the development of poor breathing habits, or might it be that poor breathing habits lead to cravings for processed and acidic foods. In my experience there is a feedback loop between breathing and weight gain, and this cycle must be broken if change is to occur.
As we saw in the first chapter, carbon dioxide plays a crucial role in the regulation of blood pH. Our bodies strive to maintain a state of balance known as homeostasis which includes normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar, and normal blood pH within a narrow range of 7.35 and 7.45. This balance of chemicals is kept in check by the lungs and the kidneys. If blood pH drops below 7.35 it will become too acidic, causing breathing volume to increase as the body offloads carbon dioxide (which is acidic) in an attempt to restore correct pH levels. This over-acidity of the blood occurs when we eat processed and acid-forming foods, leading to heavier breathing and symptoms of bloating, lethargy and weight gain.
On the other side of the coin, an individual who chronically over-breathes – perhaps due to lifelong habit or persistent stress – will expel too much of the acidic gas carbon dioxide when they breathe. This increases blood pH above 7.45, making it too basic. Short term over-breathing is not a problem, however, since breathing volume will decrease allowing carbon dioxide to accumulate and restore normal pH. But in the case of chronic and persistent over-breathing, carbon dioxide levels are decreased for extended periods of time and blood pH is not given the opportunity to normalise. One hypothesis for the relationship between over-breathing and weight gain may be that in an effort to bring blood pH levels back to normal, the body craves processed and acidic foods to acidify the blood.
Eating alkaline foods such as fruit and vegetables, and avoiding an excess of acidic foods like animal protein, grains and processed foods is the well-advised mantra of notable natural health practitioners. And though the majority of us know what it means to eat healthily, the temptation of processed and sugary foods can sometimes be impossible to ignore. Are we just following the demands of our bodies or is there a way to get rid of these urges for unhealthy food naturally?
Breaking the vicious cycle of acidic foods and increased breathing volume is certainly a factor in achieving weight loss and provoking a reduction in appetite, but there are other factors to consider when looking at the relationship between breathing and diet, such as the effects of simulated high altitude training.
Since 1957, scientists have identified that animals lose weight when living at high altitude. Sherpas and others who reside permanently at high altitudes are also generally thinner than their sea-level counterparts. Based on this observation, there have been many studies that point to the benefits of living at high altitude as a way to reduce obesity. The reason for this sustained weight loss seems to coincide with the lack of appetite experienced at high altitude due to a reduced amount of oxygen in the blood.
In tests with mice it was found that moderate exposure to lower oxygen saturation can reduce body weight, and, just as importantly, the level of blood sugar and blood cholesterol. Researchers concluded that this was due to increased synthesis of EPO by the kidneys. This discovery has a particular resonance with the Oxygen Advantage® program since breath holding has been shown to increase EPO by up to 24%.
Of course, living at high altitude is not feasible or even economically possible for most people, and ironically obesity is also a risk factor for developing acute mountain sickness. But you needn’t climb a mountain to achieve sustained and effective weight loss. Reduced breathing exercises like those practised in the Oxygen Advantage® program provide a practical and accessible alternative to high altitude training.
Part of Chapter Ten: Reduce Injury and Fatigue
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that athletes may be at risk of becoming seriously ill early in life or die younger than the average population, despite being in peak physical condition. And while the benefits of exercising to maintain good health are well accepted by all health authorities, is there ever a time when exercise can simply be too much or too intensive?
To have your obituary published in the New York Times, you must meet two criteria: the first is that you must be dead, and the second is that you were famous or influential when you were alive. To investigate the relationship between longevity and career success, Professor Richard Epstein and Catherine Epstein from the Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Sydney, Australia analysed 1,000 New York Times obituaries published between 2009 and 2011.1 Their findings revealed that sports players lived on average for 77.4 years, while longer lifespans could be found in the military, in business, and in politics, where individuals lived for 84.7 years, 83.3 years, and 82.1 years respectively. And while 77.4 years is a ripe old age, why should athletes live shorter lives than those working in comparatively more stressful industries?
In addition to professional athletes living shorter than their business counterparts, there is much documented evidence that intense physical exercise which increases oxidative stress may contribute to premature aging,2 damage to the heart3 and dementia. 4
Given that most health professionals encourage physical exercise for good health, in what circumstances might exercise be damaging? And, more importantly, what can we do to reap the benefits of physical activity without putting our health at risk? The key to answering these questions seems to lie in controlling the amount of stress put on the body during exercise – more specifically, oxidative stress, which results from too many free radicals washing about our system.
