The subject of hyperventilation is of considerable importance to many allergics. Opinions seem to divide doctors into two distinct groups: those who believe that hyperventilation – and not allergy – is the real cause of the patient’s symptoms and those who think that allergies trigger hyperventilation, which then leads to symptoms, but that allergies come first.
What Is Hyperventilation?
The word means over-breathing: that is, breathing in excess of physiological requirements. It can result from a psychological state such as a panic attack, from a physiological condition such as metabolic acidosis, or can be brought about by lifestyle risk factors or voluntarily as in certain yogic practices.
In the normal course of events air is drawn into the lungs. Oxygen is removed into the blood and, at the same time, carbon dioxide is given off as a waste product in the exhaled breath. We call this process respiration or, more correctly, external respiration.
The uptake of oxygen need not concern us here. The oxygen is tightly bound to hemoglobin (the red blood pigment) and remains at a fairly constant level provided the lungs are working normally. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, dissolves directly into the plasma. A simple chemical reaction takes place, which may be represented by the equation:
CO2 + H2O = H2CO3
Carbon dioxide + water = carbonic acid
Carbonic acid dissociates into H + ions and HCO3 – (bicarbonate) ions and this affects the acidity of the blood (the blood’s pH, for those with scientific knowledge).
Both the kidneys and the lungs control bicarbonate levels, the kidneys by selective excretion and the lungs by blowing off extra carbon dioxide. There are chemicals called buffers present in the blood that are able, to a certain extent, to ‘mop up’ excess acidic and alkaline ions, but there is a limit to how much they can regulate the body’s acid-alkali equilibrium.
You will now readily see that over-breathing will lower the carbon dioxide levels excessively, which will deplete blood bicarbonate and will in turn upset the body’s acid-base equilibrium enough to cause symptoms in susceptible patients.
Of course, we are talking about un-conscious involuntary over-breathing now, not something indulged in temporarily to order to play the bagpipes or some similar act. It is a bad habit that has become elevated to the status of a disease process.
Symptoms of Hyperventilation
The brain is susceptible even to tiny drops in carbon dioxide levels. When the brain is disturbed, almost any symptoms becomes possible. It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of subjective symptoms can be produced, as well as objective responses.
Hyperventilation can, but does not necessarily always cause symptoms such as numbness or tingling in the hands, feet and lips, lightheadedness, dizziness, headache, chest pain, slurred speech, nervous laughter, and sometimes fainting. For a fuller list of hyperventilation symptoms, see the accompanying post link below).
Some quasi-religious practices, I note, are basically hyperventilation to hallucination: Osho’s is the most obvious example of this. It’s not even slightly spiritual; it’s the effects of severely altered biochemistry! To be fair, I have argued that maybe legitimate experiences follow on from disrupting metabolism. But it’s not “spirit” that starts it, but low partial pressure of carbon dioxide.
I have made a list of symptoms potentially attributable to hyperventilation and that’s a separate post, attached to this one: