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Tips to help your breathing while wearing a face mask

Buteyko breathing

Do you struggle with breathing while wearing a face mask? Wearing a face mask is an essential part of our daily lives and, while it may not be comfortable, it is important for protecting our health and slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our community. Many people feel it impacts their breathing which may result in anxiety and stress.  

For most people wearing a face mask is just merely uncomfortable but for some it can bring about a sensation of breathlessness and feelings of anxiety, panic and fear of suffocation.  While these feelings are real for many people, I would like to help clear up some misinformation surrounding what causes this breathlessness and dispel myths of health risks associated with wearing a mask.  

Carbon Dioxide (Co2)

Wearing a mask causes a pooling of Co2 which leads to an increase of Co2 being inhaled [1].  This increased Co2 is not high enough to reach dangerous levels or cause hypoxia in healthy individuals because the level of Co2 in our blood is already naturally much higher than levels in the air [1].   Some people have a sensitivity to elevated Co2 and it is this sensitivity, not a drop in oxygen levels, that leads to the feeling of breathlessness and can evoke panic [2]. 

If you are a chest breather, mouth breather or a fast breather you are likely to have an increased sensitivity to co2, as are individuals prone to asthma, anxiety, panic attacks and breathing problems and females during luteal phase of their menstrual cycle.  In Buteyko breathing we refer to this breathlessness as “air hunger” and it is a vital and positive tool in retraining dysfunctional breathing patterns.

We think of Co2 as a waste product but it has a number of essential roles in our body, including moderating the transfer of oxygen from our blood into our tissues, organs and brain for use in energy production and moderating our pH levels.  This Co2 mechanism of action is known as the Bohr effect [3].

The breath solution

While understating this does not provide an immediate solution for anyone with dysfunctional breathing, you can take comfort in understanding your health is not being compromised by wearing a mask.  Furthermore, by working with your breath, you can reduce this feeling of air hunger, breathe comfortably while wearing a mask and learn a valuable tool for improving your health.  

It takes time and practice, but a good place to start is: 

  • Breathe through your nose, both day and night.  If you are congested you will be surprised that consistent nose breathing actually clears the nasal passages.  I discuss whybelow. 
  • Slow your breath down, focus on taking long, slow breaths, deep into your diaphragm.  If you are a shallow breather try visualising your breathing drawing down from your chest to your abdomen.  Place your hands on your ribs and try to make them move with your breath.  Practice this daily with and without a mask.
  • Practice small breath holds.  Breathe in and out through your nose, hold your breath for 3-5 seconds and breathe again through your nose, repeat 5-10 times.  Practice this exercise daily and use it when you feel anxious. 

Why breathe through your nose?

Our nose is designed for breathing and when we breathe correctly nitric oxide is produced in the nasal cavity and the paranasal sinuses.  Nitric oxide is not produced from mouth breathing.  Nitric oxide is essential for: 

  • sterilizing incoming air, removing of dust, viral particles and bacteria from the respiratory tract
  • clearing the nasal cavity and opening of the airways through to the lungs
  • improving ventilation-perfusion – gas exchange in the lungs – leading to increased oxygen in the blood
  • activating the diaphragm
  • regulating heart beat and blood pressure [4]

Nose breathing also improves respiratory microbiome, hydration, blood flow and mucous production [5].  If you suffer from a blocked nose, due to allergies, chronic sinusitis, deviated septum or small nasal polyps, nose breathing can clear your nasal passages. [2] Try the nasal breathing as described above and practice Buteyko’s specific nose clearing exercise daily [6].  

Mask wearing tips to help your breathing

Some additional tips for wearing a mask including: 

  • Add 1-2 drops of essential oil to your mask, something calming like lavender or sweet orange if you feel anxious;  eucalyptus and peppermint if you are a little congested and lemon and clove for additional immune support. 
  • Build up to wearing the mask for long periods of time.  Start by wearing your mask and practicing nose breathing for 10 minutes at a time, while at home at a time when you are distracted by something like cooking, cleaning or working on your computer.   Increase the time only when you feel comfortable. 
  • Only when in a safe space, take your mask off and take two or three long soft nose breaths.  Practice small breath holds if you feel anxious. 
  • If your skin becomes irritated from wearing a mask try using a rosehip or jojoba oil on this area each day and night and avoid wearing make-up and perfumed skin creams. 
  • Replace disposable masks at least every day. If you have a reusable mask ensure you wash it daily to kill any bacteria.  If your skin is sensitive invest in a hypo-allergenic reusable face mask made from organic cotton or silk.

Buteyko beathing is wonderful for helping reducing anxiety and improve your health and wellbeing.  My clients love that it improves their health and gives them a valuable tool for self-managing their anxiety.  

If you would like to know more about Buteyko breathing contact Elemental Health on (02) 8084 0081 or email info@elementalhealth.net.au or visit jeanjarrettnaturopath.com.au for more blogs and information on Buteyko Breathing. 

Bibliography

[1] V. K. S. Michelle S. M. Rhee, “Carbon dioxide increases with face masks but remains below short-term NIOSH limits”. 
[2] P. McKeown, The definitive book on breathing. 
[3] J. E. Brinkman, F. Toro and S. Sharma, Physiology, Respiratory Drive. 
[4] R. D. A. Visalakshi H Subramanian, Study of the effect of Buteyko breathing technique in patients with hypertension – A case series, Journal of Society of Indian Physiotherapist. 
[5] B. a. R. B. Button, Role of mechanical stress in regulating airway surface hydration and mucus clearance rates. Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology,. 
[6] P. McKeown, Buteyko: Instructor Manual.