Free radicals are molecules generated by the breakdown of oxygen during metabolic activity. We all create a certain amount of free radicals through the very act of breathing, but normal levels do not pose a problem since the body’s defence mechanism is able to neutralise the molecules with antioxidants such as glutathione, ubiquinone, flavonoids, and vitamins A, E and C. But when our antioxidant defences are overwhelmed by too many free radicals, cells can be damaged and our health adversely affected. This is what is known as oxidative stress.
Free radicals are highly reactive and attack other cells, causing damage to tissues and negatively affecting lipids, proteins and DNA.5 During physical exercise we produce more free radicals than usual due to an increase in breathing and metabolism, which can lead to an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the antioxidants required to detoxify them resulting in muscle weakness and fatigue.6,7,8 Investigations into physical training, regular aerobic exercise, marathon running, and extreme competitions have consistently found that antioxidant levels decrease after intense physical activity or extreme competition, while free radical production increases.9-13 In a paper published in the Journal American College Nutrition, Machefer and colleagues investigated whether extreme running decreases blood antioxidant defence capacity. Blood samples were collected from six well-trained athletes participating in the ultra-marathon: ‘The Marathon of Sands’. In what is considered to be one of the toughest foot races on Earth, competitors run the equivalent of six regular marathons over six days in the Sahara desert, during which they are required to carry their own food. Blood samples were taken 72 hours after completion of the race, with researchers noting a “significant alteration of the blood antioxidant defence capacity”, and concluding that, “such extreme competition induced an imbalance between oxidant and antioxidant protection”.12
In an attempt to deal with this potentially detrimental imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals, athletes are often encouraged to take large regular doses of antioxidants. At first glance this might seem like sound advice, but studies exploring the use of dietary antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress and exercise-induced muscle injury have met with mixed results to date.14-17An alternative and totally natural method of protecting against the excessive build-up of free radicals is to supplement regular exercise with breath holding and to increase your BOLT score. This method is cheap, non-toxic, and less controversial than supplements, providing effective protection against oxidative stress. Breath-holding after an exhalation causes a decrease in oxygen concentration which triggers an increase in lactic acid. At the same time, carbon dioxide levels also increase, leading to a rise in concentration of hydrogen ions which further acidifies the blood – a condition widely implicated in causing fatigue and reduced performance in athletes. Repeated practise of breath-holding exercises offsets the effects of lactic acid, inducing the body to make adaptations to delay acidosis and enabling the athlete to push harder without experiencing the same level of fatigue.
Part of Chapter Eleven: Improve Oxygenation of Your Heart
Most of us never give a moment’s thought to our cardiovascular health, taking for granted that our heart will continue to perform its essential task for seventy years or more. But heart-related problems are not limited to those with a history of heart disease – completely avoidable cardiac issues can be experienced by young and otherwise healthy individuals, and prevented simply increasing nitric oxide and by the way they breathe.
In 1909, American physiologist Dr. Yandell Henderson produced ground-breaking work on the relationship between breathing and heart rate that remains relevant today. Henderson was director of the Laboratory of Applied Physiology at Yale University and considered an “expert on gases” at the time by The New York Times. 14
In his paper entitled Acapnia and Shock – Carbon Dioxide as a Factor in the Regulation of Heart Rate, Henderson describes how he was able to regulate the heart rate of dogs to any rate he desired, from 40 beats or fewer per minute up to 200 or more.15 This rather gruesome research involved artificially ventilating each dog using hand bellows – a traditional tool used to fuel a fire with air. Henderson found that as more air was pumped into the dogs, their heart rate increased. Conversely, when ventilation was reduced and the dogs were forced to breathe less air, their heart rate decreased. Henderson noted that even a “slight reduction of carbon dioxide of the arterial blood caused a quickening of the heart rate”.
While undertaking research for this book, my curiosity was roused as to why healthy athletes might experience cardiac arrest or exhibit ECG abnormalities with no other apparent risk factors. After all, most athletes are in the prime of their life, eat a good diet, do not smoke, have normal cholesterol, normal blood pressure and generally care for their health. Aside from genetic predisposition, which of course we have no absolutely no control over, what other factors might increase the risk of cardiac arrest in athletes?
