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Lillian Wilson

What is CO₂ Tolerance And Ways To Improve It

Unlock the benefits of CO₂ tolerance: develop a high CO₂ tolerance to improve physical performance and wellness.

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The process of breathing is two-sided: we inhale oxygen and exhale CO₂. Now, try to inhale and exhale and then hold your breath for as long as you can. When holding your breath for a while, you will feel the urge to exhale, right? Not to get oxygen but to reduce the amount of CO₂ as you cannot tolerate it any longer.

There is a prejudice that oxygen is something that we need while carbon dioxide is something we want to get rid of. Partially it is true because we need O₂ but when it comes to CO₂, the thing is that the process of oxygenation is impossible without carbon dioxide as oxygen will simply be not able to reach cells and tissues without CO₂.

Thus, everything that our body produces is required by it, even if it is considered a waste gas or byproduct of existence. It is not all black and white. We need more CO₂ than we think and being able to tolerate it for a longer time in our bodies can bring about health and life benefits.

What is CO₂ tolerance?

Breathing is primarily stimulated by the removal of CO₂, rather than the intake of oxygen. Your body’s ability to tolerate CO₂ is an indication of how much of this gas it can handle before feeling the need to breathe.

If your CO₂ tolerance is low, you’ll need to take more frequent breaths, while a high CO₂ tolerance will allow you to hold your breath for longer periods without feeling the need to breathe.

Individuals with a higher CO₂ tolerance tend to breathe in a calm and healthy manner, even during extended and intense exercise periods. This results in relatively light breathing.

Benefits of having high CO₂ tolerance

Having a high CO₂ tolerance can offer several potential benefits, including:

1Promotes better breathing control

When you have a high CO₂ tolerance, you can tolerate higher levels of CO₂ in your bloodstream without feeling the need to take a breath. This can lead to slower and more controlled breathing, which can be beneficial for overall lung function and respiratory health. In addition, having increased CO₂ tolerance allows us to control our rate and depth of breathing better.

Light breathing is a testament to good health and fitness. It is beneficial for physical performance and daily life quality as it makes us less breathless, thus, we won’t be puffing and huffing when going up the stairs or jogging.

2Provides more oxygen

More CO₂ provides more oxygen’ seems like an oxymoron but it is true.

Lower blood pH (blood pH is regulated by CO₂, it keeps pH in the normal range) and higher blood CO₂ levels allow your body to more efficiently utilise oxygen. In essence, CO₂ serves as the primary transporter of oxygen into cells for more effective oxygen delivery. Therefore, using CO₂ more efficiently is the optimal method for increasing oxygen transport.

3Optimises physical performance

Developing a high CO₂ tolerance can improve the delivery of oxygen to working muscles during exercise, reduce breathlessness, and result in lighter breathing during both rest and physical activity. Good CO₂ tolerance levels also reduce the risk of inflammation, tissue damage, and injury by contributing to the production of fewer free radicals in the process of breathing. Efficient breathing is essential for optimising aerobic metabolism and improving overall athletic performance.

In fact, what distinguishes champions and Olympic athletes from regular people is their ability to tolerate more CO₂. When exercising intensely, athletes consume more oxygen and produce more carbon dioxide, which makes it vital that they are able to cope well with changes in gas balance.

Nagoya University researchers found that athletes have a higher tolerance to carbon dioxide at rest than untrained individuals. Compared with people who were not trained, athletes experienced 50 to 60% less breathlessness during the same amount of exercise.

4Eases anxiety

Research shows, that 75% of people who suffer from anxiety are dealing with disordered breathing. CO₂ tolerance is closely related to the state of anxiety; the more control you have over your breathing, the less anxiety you feel. No matter if you’re an athlete or a banker, managing anxiety and arousal is vital to your health and performance. Cortisol levels are reduced when anxiety is low, and in turn, less fat, more muscle, and better mental and physical performance are obtained.

A study also proves it, people with higher CO₂ tolerance levels had lower in-the-moment anxiety, while those with lower carbon dioxide levels had higher anxiety.

How to test CO₂ tolerance?

To evaluate the level of your CO₂ tolerance you may try out a ‘CO₂ tolerance test.’ It consists of the following steps:

1. Take four full, controlled breaths through the nose.

2. Start a timer after the fourth inhale (make sure you fill your lungs to the fullest extent possible).

3. Start exhaling slowly through the nose for as long as possible until the need to inhale arises, with eyes closed to aid relaxation.

4. Stop the timer once you feel the need to inhale.

By comparing your results to the table below you will have the baseline and will know your starting point to move forward for better CO₂ tolerance.

CO₂ Tolerance Test, stats

Five breathworks to improve your CO₂ tolerance

Various breathing exercises can help you to boost your CO₂ tolerance levels. The very practices are also beneficial for general well-being and mindfulness as they provide better sleep quality and stress relief.

Please note: All the exercises should be performed only with nasal breathing.

1Diaphragmatic breathing

The most fundamental form of breath work, known as diaphragmatic breathing, involves taking deep breaths by expanding the stomach while inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly again through the nose, utilising the abdominal muscles to establish healthy breathing habits.

