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Is Holding Your Breath Bad For You?



Short answer

There are two schools of thought regarding the dangers vs. the benefits of holding your breath. If you follow the teachings of “Breatheology” then you are focused on strengthening the mind and body by understanding how to hold the breath properly. If you are trying to purge your body of carbon dioxide before immersing yourself under water for extreme endurance purposes then there is the possibility of death.



Long answer

“Breatheology” is the study of learning and understanding breathing.  In 2010, Danish freediving champion, Stig Severinsen released the book, Breatheology-The Art of Conscious Breathing.  This platform focuses on using ancient techniques (including yoga) to ultimately strengthen the mind and body through controlled conscious breathing. 

Stig is a four-time world freediving champion (also referred to as free-diving, free diving, breath-hold diving, or skin diving is a form of under water breathing that relies on divers' ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than on the use of a breathing apparatus such as scuba gear) and holder of multiple Guinness World Records. In May 2012 he was awarded the Guinness World Record for the record of "longest time breath held voluntarily by a male” for holding his breath for 22 minutes. This record was achieved in a tank at the London School of Diving with the water cooled to 30 °F (-1 °C).

Stig has a degree in biology and PhD in medicine.  His method of teaching people to hold their breath is based on a slow methodical build up to allow for the body and mind to metaphysically connect.  Individuals that follow these techniques feel that as you create this intimate relationship between the mind, body, spirit and conscious breathing that over time you can hold your breath for extended periods of time.  This breath holding can then be done safely while in or out of the water.

On the flip side of this issue comes the fact there have been several reported deaths of athletic swimmers who have died after hyperventilating and then submerging themselves underwater to increase the amount of time they could hold their breath.  In 2011, 2 healthy, young men died in a public pool in New York City while performing breath-holding exercises.  This prompted an investigation that identified 8 fatalities over a 20 year period that stemmed from what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) called “dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors.”

When you hold your breath under water your urge to come up for air is based on carbon dioxide rising in your bloodstream.  This triggers the urge to come up for oxygen.  Hyperventilation prior to going under water purges the system of carbon dioxide so that the urge becomes less strong and you can stay under water longer. The problem with this dangerous technique is that the oxygen in the blood stream can plummet before the carbon dioxide elevates and the individual passes out under water before their brain receives the signal to come up for air. If no one notices that the individual has fainted under water then drowning is inevitable.  Based on these findings, Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps urged coaches to end the risky swim team tradition of marathon breath-holding workouts. This practice has also been banned from military trainings.

Breath holding out of water is not a problem because even if you pass out while holding your breath your autonomic nervous system will kick in and you will start to breathe air again.  

Possible short-term side effects

  • hyperventilation prior to going under water can lead to drowning

Healthier alternatives

  • “breatheology” can strengthen your conscious breathing and create a more peaceful synergy with the mind and body connection

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Written by Dr. Becky Maes | 01-11-2018

Written by Dr. Becky Maes
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