Why Chronic Inflammation Is Common Now: Physiology of Hypoxia, Blood Gases and Ineffective Breathing

Inflammation, as a normal physiological response

Inflammation is part of the complex biological reaction of the human organism involving the immune system, blood vessels, and effects related to changes in hormones and many other body chemicals as a response to pathogens (infections), damaged cells (e.g., due to mechanical, radiation or chemical damage), or irritants (as in case of gastritis). Apart from allergic inflammation, it is a normal and necessary immediate reaction to heal the tissues. Among the common signs of inflammation are pain, redness, swelling, heat, and reduced or lost function of the organ or tissue.

Chronic inflammation

When inflammation persists for many weeks, months or years (chronic inflammation), the reaction becomes counterproductive since it destroys host’s cells. There are many chronic health problems which are based on inflammation. They include such common conditions, as acne vulgaris, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, atherosclerosis, autoimmune diseases, chronic prostatitis, COPD, Crohn’s disease, colitis, dermatitis, diverticulitis, glomerulonephritis, hepatitis, hypersensitivities, iirritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), lupus erythematous, nephritis, osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s, pelvic inflammatory disease, sarcoidosis, and transplant rejection. Many other health problems have their etiological origins in inflammatory processes, such as cancer, atherosclerosis, and ischaemic heart disease.

Recent medical findings

Recent medical research has suggested that there is a strong link between cell hypoxia (oxygen tension in cells) and chronic inflammatory processes. Tissue hypoxia is manifested in increased levels of hypoxia-inducible factor 1 (this factor and cell hypoxia are also key factors in the progress of cancer). Elevated hypoxia-inducible factor 1 triggers a cascade of events with involvement of pro-inflammatory transcription factors such as nuclear factor kappa B (or NF-kappaB) and activator protein AP-1.

While these and many other biomedical ideas are easy to understand only for professionals, there are simple practical conclusions, which are reviewed next.

Breathing in modern man

What is the cause of cell hypoxia causing chronic inflammation? Oxygen is provided to body cells due to breathing. Hence, let us consider normal oxygen transport and oxygen transport in modern people.

During normal breathing at rest (6 L/min; 10-12 breaths/min; 40 mm Hg CO2 pressure in the arterial blood), oxygen saturation of the arterial blood is about 98-99%. Blood vessels are dilated (CO2 Vasodilation Effect), so that the arterial blood can easily access all vital organs, and red blood cells can easily unload oxygen in tissues (the Bohr effect), since CO2 concentrations in tissues and the whole body are high.

Over 20 medical studies have recently measured breathing parameters in modern people. It was discovered that the average breathing rate (minute ventilation) in modern people is about 12 L/min (about twice the norm). Breathing in the sick is even worse, averaging at about 15 L/min for mild forms of chronic diseases. Hence, we live in the world of heavy breathers (who are also chest breathers and mouth breathers) who should suffer from chronic inflammation.

Overbreathing (or chronic hyperventilation) reduces CO2 content in the alveoli of the lungs and, if there are no problems with lungs (ventilation-perfusion mismatch), the arterial blood and all body cells also suffer from hypocapnia (CO2 deficiency). How does it relate to oxygen transport? It is simple. Hyperventilation cannot improve oxygenation of the arterial blood (see 98-99% above), but it reduces CO2 values. Hypocapnia instantaneously leads to constriction of all arteries and arterioles and suppressed Bohr effect. Both effects reduces oxygen delivery to tissues causing cell hypoxia.

This mechanism easily explains why we can faint in 2-3 minutes due to voluntary heavy breathing: constriction of the carotid artery leading to the brain reduces blood supply for the nerve cells. Since blood brings oxygen and glucose, reduced brain perfusion makes up to pass out.

Tens of physiological studies have found that modern people have reduced breath holding ability, since breath holding tests (note that most of them are not safe, except the Control Pause: stress-free breath holding after usual exhalation) reflect body oxygen content.

Therefore, it is logical that chronic inflammatory conditions are very popular these days due to the prevalent ineffective breathing pattern present in modern-day population.

Reversal of chronic hyperventilation is a very serious process since it requires commitment, self-discipline and persistence: you have to change the way you breathe day and night. There are various breathing techniques and exercises that address chronic overbreathing and, hence, naturally reduce inflammation and its symptoms. They are the Buteyko breathing method, traditional (not modern) hatha yoga, Frolov breathing device, Amazing DIY breathing device, and some others.