Diaphragmatic breathing is good for the diaphragm itself as it becomes strengthened, practicing this type of breathing also reduces oxygen demand, slows down breathing, makes you more relaxed and lowers blood pressure.

Procedure

1. For this exercise, you need to stand up.

2. Put both hands on the sides of your lower ribs.

3. Start breathing: when inhaling feel your hands move out, when exhaling feel your hands move in.

4. Make sure you are inhaling and exhaling only through the nose.

5. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired.

2Nose unblocking exercise

This exercise is a breath-holding method that is meant to be done to reduce or get rid of nasal stuffiness. But as it involves holding your breath, it can be a great technique to build up your CO₂ tolerance. This technique is good for relieving nasal congestion, it also helps to get rid of intrusive thoughts as well as calms your mind.

Procedure

1. Sit upright on a chair with a straight back.

2. Start by taking small breaths in and out through your nose, or through the corner of your mouth if necessary, to establish a calm breathing pattern.

3. Pinch your nose and hold your breath with your mouth closed.

4. Gently move your head or body until you feel the urge to breathe again.

5. When you need to inhale, release your nose and breathe gently through it with your mouth closed, avoiding deep breaths and focusing on relaxation.

6. Repeat this exercise until your nose becomes unblocked, which may take several attempts with breaks in between.

3Box breathing

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Box breathing is a breathwork method that includes inhaling, stopping, exhaling pausing again for equal periods of time. This exercise is one of the easiest to do, but it provides a lot of benefits. It helps to control hyperventilation, lowers blood pressure, makes you calm and relaxed, releases stress and anxiety as well as improves sleep quality.

Procedure

1. To start, take a slow breath in for a count of four and feel the air entering your lungs.

2. Hold your breath for four seconds without inhaling or exhaling.

3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds.

4. Repeat these steps from 1 to 3 times until you feel calm, cool and put together.

44-7-8 breathing technique (Numbered breathing)

The numbered breath technique involves gradually increasing the duration of exhales, holds, and inhales by one count during each repetition. This exercise is beneficial for breath regulation, sleep quality and stress relief.

Procedure

1. While counting to four inhale.

2. Then count again from one to seven holding your breath.

3. Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.

4. Repeat as many times as it is comfortable, till you feel tranquillity and stress relief.

5Body oxygen level test

The body oxygen level test (BOLT) is a way of assessment created by Patrick McKeown to evaluate relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical activity. This test can also serve as an efficient way to build your CO₂ tolerance. It measures how long you can hold your breath after breathing in and out through your nose. This test can improve your CO₂ tolerance, and a good score is around 40 seconds.

Procedure

1. Breathe in and out through your nose.

2. Start your timer and hold your nose with your fingers and time how long it takes until you feel the urge to breathe. This is not about how long you can hold your breath but how long until your body reacts to a lack of air.

3. Once you release your nose, take a calm breath in through your nose and resume normal breathing.

Let’s summarise

A high CO₂ tolerance can provide numerous benefits, including improved respiratory function, better physical performance, and reduced anxiety. Testing your CO₂ tolerance and incorporating exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and breath holds can help increase your tolerance levels. Ultimately, understanding and improving your CO₂ tolerance can lead to a healthier and more productive life.

Not enough? Here is more

To soothe a busy mind, practice 4-7-8 breathing exercises. Mindfulness practice is a simple way to get out of your own head and relax, reduce anxiety, and fall asleep.


Healthypedia FAQ

CO₂ tolerance refers to the body's ability to handle carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream without feeling the urge to breathe. It is crucial as it can lead to slower and more controlled breathing, reduce breathlessness, improve oxygen delivery to the body, optimise physical performance, ease anxiety and improve overall lung function and respiratory health.

When you have a high CO₂ tolerance, your body can tolerate higher levels of CO₂ in your bloodstream without feeling the need to breathe. This results in slower and more controlled breathing, which can be beneficial for overall lung function and respiratory health. Additionally, this allows for better control over the rate and depth of breathing.

CO₂ serves as the primary transporter of oxygen into cells for more effective oxygen delivery. Therefore, using CO₂ more efficiently is the optimal method for increasing oxygen transport. Developing a high CO₂ tolerance can improve the delivery of oxygen to working muscles during exercise, reduce breathlessness, and result in lighter breathing during both rest and physical activity. Efficient breathing is essential for optimising aerobic metabolism and improving overall athletic performance.

Higher CO₂ tolerance is closely related to state anxiety; the more control you have over your breathing, the less anxiety you feel. Individuals who suffer from anxiety tend to have disordered breathing. Managing anxiety and arousal is vital to your health and performance. Reducing cortisol levels by keeping anxiety low leads to less fat, more muscle, and better mental and physical performance.

You can test your CO₂ tolerance with a ‘CO₂ tolerance test,’ which involves taking four full, controlled breaths through the nose and then starting a timer after the fourth inhale. You then exhale slowly through the nose for as long as possible until the need to inhale arises, with your eyes closed to aid relaxation. By comparing your results to a table, you can determine your CO₂ tolerance level. To improve CO₂ tolerance, you can try diaphragmatic breathing, breath holds, and CO₂ tolerance training.

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