Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've written a lot about the topic of breathing in the last year or so. It began for me when I was tested in the Breakspear Clinic in England, and shown to have a lack of carbon dioxide (CO2) in my system, and a lack of oxygen (O2) getting to my tissues.

I have done some more investigation myself about this. It seems that you need oxygen for energy production, and for all the basic processes in the body, especially the central nervous system. And yet the way that O2 gets to the various parts of the body requires a certain level of CO2 also, the chemical process involves an
exchange between the CO2 and the O2 before the oxygen can be picked up by blood cells and transported. Without sufficient CO2 your tissues can't get enough O2.

This is how I understand it, how it has been explained to me, though it is no doubt a little simplified, and may not be 100% scientifically accurate in all the terminology. But the central point remains, we need carbon dioxide to function properly, and to get proper levels of oxygen to the parts of the body that need it.

I have also written about a rebreathing mask that Breakspear gave me, a mask that I wear for about five hours at night in bed. The mask traps the CO2 that I breathe out, and so increasing the levels that I breathe in, thus upping the levels of CO2 in my system. I have had a few hiccups with it, but in general the mask has made a definite difference in my life. I have a little more energy and stamina, have been able to lead a slightly fuller life than pre-mask days.

A while after starting the mask, I began doing some breathing exercises. They were recommended to me by someone who called himself a "breathing expert". I was initially skeptical, - as anyone self-describing as an "expert" of any kind I think should be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet I gave it a go. He gave me an apparatus to breath into, and connect to my laptop, and software that would measure my CO2 levels as I breathed.

The exercise was very simple, it was all about slowing and deepening my breathing. What you do is slow your breathing so you are breathing six times a minute, in other words ten seconds per full in-and-out breath. In for four seconds, Out for six.

The idea is to build up a rhythm, and to keep it going. It wasn't easy at first, but it got easier. I started at five minutes a day, and built up to twenty, and could gradually see on the screen my CO2 levels rising.

This was early last year. I was doing ok, with mask and breathing exercises, increasing activity, living a life. Then in March I had a car crash, and in May had a relapse of sorts after a stomach bug. So for a period of four or five months I really struggled.

And somehow I gave up the breathing exercises. I had a month or so of feeling really unwell during the summer, and if felt like a lot of work for something I wasn't even sure was having any positive effect. Eventually I pulled out of the relapse, but found, in the autumn, that I was still struggling, that my energy was mediocre, and I was having intermittent chest problems, wheezing and coughing.

It took me until December to figure out that I needed to start the breathing exercises again. I had given the apparatus back to my "breathing expert", so I had no way of measuring what my CO2 levels were, but this didn't matter. It was just about timing. I went to the stopwatch on my phone and timed my breaths. In four seconds, Out for six. The lungs are supposed to be emptied fully on the out-breath, and then the In should be smooth and un-forced.

I immediately felt better. Even on just a couple of minutes a day, to start off with. Eventually I built it up to fifteen minutes of breathing exercises a day, and slowly began to regain the activity level I had reached before my accident last March. My chest problems cleared up pretty much within two weeks, and my energy became much more solid and resilient.

It is another lesson to me, if one were needed, of the vital role that simple chemicals play, at least for me, in the central nervous system. In slowing and deepening your breathing you increase the amount of carbon dioxide you inhale and retain in your system.

The exercises also train you not to "over-breathe", which is the key term in techniques like the Buteyko method. Buteyko is a therapy for asthma, but it is also put forward for CFS, though I did a course on it about ten years ago and didn't feel any benefit. Over-breathing means breathing too fast and too shallowly, which in turn increases anxiety and makes you over-breathe even more.

And so the trials that people with ME/CFS often go through because of their illness can throw the autonomic nervous system off even more than it already is, worsen breathing and so set up a vicious cycle, reducing CO2 and O2 and reducing energy, increasing anxiety, worsening breathing...etc.

Certainly for me the autonomic nervous system (ANS) seems to be key, I have mentioned that before. And breathing is a key area of the ANS, and effects how the body works in many ways. CO2 and O2 levels are vital for me in trying to stay at least semi-healthy and semi-active.

In fact they are so vital I am considering getting an oxygen concentrator. This is a machine that increases the concentration of oxygen in the air, allows you to breath it in through a cannula in your nose, thus increasing your O2 levels. I want to spend a month or so with the breathing, and the mask working together, see how far I can get and then reassess.

It is so rare to find any kind of answer in the battle against ME/CFS. And at least for me, the oxygen and carbon dioxide question is a key one in my attempts to inch back to normality. I know Dr Paul Cheney, an ME/CFS doctor in the States, prescribes a rebreather mask and O2 at the same time to his patients, and this seems to have a good effect. 

The breathing exercises would be something I would try, if I were in a situation where I was frustrated and had come to an impasse with my health. It would take a month or two to notice a difference, I would say, but it may be worth a try, all you need is an accurate stopwatch, something that is on most phones now. It is free, and can be done at any time. It can be surprisingly difficult initially to hold a breath for four seconds in, and six out, but it does get easier quite quickly. If four in and six out feels too hard at first, it would be possible to begin with three seconds in and five out, and build up.

I can't believe that if it has helped me, that there aren't others out there that it could help too. 


  1. Hello, I just read through your entire blog, and wanted to say thanks for sharing all of this. Your posts are so informative, and also very moving. I have been sick with CFS for 2.5 years and have been in a bad crash that I haven't recovered from since doing CPET testing last summer.. It's so hard to stay positive but I feel some hope reading your story. Even though you are battling you've had some successes. Good to read about breathing exercises. Something I do too but not religiously. I will do more!

  2. Thanks for your comment Elle, I do identify with the difficulty of remaining positive during the bad times, it is not easy. But things can improve, I have been lucky enough to discover this, after having my fair share of crashes. Good luck with everything.

  3. Hi, thanks. I remembered also that when I saw Dr. Natelson in New York that he talks about breathing issues too in CFS. He measured my breathing supine and standing, and told me I hyperventilate when standing and that he sees it commonly in CFS patients. I think it is relsted to our autonomic dysfunction. I just went back and re-read his book, after reading your blog. This is an excerpt from his book " from "Your Symptoms Are Real: What to Do When Your Doctor Says Nothing Is Wrong" by Benjamin H. Natelson (available on Amazon)
    'I found surprising results in the sixty-two patients I studied. More than half had some abnormality. Although I expected to find a lot of POTS, I found it in a minority—in only five of the thirty-two patients with abnormalities. But the biggest group was one I hadn’t previously identified: thirteen of my patients had what I am calling postural orthostatic syndrome of hyperventilation (POSH). While lying down, these patients breathed normally; but when they stood, they breathed more than necessary, and so their exhaled carbon dioxide levels fell to 30 or below. This marked change in breathing with resulting low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood is probably responsible for some patients feeling awful when they stand for prolonged periods of time."
    He does on to talk about using breathing retraining to improve ANS function and increase heart rate variability. So, just more evidence to prove this is a worthwhile path to explore for us patients. :)