Hyperventilation is the state in which the rate of alveolar ventilation of carbon dioxide is greater than the body’s normal production rate of the gas. It happens when one gets very excited or stressed. Sometimes, people also voluntarily hyperventilate, usually swimmers and yoga practitioners. Involuntary hyperventilation is triggered by a variety of reasons, including respiratory disorders, over physical activity, reduced air pressure and panic attacks.
One long-used technique to help with hyperventilation is breathing into a paper bag. Many doctors around the world have been suggesting this method to their patients for a long time. The paper bag has almost become a readymade solution for hyperventilating like bandage for wound.
The question is how breathing into a bag help with the rapid breathing. To understand that we have to know what happens when we hyperventilate and the mechanism of blood. The pH value determines the acidity of a fluid. A value of 7 in the pH scale means neutral. A value below 7 means acidic and higher than 7 indicates basic. The normal pH value for blood is 7.4, meaning it to be slightly basic.
When we hyperventilate, we take in more oxygen, and the blood gets more basic. The level of carbon dioxide in blood falls, a state known as hypocapnia. Carbon dioxide is carried by blood in the form of bicarbonates. To compensate the drop of carbon dioxide, the hydrogen ions in blood combine with the bicarbonates to free more carbon dioxide. This would result in the loss of hydrogen ions and further increase of alkaline nature of the blood. It is known as respiratory alkalosis. This leads to several problems like constricting of blood vessels and reduction in calcium levels in blood. People would feel dizziness, headache and seizures.
The idea behind breathing into a bag is re-breathing our exhaled carbon dioxide. When the carbon dioxide enters the bloodstream, it will balance the pH value.
Despite its widespread practice, the latest studies have come up with strong advice against the technique of breathing into the bag. The main reason for such a move was the ambiguity in the matter. Often the symptoms of asthma and heart attack get confused with those of hyperventilation. In those times, breathing into a bag can raise the level of carbon dioxide in blood and it could be deadly. There have been a number of such cases in the recent past. Many doctors are now recommending alternative breathing exercises or using an open tube instead. Those who rely on paper bag method are advised not to do it continuously.
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