Diagnosis: Email Apnea?

I’ve just opened my email and there’s nothing out of the ordinary there. It’s the usual daily flood of schedule, project, travel, information, and junk mail. Then I notice. I’m holding my breath. apnea illo

As the email spills onto my screen, as my mind races with thoughts of what I’ll answer first, what can wait, who I should call, what should have been done two days ago; I’ve stopped the steady breathing I was doing only moments earlier in a morning meditation and now, I’m holding my breath.

And here’s the deal: You’re probably holding your breath, too.

I wanted to know — how widespread is email apnea*? I observed others on computers and BlackBerries: in their offices, their homes, at cafes. The vast majority of people held their breath, or breathed very shallowly, especially when responding to email. I watched people on cell phones, talking and walking, and noticed that most were mouth-breathing and hyperventilating. Consider also, that for many, posture while seated at a computer can contribute to restricted breathing.

Does it matter? How was holding my breath affecting me?

I called Dr. Margaret Chesney, at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Research conducted by Dr. Margaret Chesney and NIH research scientist Dr. David Anderson demonstrated that breath-holding contributes significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitric oxide (NO) balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.

Breath holding and hyperventilating disturb our body’s balance of oxygen, CO2, and NO. Nitric oxide, not to be confused with the nitrous oxide used in dental offices, plays an important role in our health. From a briefing document prepared for the Royal Society and Association of British Science Writers, Pearce Wright explains, “The immune system uses nitric oxide in fighting viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, and tumours. Nitric oxide transmits messages between nerve cells and is associated with the processes of learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain, and, probably, depression. It is a mediator in inflammation and rheumatism.”

As I researched the literature, and spoke with physicians and researchers about breath-holding, a relationship to the vagus nerve emerged. The vagus nerve is one of the major cranial nerves, and wanders from the head, to the neck, chest and abdomen. Its primary job is to mediate the autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous systems.

The parasympathetic nervous system governs our sense of hunger and satiety, flow of saliva and digestive enzymes, the relaxation response, and many aspects of healthy organ function. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing enables us to down regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which then causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. Shallow breathing, breath-holding and hyperventilating trigger the sympathetic nervous system, in a “fight or flight” response.

The activated sympathetic nervous system causes the liver to dump glucose and cholesterol into our blood, our heart rate to increase, our sense of satiety to be compromised, and our bodies to anticipate and resource for the physical activity that, historically, accompanied a physical fight or flight response. Meanwhile, when the only physical activity is sitting and responding to email, we’re sort of “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”

Some breathing patterns favor our body’s move toward parasympathetic functions and other breathing patterns favor a sympathetic nervous system response. Diaphragmatic breathing, Buteyko breathing (developed by a Russian M.D., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buteyko_method), some of Andy Weil’s breathing exercises, and certain martial arts and yoga breathing techniques, all have the potential to soothe us, and to help our bodies differentiate when fight or flight is really necessary and when we can rest and digest.

Now I want to know: Is it only the Big Mac that makes us fat? Or, are we more obese and diabetic because of a combination of holding our breath off and on all day and then failing to move when our bodies have prepared us to do so? Can 15 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing before a meal tune us in to when we’re full? If, when we’re doing sedentary work, and O2, CO2, and NO are optimally balanced, through healthy breathing, will we escape the ravages of an always-on sympathetic nervous system? Can daily breathing exercises contribute to helping reduce asthma, ADD, depression, obesity, and a host of other stress-related conditions?

I predict, within the next five-to-seven years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of every fitness regime. In the meantime, why not breathe while doing email? Awareness is the first step toward wiping out email apnea!

*Email apnea – a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email (Linda Stone, February 2008).

(originally published on The Huffington Post)