Why are breathing problems more common today?

Why do so many people snore and have sleep apnoea today?

One in four children and around 60% of people over 40 snore, and for a significant number of them, snoring has progressed to sleep apnoea (sleep apnea) – that’s where you stop breathing intermittently when you are asleep.

As many as 24% of men and 6% of women over the age of 55 are thought to have sleep apnoea.
20-30% of children who habitually snore could have sleep apnoea.

Why are these numbers so high? What is going on?

Well, in the western world we have become nations of poor breathers!

Faulty breathing is invariably present in adults and children with snoring and sleep apnoea. Only some sufferers fit the classic overweight, middle-aged-male profile; only some have fat necks, large tongues, big tonsils, stuffy noses or small receding jaws. All however, young and old, have an abnormal breathing pattern.  

There are clear differences between the way someone who snores and/or has sleep apnoea breathes, and how someone who sleeps quietly and restfully breathes. Differences are there, awake and asleep. Generally a snorer breathes faster and heavier than is normal – they ‘over-breathe’ – and create loud noises as their throat vibrates. Research shows that significant over-breathing during sleep can trigger sleep apnea / apnoea – you may temporarily stop breathing either because your throat ‘collapses’ from a suction effect, or because your breathing reflex malfunctions because you have blown off too much carbon dioxide.

There are several reasons why so many men, women and children today breathe abnormally.

First, because breathing is automatic, it gets ignored. People develop bad breathing habits without knowing it – like throat-clearing, mouth-breathing, upper-chest breathing, frequent sighing, yawning or taking heavy breaths. Hours spent sitting with poor posture, while driving, talking, texting, encourage an over-breathing pattern.

Second, our breathing is related to our body’s stress response – and our modern life is full of things that stress us and stress our breathing – like financial and social stress, a go-go-go lifestyle; eating highly processed, man-made foods containing a cocktail of additives and preservatives; a high-carb diet (high in sugar and starch). These things can rev our breathing rate far above what it should be. Breathing rates in adults of 15-24 breaths a minute are so common now they are seen as ‘normal’. But they are not normal – the physiological norm for healthy adults is just 8-12 breaths per minute.

Third, there is so much wrong advice regarding the correct way to breathe. Have you ever heard that it is best to breathe deeply, fully, and even forcefully? In with the good air, out with the bad, right? If you think this is good for you, you are not alone – but you need to think again. Ironically, this is how most snorers breathe, and often it is how someone with sleep apnoea breathes just before they stop breathing!

The only good breathing is normal breathing and that is slow, silent, soft, small and quite still. How different from the western world’s “big deep breaths” mantra are the words of the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu (circa 400BC) – “The perfect man breathes as if he is not breathing”.

So…. If you know what’s going on then you are in a better place to do something about it. Luckily we can change the way we breathe.

Let’s get back to the basics; life was meant to be easy.

For professional reasons, Tess Graham cannot enter into correspondence on health issues.
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