Carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas we exhale, controls excitability of nerve cells, as it has been proven by decades of medical research. Slight rise in CO2 level in the brain reduces excitability of nervous cell and makes people, when studies are done on humans, calmer and more relaxed. Voluntary hyperventilation, or overbreathing, causes the opposite effect: it makes brain cells more excitable and people more anxious. You may easy recall horror movies where, in the state of extreme panic, people breathe heavily through their mouth. As a result, their nerve cells become over-excited (or “irritable”, as it was called in physiological studies done decades ago) and predisposed people become confused: they cannot make their mind and suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. All this research has direct relationship to seizures, seizure threshold and epilepsy.
During seizures, nerve cells become hypersensitive and discharge signals spontaneously, while adjacent brain areas amplify these signals. Furthermore, numerous studies devoted to epilepsy proved that hyperventilation readily provokes seizures. Many medical studies suggested that hyperventilation readily provokes seizures in all patients. As a result, when doing EEG test, medical professionals use hyperventilation to induce seizures so that to confirm the diagnosis of epilepsy or related conditions leading to seizures. These are some of the titles of publications, which claimed the ability of overbreathing and low brain CO2 to produce seizures:
– Will a critical level of hyperventilation-induced hypocapnia [low CO2] always induce an absence seizure? (Wirrell et al, 1996)
– Effect of hyperventilation on seizure activation: potentiation by antiepileptic drug tapering (Jonas et al, 2010 )
– Childhood absence epilepsy: Electroclinical features and diagnostic criteria (Ma et al, 2010)
– Clinical and electroencephalographic characteristics of epilepsy with myoclonic absences (Yang et al, 2009)
– Utility of daily supervised hyperventilation during long-term video-EEG monitoring (Arain et al, 2009)
– Moderate hyperventilation prolongs electroencephalogram seizure duration of the first electroconvulsive therapy (Sawayama et al, 2008).
– Correlation between cerebral perfusion and hyperventilation enhanced focal spiking activity (Marrosu et al, 2000)
In a 1972 research article published in the British Journal of Anesthesia, the scientists measured the exact numbers by monitoring averaged evoked electromyogram of brain cells. They found that even very slight changes in brain CO2 levels have profound effect on seizure threshold. For example, just 2.5% decrease in CO2 levels in nerve cells increased their excitability more than 2 times (Higashi et al, 1972). Such small CO2 decrease can be achieved by one large sigh or a few coughs!
While normal CO2 concentrations (the medical norm) is 40 mm Hg, most modern people breathe much more than this medical norm established about 100 years ago. Hence, most people are CO2-deficient. In sick people with chronic disorders, breathing is even heavier (you can often see and hear panting of the sick at light physical exertion). Hence, it is normal that rates of epilepsy and incidence of seizures have had a sharp increase during the last century. This change in breathing pattern (from slow and light to deep and fast) was due to abnormal lifestyle factors for the modern civilization, including mouth breathing, lack of physical exercise (or exercise with breathing through the mouth), chest breathing, overeating, sleeping on one’s back and many others. Furthermore, hundreds of studies proved that overbreathing leads to lowered brain and body oxygen content and brain hypoxia (low O2) is another contributing factor.
Consider common environmental and lifestyle that make breathing heavier and produce hyperventilation in all people:
– stress (when we are stressed our unconscious breathing becomes deeper and faster)
– hyperthermia (or overheating)
– overeating (one may know that physical exercise is very hard after large meals)
– abnormally high or low blood sugar
– sleep deprivation.
You can easily see that these are exactly the same factors that can trigger various types of seizures, including stress-induced seizures, febrile seizures (due to fever in children), hypoglycemic and hyperglycemic seizures, and seizures triggered by lack of sleep. Virtually anything that is harmful and abnormal for the human body, including poisons, drugs, toxins, infections, poor posture, strong emotions makes breathing heavier and can lead to seizures only if the person have heavy unconscious breathing at rest.
Hence, the solution is to learn how to improve oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body and brain by normalizing breathing using breathing techniques and correction of lifestyle risk factors.Then we can prevent all types and chances of seizures and treat epilepsy successfully.