Earlier on we discussed how over-breathing reduces blood flow and oxygen delivery to the heart. An opportune question at this point is whether the amount of air we breathe plays a role in the onset of cardiac arrest. This, I think, is a very pertinent question, and could be an important factor in the investigation of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.
A study conducted by researchers from The University of Patras in Greece revealed how the amount of air we breathe can produce changes in electrocardiogram results.28 During the study a total of 474 healthy volunteers with no heart disease increased their breathing rate to over 30 breaths per minute for five minutes to create the effects of hyperventilation. ECG readings reported abnormalities in 72 volunteers, including findings of ST-depression and T-wave inversion, with 80.5% of abnormalities occurring within the first minute of hyperventilation. Interestingly, the study found that age, gender, smoking and hypertension did not influence the overall incidence of the abnormalities, showing that even perfectly healthy individuals can be susceptible to the abnormalities caused by hyperventilation.
If increasing breathing rate to 30 breaths per minute over five minutes can induce ECG abnormalities, what effects might strenuous exercise have on an athlete’s risks of cardiac disease when you consider that air intake can increase to between 35 and 45 breaths per minute during moderate to high-intensity activity?
Should athletes be taught how to ensure healthy breathing volume during exercise in order to minimise the effects of hyperventilation on their cardiovascular health?
Part of Chapter Twelve: Eliminate Exercise-Induced Asthma
The prevalence of asthma increases relative to wealth. Increased wealth leads to a change in living standards; food becomes more processed, competitive stress increases, houses become airtight, we perform less physical exercise and the majority of our jobs are sedentary. Fifty years ago, our living and working situations were quite different and asthma rates were significantly lower. During that time, we ate more natural foods, had less competitive stress, our houses were draughty and most occupations involved physical labour. Back then, our lifestyle was conducive to a more normal breathing volume and, as a result, asthma was far less common.
Normal breathing volume for a healthy adult is generally agreed to be 6 litres of air per minute4, but individuals with asthma demonstrate a resting breathing volume of 10-15 litres per minute.5,6,7 This is a significant increase, showing that asthmatics breathe two to three times more than required. Imagine the effect on the respiratory system when an individual breathes twice or three times too heavily all day, every day.
Normal breathing during rest involves regular, silent, diaphragmatic breaths drawn in and out through the nose. Asthmatics, on the other hand, display habitual mouth breathing with regular sighing, sniffing, and visible movements from the upper chest. During an exacerbation of asthma, symptoms like wheezing and breathlessness increase along with respiratory rate, relative to the severity of the condition.8 In other words, as asthma becomes more severe, there is also an increase in breathing volume.
While it is well-documented that asthmatics breathe too much, there is a need to determine whether the increase to breathing volume is a cause or effect of the condition. As the airways narrow a feeling of suffocation is generated, and a normal reaction is to take more air into the lungs to try to eliminate this sensation. So, do asthmatics breathe heavily because of their condition, or does heavy breathing cause the airways to narrow? Either way, it is a vicious cycle; narrowed airways lead to heavier breathing which causes an increase in breathing volume, resulting in the narrowing of the airways and on and on, worsening the condition and establishing bad breathing habits as a matter of necessity.
Part of Chapter Thirteen: Athletic endeavour- nature or nurture?
In 1704, a racing stallion by the name of ‘The Darley Arabian’ arrived in Britain from Syria and is responsible for 95% of today’s male thoroughbreds.1 Geneticist Patrick Cunningham and colleagues from my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, traced the lineage of nearly one million horses from the past two centuries and determined that 30% of variation in performance in thoroughbreds is due to genetics alone.2 In the nature versus nurture debate, these results suggest that nature plays a significant part of our athletic abilities.
Could humans be similar to race horses in this way? Could our genetic makeup strongly dictate our athletic prowess? Even though other influences such as environment, cultural background, nutrition and training all play a significant role in the success of an athlete, could a strong ‘athletic gene’ enhance your chances of success? The dominance of Jamaican, Caribbean and African American athletes adds more fuel to the debate. Jamaica, with a population of just 2.8 million, consistently turns out more top-class athletes than any other country. Take, for example, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who is widely regarded as the fastest person ever.
There is one area in particular where a combination of genetics and behaviour has considerable influence on athletic performance, and that is the way the face and jaws develop during childhood. For example, take a look at the structure of the face and jaws of former Olympic successes including Usain Bolt, Sanya Ross Richards, Steve Hooker and Roger Federer. What is strikingly apparent for this group, and for the vast majority of top class athletes, is the forward growth of the face and width of the jaws. Athletic success depends on having good airways, which in turn is dependent on normal facial structure. Spend a lot of time with your mouth hanging open or sucking your thumb during childhood and the face grows differently to how nature intended.
In fact, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, is one of very few top class athletes who does not exhibit forward growth of the jaws and a wide facial structure. Based on his facial profile, there is a high likelihood that he was a mouth breather during childhood, possibly requiring orthodontic treatment in his early teens. It is also possible that Phelps chose swimming, either consciously or unconsciously, as it was the one sport that he could excel in. The very act of swimming restricts breathing to help offset any negative effects that have developed from mouth breathing or an inefficient breathing pattern.
Although the natural order of things is to breathe through the nose, many children – especially those with asthma or nasal congestion – habitually breathe through the mouth. Children who regularly breathe through their mouth tend to develop negative alterations to their face, jaws and the alignment of their teeth. Mouth breathing affects the shape of the face in two ways. Firstly, there is a tendency for the face to grow long and narrow. Secondly, the jaws do not fully develop and are set back from their ideal position, thus reducing airway size. If the jaws are not positioned forward enough on the face, they will encroach on the airways. See for yourself: close your mouth, jut out your chin and take a breath in and out through your nose, noting the way air travels down behind the jaws. Now do the same but pull your chin inwards as far as you can – you will probably feel as if your throat is closed up as you try to breathe. This is exactly the effect poorly developed facial structure has on your airway size. It is no wonder that those with restricted airways tend to favour mouth-breathing.
The forces exerted by the lips and the tongue primarily influence the growth of a child’s face. The lips and cheeks exert an inward pressure on the face, with the tongue providing a counteracting force. When the mouth is closed, the tongue rests against the roof of the mouth, exerting light forces which shape the top jaw. Because the tongue is wide and U-shaped, it follows that the shape of the top jaw should be wide and U-shaped also. In other words, the shape of the top jaw reflects the shape of the tongue. A wide U-shaped top jaw is optimal for housing all our teeth.
Part of Chapter Fourteen: Exercise as if Your Life Depends On It
Jim Fixx is the person accredited with starting the running revolution in the United States during the 1970s. Fixx smoked two packets of cigarettes a day until the age of 35, when he abandoned them for running instead.1 His book, The Complete Book of Running, espouses the importance of physical exercise for good cardio health and fitness, and has sold over a million copies. So far his story sounds wonderful, but in an ironic twist of fate, Fixx died of a heart attack aged 52. No doubt this might serve as justification for couch potatoes to refrain from doing any physical exercise, but Jim’s untimely death was most likely influenced by genetic predisposition, as his father also died of a heart attack at the age of just 43.2 One could, however, wonder whether Fixx’s running actually added a few more years to his genetic clock.
One thing that pretty much all health professionals agree on is the importance of regular physical exercise, taken within our limits. This outlook has been supported by dozens of studies conducted over the past few decades, which show that regular physical exercise provides many health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. 3,4,5
Studies as far back as the 50s have investigated the relationship between regular physical exercise and cardiovascular health. One of the earliest was conducted by Dr Jeremy Morris who studied the incidence of heart attacks in 31,000 transport workers. Morris found that bus conductors, who spent most of their day climbing up and down the stairs of double decker buses, averaging between 500 and 700 steps per day, had far less heart disease than their bus driving counterparts, who spent 90% of their day sitting down. Not only this, but heart disease developed by the bus conductors tended to present later in life and was less likely to be fatal.6
The same study was replicated using over 100,000 postal workers, and once again it was found that those who spent their day on foot or cycling while delivering the mail had fewer incidences of heart disease compared to workers in sedentary occupations such as telephonists, civil service executives and clerks.7 Sixty years on, Dr Morris’ findings are just as relevant today, and since more and more of us spend our working day sat behind a desk, there is an increased need to perform regular physical exercise. Even more important is that we perform this exercise within our own personal limits.